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Luka Doncic Is Unshakeable

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 23: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks reacts to officials for a LA Clippers foul during a 96-93 Mavericks win in game two of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Arena on April 23, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The Clippers made their run early in the fourth quarter of Tuesday's Game 2 against the Mavericks. With Russell Westbrook flying around on the perimeter and Ivica Zubac controlling the paint, they pried open a six-point lead with 9:32 left, which, given how cruddy the shooting on both sides had been all night, felt significant in the moment. Jason Kidd characterized the game as "'90s basketball at its best" afterwards, as both teams slogged through long possessions and missed a collective 99 shots. In a tense, low-possession game like that, the little details matter, and though Luka Doncic backed his way into a nice 32-9-6 line, the most impressive aspect of his performance was the crispness he brought to an otherwise completely stale game. Specifically, his always-underrated passing was fantastic.

Doncic is a gifted scorer in every possible scenario, someone who can get himself a good shot against any defender, any coverage, anywhere on the floor. To me, the archetypal Doncic possession begins with him putting his ass into his defender, getting like nine feet of space for free, then hitting a casual leaner. His combination of range, skills, and physicality makes him almost impossible to guard one-on-one, and even though the Clippers have both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they know as well as any team that the only real way to defend him is to go Erik Spoelstra mode and throw a bunch of different looks at him.

Doncic hit a dagger stepback to put the game out of reach with 1:26 left, and he got exactly to his playoff career average in points, but it wasn't his cleanest night. He air-balled a three in the first quarter, hit the front rim a few times in the first half, and missed all four of the wide open shots he got. The Clippers switched up their pressure on him throughout, and what unlocked the defense in the fourth, after 37 up-and-down minutes, was Doncic's decisive passing. The following play is not flashy whatsoever, though the way Doncic swings it to Maxi Kleber the second that Kawhi Leonard takes a half-step out of position to spring a double was perfect. After getting the switch on Norman Powell, he knew L.A. was going to try something, and he was ready to whip the ball past Leonard's considerable left paw.

Part of why the Clippers held Dallas to 96 points on the night was that they anticipated and tried to take away one of Doncic's favorite passes: the overhead kick to the far corner. Usually when a defense tries that, they also cede the paint, but Ty Lue is a great coach and he had everyone ready. Zubac was disciplined in the interior (he was the only Clips starter who won his minutes), Westbrook was a screamer on the weak side, and their rotations were generally very good all night. Against most teams, it would have been enough to win, despite shooting 36.8 percent from the field. The genius of Doncic as a passer is not so much only that he dabs on the laws of physics and hits bounce passes from wild angles, it's that he throws accurate, hard passes through windows that only exist for fractions of seconds, consistently, from novel angles. The larger-order logic behind the Clippers coverage on Doncic was to take the initiative. Doncic will still run the offense and score a ton, but if he's forced to do so on your terms, when and where you force him to, into 4-on-3s you are prepared for, it at least means you are the aggressor and he the reactor.

Doncic was unbothered. Overhead kick-outs and looping interior passes gave way to incisive slip passes to Dereck Lively and P.J. Washington on the short roll. Mini presses designed to get the ball out of his hands turned into open threes only because Doncic moved the ball faster than any Clipper expected.

The other clear strategic choice Lue made was to warp the Clips' offense such that Doncic was forced to defend all night. He played 46 minutes, and despite all the targeting, he probably had the best defensive performance of his playoff career. Not only did they fail to tire him out on the other end of the court, it didn't even work on its face. Luka was great, especially against Leonard. I don't really trust primary defender stats, as there's too much noise on any possession to meaningfully credit it to one guy, but that said, holding shooters to 2-of-17 from the field is too good to ignore.

The last two playoff series between these teams were so great because Doncic and Leonard were asked progressively more difficult questions by the opposing defense as each series went on, and both players rose to the challenge. Leonard's 45-point masterclass in Game 6 in 2021 was the moment I thought the Clippers were winning the championship; Doncic's OT game winner in the bubble was the moment I thought he'd be the best player in the NBA within five years. Dallas has the edge for now, though all I want to see is whether these two teams can push each others' stars to do something totally outrageous.

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