Best Not To Provoke Luka Doncic
3:44 PM EST on January 31, 2023
After missing an ugly win over the Suns and an unremarkable loss to the Jazz, Luka Doncic returned from a tiny ankle injury Monday night against the Pistons at home and dropped 53 points on 24 shots. His big night featured all the classic Luka hallmarks: standing there with the ball for six seconds before shooting a jumper then running back down the court scowling at a referee, pump-faking four times before hitting a weird four-footer then running back down the court scowling at a referee, and driving past two defenders at once, hitting a tough layup, then running back down the court scowling at a referee. Doncic is so hard to stop without a locked-in five-man unit, especially when he's debuting new moves. Last night's new wrinkle was talking wild shit to the Pistons coaching staff while lighting up their woebegone team.
Doncic dropped 24 of his 53 in the first quarter, and when interviewed after the game, he noted that Pistons assistants started "chirping" at him early and telling him to "play basketball." I too get occasionally annoyed with Doncic's sourness, but also, he's putting up an all-action 33-9-8 line and keeping an otherwise stinky Mavericks team in the thick of a mega-crowded Western Confernce through sheer individual brilliance. They asked, and he answered. "You know I'll chirp back," he said. "From the first quarter, he was chirping. I don't want to say the words. I have no problem with that. It's basketball. It gets me going for sure."
Jerome Allen was Doncic's primary antagonist, and he heard it from Doncic throughout the game after he splashed jumpers and jogged back down the court talking shit to him. To Allen's credit, his team was shockingly feisty, spotting Dallas a 10-0 lead to begin the game, climbing out to a respectable lead for the second and third quarters, and keeping it close until the final two minutes, at which point they stopped scoring. After Dorian Finney-Smith sealed the win with a pair of free throws with seven seconds left, Doncic and Allen confronted each other, continuing to talk shit until Isaiah Livers intervened and was asked by Doncic who he was.
Doncic had more than half of his team's points for most of the game, and as nobody else was capable of making a shot, getting to the line, or hitting any of the threes Doncic created for them, he needed to score all 53 to keep the Mavericks from suffering a truly embarrassing result. It's as encouraging that Doncic can rack up 53 so casually as it is concerning that he needs to.
Dallas sits at 27-25, in the middle of a three-way tie for fifth through seventh in the Western Conference. They are 2.5 games back of the third-seeded Sacramento Kings (lol), yet only two games from the eleventh spot. The standings were similarly packed at the start of the month, though Dallas was slightly above the fray. They have gone 5-9 since they ended a seven-game winning streak on Jan. 2, pushing them from relative safety right into this extremely entertaining rock fight in the middle. The numbers indicate that Denver, Memphis, and, again, lol, Sacramento are the only non-mediocre teams scrapping to avoid the play-in, though both Golden State and the Clippers are getting their shit together after 50 or so games of very conspicuously not having their shit together. Four games separate fourth and 13th, and even if, like me, you don't want to pencil in the Kings for a top-six spot, that's 11 teams fighting for four guaranteed playoff spots.
Of all those teams, the Mavericks are the most dependent on a single player's production. Doncic has already done so much this season, and there's not really any wiggle room for him to let off the pace. If the team lulls into a three-game losing streak or something, they could slip six spots down the standings, and all that's keeping them from slipping like that is Doncic's brilliance. Some of this heliocentrism is by design, and if you have a team with Luka Doncic, you should absolutely give him the ball one million times per game. Without Jalen Brunson around, however, the Mavericks don't really have another gear that works. The non-Luka minutes have looked pretty grim as of late, and while Spencer Dinwiddie can do some stuff, there's remarkably little dynamism. I suppose this formulation is a good thing if you enjoy watching spectacular individual scoring nights, because Luka Doncic has to keep racking them up for his team to succeed.