Pupils turn teacher quickly in the NBA.
At least that’s the impression Luka Doncic gave Thursday on the road in schooling the Denver Nuggets down the stretch of a 124-117 Dallas Mavericks overtime victory in a duel between two of the league’s brightest young stars.
See, the Mavericks finished 20th in clutch win percentage (.415) last season, and all the while, Doncic kept saying the team would eventually learn how to perform in clutch time (which is defined by the NBA as any game separated by five points or fewer in the last five minutes).
“Like I said those past two seasons: we’re gonna learn from those things,” Doncic said. “I’ve got to be a leader in those moments. I think today we did great. A lot of people hit those clutch shots.”
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Doncic either scored or assisted on 29 of Dallas’ last 38 points of Thursday’s contest, starting with 7:38 left to play on the 21-year-old’s dime to Jalen Brunson. Doncic followed up his first triple-double of the season in Monday’s win over the Houston Rockets with a season-high 38 points to go with nine rebounds, 13 assists and four steals against the Nuggets.
The performance in the altitude at Denver served as yet another step in Doncic’s rapid ascension. Doncic dominated the game in the fourth quarter and in OT by consistently making the correct plays, as opposed to just heaving up ill-advised shots in the face of double teams.Luka Doncic nearly had a triple-double in Thursday’s win.
“It’s just continued growth,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s just getting better and better. He understands when to be aggressive, when to be more ball dominant and when the ball needs to move. As a team, we’re doing better in these situations. This is gonna be a big part of any success we’re able to have this year.
“I liked the way Luka handled the game and always, really. It was a slow start. It was not a very rhythmic game at the beginning. Both teams were struggling to score. But he just stayed with it, and found ways to make plays, get other guys involved to get the win. This is a hard place to get a win.”
Yet Doncic made it all look easy.
With Nikola Jokic reeling off 17 points in the fourth quarter alone, Doncic consistently drew double teams that turned him into a facilitator. Doncic connected on 2 of 3 from the field in the fourth quarter, but also dished five assists in the frame with two leading to Maxi Kleber 3-pointers.
Then, in overtime, Doncic led the Mavs with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, as they outscored Denver 15-8.
“First of all, Luka’s an amazing player and he’s still young,” Kleber explained. “I think a lot of times people forget that. But he’s learning every day. He’s already a complete player, has the whole package. But obviously, the more and more you play in those types of games and those types of situations, the more you’re gonna learn because defenses are gonna adjust and change. He’s done a great job of learning day by day. You can see how he’s developed his game, gets better, and especially gets everybody else better too.”
Doncic found an open Kleber with 2:56 left to play for a 26-footer that gave the Mavericks a 104-102 lead. Then, with just 3.3 seconds remaining, Doncic drew a double team and quickly found Kleber again for another 26-footer that put Dallas ahead 109-107.Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic each scored 38 in an OT classic.
“It was just a great basketball play. You don’t have to tell Luka Doncic that,” Carlisle said. “He’s gonna calculate situations. He’s gonna make sure the ball is in the right place at the right time. He was doing a good job of sharing the ball at the right times, but also getting the ball in the basket.”
Interestingly, Kleber had taken only one shot on Monday against the Rockets, and through the first three quarters of Thursday’s contest he was 0-for-3. Still, Doncic didn’t hesitate to find Kleber with the game on the line and defenders in his face.
Kleber’s big shot would’ve served as the game winner had Jokic not nailed a 19-foot stepback jumper on Denver’s next trip down the court to send it into OT.
“He’s a great shooter. He’s a great player,” Doncic said. “Everybody trusts him. Everybody trusts every teammate. So, I think it was a great shot. Even if he would’ve missed it, it was a great shot. I would do it [again] any day.”
That trust should come in handy as this young Dallas squad continues to learn how to close out tight games with Doncic exercising restraint and emphasizing playmaking. When the Mavericks opened the season with a loss at Phoenix, Doncic admitted “I got to stop taking these very bad shots,” before adding that “it’s not good for the team, and I’ve got to change it.”
It appears Doncic, a favorite for the Kia NBA MVP Award, is well on his way.
“Just growing as a team, we’ve been in those situations all last year,” said Dorian Finney-Smith, who tied Josh Richardson for second in Mavs scoring Thursday with 14 points.
“All last year I think we had a bunch of close games, and a lot of the games [were] decided in the last minute or two. Guys like me, Maxi, role players who have just been in those situations. Like today, Luka told us to be ready to shoot. Maxi was there, and he made a big shot. So, we know how much attention Luka gets so late in games. We’ve just got to be ready to lock and load.”
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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