It wasn’t just that Luka Doncic had a 31-point, 11-assist, 10-rebound outing in the Mavericks’ 113-103 Game 1 win over the Clippers on Saturday.
It wasn’t just that Doncic posted his third triple-double in his seventh career playoff game while no other Dallas player in franchise history has ever recorded one.
And it wasn’t just that Doncic hit those numbers at 22 years old, putting him alongside all-time greats in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.
No, it was also how Doncic dissected a Los Angeles team that came into this first-round series knowing the two-time All-Star would be the focal point of the defensive game plan.
“I think you got to keep [Luka] off balance,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said earlier this week (via Clips Nation). “He’s a great passer, a great player, so he will pick you apart if you blitz him, so you can’t give him a steady diet of the same thing. We talk about it all season, just trying to keep guys off balanced because any great player, they are going to be able to adjust.
“They probably have pretty much seen everything you can throw at them. We just got to keep him as off balanced as possible.”
Unfortunately for Lue and the Clippers, Doncic didn’t have to walk a tightrope in Game 1. He looked more like he was out for a weekend stroll.
When Ivica Zubac switched onto Doncic, he tortured the big man with his fancy dribble moves and footwork. When Patrick Beverley tried to pressure Doncic, he bullied the smaller guard in the post. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Marcus Morris? Go ahead and grab a ticket. Luka will be with you in a moment.
And when the Clippers decided to zone up to give Doncic a different look, he carved up them up with pinpoint passing.
Los Angeles sent straight doubles Doncic’s way near the end of the game. He was more than happy to wait for the second defender to arrive and then find an open teammate.
“Luka’s seen virtually every coverage known to mankind — every kind of double-team, every kind of switching scenario, switching and then double-teaming 30 feet away from the basket,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after Game 1. “So, it’s just a matter of getting to the right spots when he gets double-teamed. He’s obviously very good against switches. He mixed up the stepbacks and the drives.”
It’s worth noting the Clippers’ struggles were not limited to slowing down Doncic. They also had a poor shooting game, hitting only 11 of their 40 3-point attempts (27.5 percent) after leading the NBA in 3-point percentage during the regular season. George and Leonard combined to hit 17 of their 40 field goal attempts (3 of 14 from beyond the arc), which is uncharacteristic considering their usual levels of efficiency.
Still, the Doncic problem looms large in this series. He averaged 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists in six “bubble” games against the Clippers last year, and he’s off to a hot start in these playoffs. With Doncic running the show and a supporting cast that embraces his talent and thrives alongside him, Dallas is far from a little tune-up for Los Angeles ahead of the Western Conference semifinals.
Leonard didn’t seem at all shaken after the loss, saying spirits in the locker room are “still high” and that “nothing good comes easy.” It’s nice to hear Leonard and the Clippers are embracing the challenge — because stopping this version of Doncic is about as difficult as it gets.