The Mavericks staged 11 possessions without Luka Doncic on the court during Wednesday night’s Game 5 meeting with the Clippers. During their two brief, grim, Luka-less stretches, the Mavs scored four whole points (good for an offensive rating of 36.4, which is about what two average NBA players and a trio of randomly selected Defector staffers might log) and had just as many of their shots blocked by Clipper defenders. Despite playing through a neck strain that visibly hobbled him in Game 4, Doncic scored or assisted on five-sixths of the Mavs’ field goals last night, which means he accounted for the highest proportion of one team’s offense in any game in NBA playoff history.
If that seems like a gross imbalance, the sort that an allegedly defensively talented squad like the Clippers should clamp down upon and snuff out, well, it is sort of is, and the Clippers sort of did. Doncic only had two of his 42 points in the fourth quarter last night on 1-for-8 shooting, and Los Angeles nearly erased a double-digit deficit in the final two minutes of the game. Kawhi Leonard, a maestro at fighting over screens, denied a tuckered-out Doncic the space he was able to make for himself in the first and third quarters. It didn’t really matter, as Doncic’s passing wasn’t hampered at all, and the most encouraging facet of the Mavs’ nervous fourth quarter was that Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway knocked in the game’s deciding buckets.
Now, that is not an exciting highlight. Everyone on the court is stationary, and then Porzingis does the one thing he’s good at. But there’s an invisible life to even Doncic’s routine plays—evinced here by the extra capsaicin he puts on the pass and the way he waits until just after the Clips defense has inhaled and steeled themselves for what looks to the whole world like another Luka drive—that is a crucial part of the pleasure of watching him operate. It feels absurd that any single player, even superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Tyrese Haliburton, would use 83 percent of his team’s possessions, yet it doesn’t really make sense for the Mavericks to hand the rock over to anyone else, ever. Doncic, like James, is a guaranteed good-shot manufactory. There is no such thing as a bad shot for him to take, and his use of space, angles, and his physicality mean that he’ll pretty reliably create for other players no matter what look a defense gives him. Comparing Luka to LeBron feels nakedly heretical, though Luka, to me, comes as close as anyone else I’ve seen to equaling LeBron’s ability to problem-solve a defense and come up with a good shot. Even Draymond Green, a Mentat of equal merit on the defensive end, was effusive in his praise.
Luka’s solutions last night were 37 shots for himself (almost half of his team’s total) and 14 assists (two-thirds of the Mavs’ 21). None of it was especially bombastic, and even though it grades out as one of the great statistical performances of all time. What I like about watching Doncic is how casual his play can look, like on the following drive, where he creates a little pocket of space and leverages his advantage for a simple two.
His entire reel is filled with little manipulations like that, the effectiveness of which is all the more impressive when you remember that he’s doing it against the eighth best team defense in the league and Kawhi Leonard.
Luka Doncic has also only ever played playoff games against Leonard and the Clippers, and as much as they look like a pretty clearly broken team with only a faint idea of how to stitch themselves together, the individual defensive talent is still there. They hounded him in the fourth quarter, but he already logged 40 through three and engineered what would later turn out to be game-winning run in that frame. This series has been extremely odd, with the road team winning all five games, and though Doncic got the upper hand last night, the Clippers’ small lineup has been giving Dallas fits. Rick Carlisle’s Boban Marjanovic counterstrategy might not be all that sustainable. If the Mavs get over the hump, it will take another Doncic deadlift. There’s no reason to think he isn’t up for more of this.