Arriving early at the American Airlines Center, there was a buzz in the city of Dallas.
Over the first couple of months of the season, Dallas’ unrest was about whether things could get better. Luka Dončić became one of the best players in the game in his second season, but was there a higher ceiling?
The answer the last month-plus is a resounding yes. Dončić was just named the Western Conference Player of the Month and might be playing the best basketball of his already unprecedented career. In February, Dončić was over 34 points per game and was one of the most efficient players in the world. Luka has been unstoppable of late, scoring over 40 points six times since Jan. 19, including 51 points in his yearly demolishing of the Clippers on Feb. 10.
He’s doing it in various ways as well, attacking smaller guards at the basket, backing down opponents with a one-legged fade all too familiar to the Mavericks faithful. The one perceived Achilles heel of his game, the 3-point shot, was a thing of the past. Dončić was at 41 percent from distance over that month, a historic mark given his production.
Capping off the month, “The Don” helped lead a 19-point comeback win over the No. 2 seeded Golden State Warriors. He then proceeded to travel to Los Angeles the next night against the reeling Lakers and slowly rip the heart out of LeBron James in a way that felt deliberate and personal.
James and Dončić are constantly compared, with a similar heliocentric style of basketball and court vision rivaled by basically no peers. Towards the end of the game, Dončić rose to the occasion and went right at James to secure the win.
Safe to say, people were excited. I left work early for the game and traveled down almost three hours early. The Warriors were in town for a rematch and I wanted to see the response. I got into the game early to see the warm-ups of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but on the other side, Dončić went about business as usual. 18-foot turnaround fade. Swish. Stepback 3-pointer. Swish. Shooting over the contest. Bottom of the net. The Warriors were eager to bounce back from their embarrassing loss. The only problem was that there was an unstoppable force in their path.
Within the first two minutes of the game, Dončić opened the game, splitting between three defenders and finding a wide-open Dorian Finney-Smith for an alley-oop. He then hit two free throws and stepped back into a 27-foot 3-pointer on the next two possessions. From then on, he owned the game and led the way with a fantastic 41-point, 10-rebound and 9-assist performance.
Even as the Warriors came back and tied the game at 104 in the fourth quarter, it was Dončić again in the closing minutes, singling out the best player and attacking in isolation.
And a second time for good measure.
Dončić is entering a stratosphere rarely seen by NBA players. He is going head-to-head at some of the best players and coming out on the winning end. Every possession in crunch time now feels like a personal mission to conquer the Earth.
His shooting over the last month is also more efficient, and he’s attacking players in isolation more than ever before. Of the high usage isolation players in the league (I rounded out players who average 3.5 isolations per game), he’s currently fourth in the NBA in eFG percentage at 51.3. That’s on par with Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan and CJ McCollum.
The early tear to Dončić’s career had everyone in his corner. Then, he lost his first playoff series to the Los Angeles Clippers. After another amazing season, he fell to the Clippers again. Despite some Herculean numbers in the postseason, it seemed a lot of the NBA basketball fan world had begun to turn on Luka Magic. ‘Yeah, he’s a great player, but why can’t he win a playoff series?’
Most of the criticism is unfair to the young superstar, but it was a question that lingered over Dallas’ offseason. It lingered in Dončić’s slow start to the regular season. It lingered even louder when they made the controversial move of trading running mate Kristaps Porzingis. Seriously, he just turned 23 this week. How many other basketball players have taken over the world at that age? Maybe Magic Johnson, but it didn’t hurt having Kareem Abdul-Jabar as his running mate.
After the early start, the belief was that it would continue to get even better. Perhaps impatiently, we got annoyed that it didn’t right away. Now, Luka is playing at an even higher level than ever before, and I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a better player than this version of the Slovenian superstar. He’s firmly entrenched himself into the MVP conversation.
The Dallas Mavericks are a dangerous basketball team. The people in this community are taking notice and excitement is building. They’ve got one of the best defenses in basketball, winning records for the season against the Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets. Now, with maybe the best basketball player on the planet for the last two months leading the offensive charge, the sky is the limit.