LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — With just over a minute to go in overtime Saturday night, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic took the ball from Kristaps Porzingis and began dribbling to the left side of the lane, with Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — the reigning NBA MVP and the presumptive winner of both that award and Defensive Player of the Year this season — watching him like a hawk.
Then, out of nowhere, Doncic — using his left (non-shooting) hand — suddenly slipped the ball between his legs and past Antetokounmpo, right into the hands of teammate Maxi Kleber, who caught the ball on the move and, all in one motion, leapt into the air and slammed the ball home — and got fouled on the play, to boot.
The play was the last of Doncic’s career-high 19 assists, to go along with 36 points, 14 rebounds and just two turnovers in 42 minutes, as the Mavericks beat the Bucks 136-132 in overtime inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort.
“I clapped,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “I applauded. I thought it was phenomenal. The sign of a great player, a truly great player, is the ability to pull off something like that against a team like Milwaukee, that gives up virtually nothing in the paint.
“We’re seeing more things all the time. Luka is not only a great basketball player, he’s a great performer. I’d pay money to watch him play. I don’t say that about a lot of players, but he’s really special.”
Doncic certainly showed how special he both is and could be on this night, going toe-to-toe with Antetokounmpo — who was no slouch himself, finishing with 34 points and 13 rebounds in 33 minutes before fouling out in overtime — and coming out on top.
“It’s amazing,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s playing great basketball. He’s a great basketball player, makes his teammates better. Talented … really talented. One of the most talented guys I’ve ever played against.
“He’s making the whole team better, and he’s going to keep getting better. As long as he makes his team better, they’re going to be tough to beat.”
But all anyone could talk about afterward was The Pass.
“With Luka,” Kleber said, “you always have to expect to get a pass.”
“Unbelievable,” said Porzingis, who had 24 points and 13 rebounds before he also fouled out in overtime. “Not only the way the pass was, but also at the moment in the game. To make that pass and to have the — what’s a good word — to have the courage to do it?
“That’s just who Luka is.”
The only person who didn’t have much to say about it was Doncic himself.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Doncic said. “I just did it. I didn’t think about it.
“I saw it, and I didn’t think about it before right in the moment.”
That play was just one of many both spectacular and critical moments from Doncic throughout this game, including hitting a pair of free throws late in regulation to tie the game and knocking down a floater on the possession after Kleber’s dunk to salt the game away.
For Dallas to be able to close out a game like this, particularly against a team as good as the league-leading Bucks, is something Carlisle was thrilled about afterward — especially after the Mavericks had already blown fourth-quarter leads against the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns in their first two games inside the bubble.
“This is a game where the team showed great resiliency,” Carlisle said. “A lot of the demons of our past bubble games were staring us in the face.”
This time, though, the Mavericks succeeded where they had previously failed. And they did so because Doncic made sure to lead them there.
The Mavericks had the best offense in NBA history by offensive rating this season, and watching this game — against one of the best defenses in the league — it was easy to see why. Doncic carved the Bucks up throughout the game, spraying one pass after another out to shooters on the perimeter — particularly Dorian Finney-Smith, who was assisted on all six of his 3-pointers in the game by Doncic.
Doncic’s performance earned him his 17th triple-double of the season — the most in the NBA — and assured that he would not be caught in that category. That will make him the youngest player in NBA history to lead the league in triple-doubles, surpassing Magic Johnson — who was a couple of months older when he led the NBA with six triple-doubles in 1980-81, also his second NBA season.
“As a guard with the ball in his hands as much as it is, there’s nobody that jumps to my mind,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, when asked whom Doncic reminds him of at this age. “I mean, Tim Duncan as a second-year player was pretty amazing. Tim Duncan as a first-year player, but they’re built very differently. So there’s been some great players come into our league and done special things in their first year or two, but with the ball in his hands, the way it is, to do the things he does is very impressive.”
Both Doncic and the Mavericks are far from finished products. He won’t turn 22 until 2021 — the same year Dallas will hope to strike it rich in free agency and lure another star, with a list of candidates led by Antetokounmpo, to come play alongside Doncic and Porzingis. But Doncic is good enough now that the Mavericks will make the playoffs in his second season in the league — something players such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant were unable to do.
Nights like this one — and plays like the pass Doncic made to Kleber — are examples of why that’s the case.
“He knows where everybody is, not only on offense, but defense, and that’s the sign of a savant-type guy,” Carlisle said. “I’ve played with Larry Bird. He could see everything like that. I had the privilege of coaching Jason Kidd. He could see everything like that. Luka is in that same mold.”