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Luka Doncic's return, balanced play has Mavs looking sharper

Luka Doncic continues to show faith in his teammates and the Mavs are better off for it.

Mark Medina

Mark Medina

Luka Doncic was back leading the way for Dallas in its OT win against the Clippers.

LOS ANGELES — The proud father witnessed up close what makes his son a compelling NBA superstar.

This certainly did not mark the first time Luka Doncic’s dad first saw him play basketball. Considering the geographic difference from their native Slovenia, however, it has become common for Doncic’s father to watch him play on television. Hence, Doncic had a significant source of motivation to ensure a positive outcome on various fronts.

Doncic propelled the Mavericks to a 112-104 overtime win against the LA Clippers on Tuesday at Staples Center by nearly logging a triple-double (26 points, nine assists and nine rebounds). He fulfilled his job description after missing the past three games nursing a sprain in both his left knee and left ankle.

“It’s always special. I wanted to play this game really bad,” Doncic said. “That’s why I have to say the medical staff did a great job. Everybody helped me every day. We made it happen.”

Doncic’s dad did not just witness his son show his grit by playing through an injury and exerting his on-court dominance. He witnessed his son showing a more balanced approach with elevating his teammates while maintaining his scoring punch.

Luka Doncic finished with a near triple-double in Tuesday's win vs. the Clippers.

While Doncic extended an NBA-best seven consecutive games with at least 20 points, five assists and five rebounds, Kristaps Porzingis (30 points), Dorian Finney-Smith (17 points) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (13) also cracked double figures. Their play partly traced back to Doncic finding them open looks while the Clippers sent double teams at him.

“He understands and has a great feel,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “When he knows he has two on him, he trusts. There was a big trust tonight that the other guys were going to make plays. We were playing 4-on-3 at times. That just shows his confidence in how much he trusts his teammates.”

Even as he has collected a Kia Rookie of the Year award and two All-Star and All-NBA nods through his first three seasons, Doncic failed to trust his teammates consistently. Some of that had to do with Doncic’s immense talent as a scorer. Some of that had to do with Porzingis’ ongoing injuries. Some of that had to do with Dallas’ mixed supporting cast.

But after the Mavericks replaced Rick Carlisle with Kidd as coach last summer, Kidd considered it a priority to ensure a better balance. During the Mavs’ recent three-game losing streak, Kidd conceded that “this team was built around Luka.” But after establishing a Hall of Fame career by elevating his teammates well enough to climb to No. 2 on the NBA’s all-time assists list, Kidd also sensed the team wasn’t just built for Doncic to produce.

“I try not to bore him, but we talk about different situations and looking at different opportunities with how to make the game easier,” Kidd said. “At 22, I felt like I could go 100 miles an hour for 82 games without understanding that there is a pace to this and that there is a way to make the game easier. The conversations we’ve had so far is how can we make the game easier because we know everyone is going to pick you up full court and try to make it hard on you? How can we get you off the ball and put you in different situations?”

Game Recap: Mavericks 112, Clippers 104

It’s too early to know if the fourth-place Mavericks (10-7) will have the right answers to those questions throughout the season. Against the Clippers, the Mavericks may have experienced a turning point with that growth.

First, Doncic did not appear limited physically.

Though he conceded he felt “tired” logging 41 minutes Tuesday, the 22-year-old Doncic will have plenty of time to recover before Saturday’s game against Washington (8:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass). Kidd also observed that Doncic practiced “at a high level” the past two days. After showing discomfort in pre-game warmups on Sunday, Doncic scrimmaged during Monday’s practice. Though he bumped knees during the scrimmage, Doncic expressed confidence he could play. He became more determined after feeling fine following a pre-game nap and workout.

“Mentally, I was really happy to be back,” Doncic said. “I miss basketball even if it’s only been three games.”

Secondly, Doncic became equally aggressive with both finding his shot and helping others find theirs.

After the Mavericks missed their first 13 3-point attempts, Doncic drained a 3-pointer with 38.3 seconds left in the first half. Despite collecting his fourth personal foul with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Doncic then produced a highlight reel. He made a shot from deep and at the rim before setting up Porzingis for an open look. After drilling another 3-pointer, Doncic found Willie-Cauley Stein at the rim before also setting up Finney-Smith, whose missed 3-pointer resulted in a Porzingis putback.

Doncic then sank another 3-pointer, prompting him to talk trash to the Clippers’ fans sitting courtside. Doncic then hunted a mismatch on Clippers center Isaiah Hartenstein. After Doncic drove past him toward the basket, Doncic looked out toward the stands and yelled out, “He can’t f— guard me!”

Mavs coach Jason Kidd has spent the season trying to impart some of his wisdom to star guard Luka Doncic.

“Honestly, it’s just easy opportunities because of Luka,” Porzingis said. “When he’s out there, he just makes the game easier for everybody else. They have to double team him, and we just make the next play.”

In fairness, not everything went according to plan. The Mavericks nearly squandered a 10-point lead with 1:38 left in regulation. The Clippers forced overtime after Paul George made a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer. Doncic shot modestly from the field (9-of-21) and from deep (4-of-11), while also committing six turnovers and collecting a technical foul.

The Mavericks also lost some of their depth. Reggie Bullock (non-Covid-related illness) and Frank Ntilikina (right calf strain) missed Tuesday’s game against the Clippers. Jalen Brunson played for only 11 minutes before injuring his left foot.

Unlike in the past three seasons, however, the Mavericks’ success or failure did not depend on how well Doncic could will his team on his own.

Doncic found Finney-Smith for open dunks and 3-pointers. He set up Maxi Kleber with an uncontested dunk off an inbounds pass. In overtime, Doncic set up Porzingis for an open jumper and recorded a hockey assist that ended in a Kleber 3-pointer.

“I think he’s always willing to make the right play,” Porzingis said. “If they’re double teaming him and he doesn’t like the shot or doesn’t like to attack against two guys, he will hit the next guy. We just have to make sure we make the next play after that. He can’t do everything by himself. It’s fun to have him out there.”

Kidd saw some signs of this subtle shift taking place. When Doncic remained sidelined with his injury, Kidd noted that he became more communicative with sharing his observations on the bench and in team huddles.

“He’s helping and trying to make the game easier for everybody,” Kidd said. “He’s taken this upon himself to do. I think it’s great leadership for our team.”

It’s also great leadership that Doncic carried that into his first game back from injury. His father certainly should feel proud.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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