The NBA playoffs often birth several familiar scenes.
The Clippers being the Clippers.
Chris Paul getting hurt.
And now, Luka Doncic is entering the consciousness of certainties we’ll expect in postseasons to come, following yet another demolition of the favored Los Angeles Clippers to take a 2-0 lead heading back to Dallas.
He used the Clippers as the perfect canvas for a sterling performance on the road, giving it to whomever wanted a piece of him and every which way, scoring 39 with seven rebounds and seven assists.
Who knows if he sat back in utter disbelief when the Clippers gave away games to end the regular season to avoid an early matchup with the Lakers, but his name must be “Karma” and he's kicking the Clippers right where it hurts.
It’s almost as if he said, “Haven’t they seen my movies?” And Luka wanted to give them an updated refresher after the bubble last summer when he nearly pulled off an improbable upset.
“I didn’t even know they were doing that,” Doncic said of the Clippers’ season-ending strategy. “But somebody told me the first game. If you want to win a championship, the end of the day you got to win against everybody."
The Clippers played these first two games as if they’re feeling the pressure, with Doncic applying the screws both with his aforementioned truths and his cool play. He doesn’t seem rushed or bothered, which seems to be a harbinger for even better play as the series shifts to a packed house in Dallas this weekend.
When he makes a mistake, it’s clearly on him and not what’s happening in front of him — a scary thought for the Clippers and whomever else will encounter this nuclear weapon this spring and beyond.
“The challenge is always, when you win a game or two games in a playoff series, you know, how do you measure up against the human nature curve,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “[It’s] when a lot of teams will have letdowns. One of our real challenges will be to keep up this level of intensity and this level of fight.”
It doesn’t seem like Doncic will be letting up anytime soon.
For a guy who looks like he needs to be on a real weight program, Doncic is the one who sustained effort, energy and shot-making over 48 minutes. He’s an uncontrollable tank.
Paul George either didn’t get enough lift or took his mind elsewhere on a missed dunk. Kawhi Leonard was a terror for a half (30 points), then let the Clippers get terrorized in the second half without a real reply. The quality of offensive play was unusually high for a high-stakes playoff game, and the first team to put up resistance was bound to win.
The Clippers are not known for such minutia.
“The first half, he was doing anything he wanted,” said Carlisle of Leonard. “The coaching staff challenged the team, you know to make a stand defensively. The third quarter of defense, that group that started the third quarter really helped set the tone.”
The Mavs never allowed the Clippers to get comfortable, taking control in the third and for the second straight game, and had the Clippers looking out of sorts in the last 12 minutes, if not longer.
Leonard finished with 41 and George had his moments, but they weren’t brought to Los Angeles to be one-way swingmen. These two made their reputations on being premier defenders who can lock up star perimeter players on command: George being able to take the slithery types, Leonard handling the stronger players and virtually anyone else late in games.
But Luka looks too big for George and just quick and skilled enough to win his share of battles against Leonard, who only guards him in stretches and must be called upon to take Doncic from the tip if the Clippers have any hope of turning this around.
It’s easy to take Clippers coach Tyronn Lue to task for his defensive strategies, considering the milquetoast way they approach Doncic compared to, say, the Grizzlies’ treatment of Stephen Curry in the play-in game.
The Clippers look passive and certainly lacked defensive urgency, but going against a wizard like Doncic is bound to put fear in the hearts of the most confident defenders. He diagnoses defenses as quick as an old-school point guard, then attacks with the vigor and aggressiveness that today’s game calls for.
The easy way to defend him in the past was to give him all the long-range shots he wanted to take, given how often he stayed beyond the long line his first two seasons (nearly eight 3-point attempts a game at 32%). But he’s largely fixed that, being a capable 3-point shooter this season and has torched the Clippers at 42% from three in this small sample size.
He turns a pit bull, Patrick Beverley, into a pug then mocks him for it. Double-teams turn into open shots for Tim Hardaway Jr. — who’s gonna be a very wealthy man this summer — and timely dunks for Kristaps Porzingis.
And if the third-quarter clock is running down, with few options besides desperation? He merely throws up a comfortable one-footed, Dirk Nowitzki-like runner — except leaning to his left and it’s a 3-pointer.
Doncic is showing the level of skill and mastery that it will be franchise malpractice if team owner Mark Cuban doesn’t surround him with complementary superstar talent in the coming years. It’s tantalizing to think what he’ll be able to do in the future, with Doncic being just 22, but his greatness requires organizational effort and pressure in this moment. The supporting cast looks like that of a team that doesn’t expect to contend in the present, preferring to hold its chips for the future, but Doncic is pressing the fast forward button on all one can imagine being possible.
Sitting in the space of fantasy will obscure what’s happening in the present — a superstar who’s doing more than introducing himself to the NBA world (been there, done that), a player doing more than upsetting a perceived Western Conference apple cart by taking down the Clippers.
What we are seeing is a legend in the making, a generational player fulfilling all the promise that was only whispered about when he was drafted.
Some players fit in a moment, others in a time. Doncic is headed toward the land of the rarest air, of being a player who belongs to history.
And in a couple more games, the Clippers could be just that, too.
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