DALLAS – Luka Doncic hasn’t had much reason to show his infectious smile lately. He strongly and forcefully believes in the professional benefits of enjoying basketball, but that’s a tough thing to do when his Dallas Mavericks had lost 10 of their previous 13 games, as was the case when he showed up Saturday night at the American Airlines Center.
You have to give an assist to Stephen Curry, the star of the Golden State Warriors, to restore Doncic’s motivation in that meeting. Even in an empty stadium, there is nothing that electrifies the NBA atmosphere like cooking with Curry. That was certainly the case Saturday, when ‘Steph’ hit 11 of 19 3-pointers and threw a flurry of goofy shots, the kind that make you laugh out loud, on his way to 57 points overall.
Doncic happily accepted Curry’s spectacular performance as a challenge. He responded with an outing that reminded national television audiences why this 21-year-old entered this season with the weight of MVP’s expectations, equaling his career record with 42 points and dishing out 11 assists to lead Dallas. to an exciting, desperate and necessary victory 134-132.
“Obviously, playing Steph is fun,” Doncic said. “I have to have more fun playing to be who I was before. I just have to get back to enjoying the game.”
If you didn’t enjoy Saturday, basketball is probably not the sport for you. Or maybe he didn’t is just a bitter soul. How else can you explain the failure to smile when you see Curry do an exaggerated shoulder roll at the midfield logo after finishing a transition from there? How can you not appreciate the artistic beauty of the greatest shooter in NBA history dancing before scoring from that distance with one of his opponent’s hands to his face?
“What Steph does is incredible,” Doncic said. “I think all the shots are going to come in when he tries. It’s amazing the way he plays and that’s nice to see, even if you’re on the other team.”
As Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said when talking about Curry: “He’s one of the guys I would pay a lot of money for to see him play.”
Doncic, who is only behind Curry among guards in early All-Star voting, is definitely another player who fits into that category. It’s not just his ability to fill in the points stat, he now has six 40-point, 10-assist performances in franchise history, for example, and create standout moments that make a ticket worth buying or at least turning on. television. He is an artist with a rare style, something he has in common with NBA legends that Carlisle has observed closely before.
“The basketball court is his stage,” Carlisle said of Doncic. “Guys like him, and keep in mind I spent a lot of time with Larry Bird or Reggie Miller, they get motivated when they have a rival on Curry’s level up front. They feel like they have an obligation if you’re that kind of player. I’ve seen several times for Bird or Miller to do it.
“They just find a way to try to match the opponent and try to get to that level to help your team. That’s exactly what he did.”
Doncic never allowed Curry to take full control of the game. There were certainly times when Steph was unstoppable, but Doncic kept responding. For example: the last 90 seconds of the second quarter, when Curry capped half of his 30 points with a layup and a pair of long 3s and made a 3-pointer sandwiched by a pair of pretty floats. In that span, he gave the Mavs an eight-point lead at halftime.
Doncic, one of the league’s highest volume and lowest percentage long-range shooters, fired like a “Splash Brother” Saturday night. He had 7 hits in 12 3-point attempts. And he improved as the game progressed, hitting 3 of 5 3s in the fourth quarter as the Mavs held the Warriors at bay. The biggest of them, he gave Dallas a seven-point lead with 44.5 seconds left.
“His eyes lit up a little,” Curry said. “He did some big shots tonight.”
Of course, a seven-point lead isn’t sure with Curry up front. Steph cut the lead to four points just seconds later by hitting a 3-pointer off a pass from Draymond Green. Then all of a sudden it was a one-point game, after Curry danced and hit a layup plus an additional free kick with 28.6 seconds left.
Imagine the pressure the Mavs felt at the time, after losing 12 straight games of one possession, the third longest streak in NBA history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
That streak, it’s worth noting, included only regular-season games. You might recall Doncic putting the exclamation point on a playoff masterpiece by stepping back and hitting a 3-pointer to beat the overtime clock in Dallas’ Game 4 win over the LA Clippers last season. Doncic had a triple-double of 43 points that night, when he was in doubt due to a sprained ankle suffered some 36 hours earlier. That was a performance that removed any doubt that the young man belonged to the select group of the best in the league.
Back at the decisive time Saturday night, the Warriors decided they weren’t going to allow Doncic to seal this game by scoring, sending him a double mark 30 feet from the rim as the shot clock ticked. Doncic accepted that challenge by delivering a rebound pass to Maxi Kleber, who was left alone in the corner and hit the three-point dagger.
“It’s very good,” Curry said, tipping his cap at Doncic. “He’s shown that since his rookie year and has gotten better every season. Who knows how high the ceiling is for him?”
It will be fun to find out.