DALLAS – Luka Doncic hasn’t had much reason to show off his infectious smile lately. He’s a firm believer in having fun in basketball as a professional, but that’s hard to do when his Dallas Mavericks have lost 10 of their last 13 games, as was the case when he showed up for work Saturday night at the American Airlines Center.
Help Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry bring joy to Doncic. Even in an empty arena, nothing can whip up the NBA atmosphere like Curry’s preparation. That was the case Saturday, when Curry scored 11 of 19 points from 3-point range and fired a series of silly shots on the way to 57 points that make you want to scream loudly.
Doncic gladly accepted the challenge of Curry’s spectacular performance. He responded with a defeat that reminded viewers on national television why the 21-year-old entered the season with the burden of MVP expectations. With 42 points and 11 assists, he set his career record and led Dallas to a thrilling – and much-needed – 134-132 victory.
“Sure, it’s fun to compete with Steph,” Doncic said. “I need to have more fun in the game to be who I was. I just need to have fun in the game again”.
If you didn’t enjoy Saturday’s game, basketball is probably not for you. Or maybe you’re just a bitter soul. How else can you explain not laughing when you see Curry make an exaggerated logo on his shoulders after a transition crease has run out? How can you not appreciate the artistic beauty of the best shooter in NBA history, dancing with his dribbles before draping a 30-foot step backwards with one hand over his face?
“What Steph does is great,” Doncic said. “I just think every shot goes in when he shoots. It’s amazing how he plays, and it’s fun to watch him even if you’re on the other team.
As Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of Curry, “He’s one of those guys I would pay a lot of money to see play.”
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Doncic, who has only Curry behind him in the first rounds of the All-Stars, is certainly another player who falls into this category. It’s not just that Doncic has a knack for scoring in the box – he now has the six appearances in franchise history for 40 points and 10 assists – and creating highlights that make him worth buying a ticket to or at least turning on the TV to watch. He’s a rare talent at this point, one that Carlisle has in common with NBA legends he’s already followed closely.
“The basketball court is his stage,” Carlisle said of Doncic. “Guys like him – and I’ve been with [Larry] Byrd; I’ve been with Reggie Miller – when another guy on another team takes his game to the level of Curry, you feel obligated if you’re that type of player. I’ve seen Bird do it, I’ve seen Miller do it.
“You just dig deeper. You find a way to find a man and try to find a man for your team. And that’s exactly what he did.”
Wrong: specified.Luka Doncic‘s specified.film specified.couldn’t match specified.Steph Curry and the Warriors’ victory over the Mavericks on Saturday. Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
Soic never let Curry take full control of the game. Sure, there were times when Curry was unstoppable, but Doncic kept responding. That was the case in the final 90 seconds of the second quarter, when Curry closed his half on 30 points with a cutback and two long three-pointers, and Doncic hit a three-pointer and two nice floats to give the Mavs an eight-point lead at halftime.
Doncic, one of the league’s lowest-rated long-range shooters, impersonated Splash Brother on Saturday night. He hit seven of 12 from three-point range. And he got better as the stakes got higher. He hit three of five three-pointers in the fourth quarter as the Mavs held the Warriors to a seven-point lead with 44.5 seconds left in the game.
“His eyes lit up a little bit,” Curry said. “He made some great shots tonight.”
Of course, a seven-point lead is not a sure thing when Curry is in “sizzle mode. Seconds later, Curry cut the Mavs’ lead to four points with a three-pointer by Draymond Green (a point guard who had his second consecutive 15-point performance and is also a joy to watch). Then suddenly it was one point after Curry danced down the court with a from-1 with 28.6 seconds left to play.
Imagine the pressure the Mavs were feeling at the time. They lost 12 games in a row with just one possession, the third-longest streak of this type in NBA history, according to Elias’ Sports Bureau.
However, this series included only regular season games. You may recall that Doncic put an exclamation point on a playoff masterpiece last season in the fourth game against the Los Angeles Clippers when he hit a third step in overtime to win. Doncic scored a triple-double that night with 43 points, although that was questionable because of a sprained ankle he suffered about 36 hours earlier, and that performance removed all doubt that the young man is one of the best in the league.
On Saturday night, the Warriors were not about to let Doncic score to seal the game, sending a double team 30 feet from the basket when the shot clock began. Doncic accepted the challenge and took advantage of the tactic by passing a rebound to Maxi Kleber, who stood alone in the corner and hit a 3-dog.
“He’s just very polite,” Curry said, handing his cap to Doncic. “He’s been showing it since his freshman year, and he’s gotten even better. And who knows how high that ceiling is for him.”
It will be fun to find out.