Jason Kidd said Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić”believes he never gets tired.”
“I was way more tired in Utah. I think it’s because of the attitude,” said Doncic, who helped Dallas beat the Utah Jazz to advance to the second-round for the first time since Dallas’ 2011 title run. “I feel way better (in Phoenix) playing all those minutes. It’s the playoffs. I’m ready for that.”
Although he’s only 23 years old, the Slovenian-born prodigy has a lot of playoff experience overseas. He won a Euroleague title and the EuroLeague MVP in 2018, three years after becoming the youngest player in Real Madrid history at age 16.
Doncic is having similar success in the NBA, but he’s looking to take the next step toward superstardom and that can only happen in the postseason. Following back-to-back first-round losses to the Clippers, Doncic and the Mavericks finally got over that hump and into the second round for the first time in his career.
GAME 1: JaVale McGee’s dunk highlights Phoenix Suns’ NBA playoff Game 1 win
GAME 2: Suns erupt in fourth quarter to race by Mavericks for 2-0 lead
GAME 3: Mavericks take advantage of Suns’ turnovers to cut series deficit to 2-1
Doncic was built for this moment. Some would say it runs in his blood. Born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to long-time Slovenian player and coach Sasha Doncic, he first picked up a basketball when he was seven months old.
“I played basketball because (my dad) played basketball. I was always with him on the court. Always at the games just shooting basketballs,” Doncic reflected during All-Star Weekend, marking his third selection in his fourth year in the NBA.
Doncic signed a five-year contract with Spanish basketball giant Real Madrid at age 13 and quickly collected various accomplishments on his ascent to phenom status. He was named the MVP of Spain’s under-16 team at age 14. He was 16 when he was named All-League in Spain’s under-18 group, and that year became the youngest player to play for Real Madrid’s primary team.
By 16, Doncic was the MVP of the under-18 Adidas Next Generation Tournament and made his professional debut on the senior team, becoming the youngest player in club history.
He made the jump from a 13-year-old boy to top international prospect to the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft at age 19. And Doncic’s star has continued to rise in the NBA, earning the 2018–2019 Rookie of the Year Award. He has his eyes on his next feat.
“I want to win a championship, that’s it,” Doncic said.
Doncic will have to get through the Phoenix Suns, the team that didn’t take him with the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. (The Suns drafted DeAndre Ayton instead.) Phoenix holds a 2-1 series lead over the Mavericks, but not for Doncic’s lack of effort.
He combined for 80 minutes and 80 points in the Mavs’ Game 1 and Game 2 losses in the Western Conference semifinal, while the rest of the starters combined for 70 points.
“(Luka) had a great game, but no one else showed,” Kidd said after Game 2. “We can’t win with just him out there scoring 30 a night. Not at this time of the year and we’re playing the best team in the league, and so we’ve got to get other guys going.”
Doncic is used to doing a lot of heavy lifting.
He had the highest usage rate during the regular season at 36.8 percent. That hasn’t changed during the postseason: He has a league-high 38.9 percent usage rate in the playoffs through six games he’s played after returning from a calf injury.
Nearly all of the Mavericks’ offense goes through Doncic, whether he’s setting his teammates up with a pass or shooting the ball himself inside the arc or beyond it. But the massive workload will grind down any player over time, even one as talented as Doncic, especially as the Suns continue to challenge him on defense.
“He played 44 minutes in Game 1. We talked about that,” Suns’ Jae Crowder said. “If you are going to be out there that long, we obviously feel like we got to make him work even more. Not let him shoot 40 shots a night.”
Kidd challenged Doncic after their Game 2 loss to “participate and play defense” if they wanted to avoid a 0-3 deficit. Doncic acknowledged that he needs to improve: “We’ve just got to play better defense. That’s it. It’s mostly me.”
Doncic and the Mavericks responded in Game 3 with an impressive effort, forcing 17 Phoenix turnovers. “(Luka) was diving on the floor – and when you see the best player doing that it sets the mood,” Dorian Finney-Smith said of their team’s leader. Doncic also got some help from Jalen Brunson (28 pts), who was quiet in Games 1 and 2.
That’s what makes Doncic great, his coach says. He never backs down from criticism or pressure.
“He’s one that’s never run from criticism,” Kidd said. “He admits when he hasn’t played well but he tends to come back the next game and play well. I think he has ownership and he knows how much we need him to not just play well on the offensive end but participate on the defensive end. I thought he did a great job on both ends tonight.”
Doncic said, added: “I knew I had to do better. I knew I could do better, I think that I have made a big jump on defense this year and the second half was more by me; and I knew I had to get back to my team and play better defense.”
Game 4 is Sunday in Dallas (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) followed by Game 5 on Tuesday in Phoenix (10 p.m. ET, TNT).