Luka Doncic is just days away from his first NBA playoff series — and it should be a fun one. The Dallas Mavericks are currently seventh in the Western Conference, with a first-round matchup with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the LA Clippers appearing extremely likely.
Doncic has looked the part of an NBA superstar in the bubble, on his way to a likely top-10 finish in MVP voting. But his Mavericks have won only once in four games in Florida, struggling at times to finish off opponents.
We asked three of our experts to provide their insights into Doncic on the playoff stage: What should we expect in his first NBA playoff appearance, and how has he performed in the postseason during his overseas career?
Winning is everything: Historic stats not enough for Luka
Doncic fidgeted in the seat in front of his locker at the American Airlines Center after an early December game. He never has been very comfortable in the middle of a media scrum, but questions about Doncic’s historic statistical production really make him squirm.
The inquiry this particular evening was about an obscure but nevertheless impressive accomplishment. He just recorded his 19th straight game with at least 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists, the longest such streak since the ABA-NBA merger, a distinction that had previously been held by Michael Jordan.
“I think it’s a little bit too much stats,” Doncic said after stammering for a few seconds, referring to the basketball media’s habit of punching up numbers to find historical precedence.
That’s done a lot with Doncic, and the searches frequently confirm that the NBA has never seen someone so young stuff box scores in such prolific fashion.
For example, Doncic had 21 career triple-doubles before his 21st birthday, tripling Magic Johnson’s previously unmatched total by that age. Doncic has added a few more triple-doubles to his tally since celebrating his birthday on Feb. 28, including a couple during the NBA’s restart in the bubble, becoming the youngest player to put up a 30-20-10 line (actually 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists) in a win over the Sacramento Kings.
Midway through the seeding schedule, Doncic has put up preposterously big numbers in the bubble, ranking third during the restart in scoring (32.8 points per game) and assists (9.8) and tied for fourth in rebounding (11.0). While the media must stay socially distanced — mostly on the other end of a virtual call — Doncic still disdains discussing his statistics.
“We’re 1-3, so that’s not good,” Doncic said Thursday of the Mavericks’ bumpy start in the NBA bubble. “I don’t think we should talk about individual stuff. We should talk about team stuff. It’s not good. We’re 1-3, but we’ve got to get ready for the playoffs.”
Dallas’ disappointing early bubble results serve as a reminder that Doncic, a champion with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team, is in the process of learning how to win in the NBA.
The Mavs are stuck in seventh place in the West standings despite the third-best point differential primarily due to their problems closing games. Dallas’ offense (115.7 offensive rating) is the most efficient in NBA history overall but ranks 28th in the league in the clutch (95.6 offensive rating). That falls largely at the feet of their young franchise player, who has shot only 33.8% from the field in clutch situations this season, including 6-of-38 from 3-point range.
Those issues reared their ugly head in the Mavs’ 153-149 overtime loss to the Houston Rockets in the restart opener, when Dallas lit it up through three quarters but got stuck in the mud down the stretch. Doncic ignored his 28 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists when scanning the box score, focusing on his 1-of-9 3-point shooting and eight turnovers, grumbling that he had to be “way better.”
“Look, I think Luka’s No. 1 goal is to win, and to be an NBA champion,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s talked time and time again about the fact that he doesn’t care about stats. He really is just into winning.” — Tim MacMahon
Doncic a postseason star in Europe
At age 18, Doncic starred alongside Goran Dragic to lead Slovenia to a 9-0 record and an improbable EuroBasket title, knocking off powerhouses Spain and Serbia along the way. Though Dragic was the more productive player, Doncic solidified his case as the best NBA draft prospect in the world. He also craved the responsibility that came with his status, a trait he displayed as a teen prodigy even before leaving Slovenia for Real Madrid.
“I feel like I want to be the hero of the game, you know?” Doncic told me in Helsinki, Finland. “Every time I wanted the ball in my hands, from the very beginning.”
Added head coach Igor Kokoskov: “He loves to be on the biggest stage.”
Against Latvia in the quarterfinals, Doncic dropped step-back after step-back in the face of Kristaps Porzingis, finishing with 27 points and nine rebounds in a narrow win. Doncic went for 11 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists in a 20-point blowout win over Ricky Rubio and the Gasol brothers in the semis. Doncic had his struggles against Bogdan Bogdanovic and Serbia in the finals before leaving the game with an injury, but he still found ways to have a positive impact on the game and play Robin to Batman during Dragic’s monster 35-point outing.
Just six months later, Doncic gobbled up almost every award available, including EuroLeague MVP, Spanish ACB MVP, and EuroLeague Final Four MVP, in leading Real Madrid to EuroLeague and ACB titles while knocking down a host of clutch shots along the way.
Doncic made plenty of winning plays in high-pressure playoff games on his way to European legend status with Real Madrid, but he did struggle at times to create efficient offense, especially when guard Facundo Campazzo was out of the lineup, highlighting one concern with Doncic’s NBA playoff potential — he’s better when paired with another ball handler. That said, the simple fact that Doncic was the primary shot creator for Real Madrid at age 19 in the second-best league in the world speaks to his greatness and willingness to embrace the big moment.
Overall, Doncic’s shooting accuracy was lower in the postseason, with his 3-point shooting shakier than usual. Of course, all of those games came when he was a teenager, often years younger than his competition. But those numbers do indicate that his affinity for tough, step-back 3s when the defense tightens will lead to some inefficient nights, as we’ve seen at the ends of games this season with Dallas.
Still, he probably has more high-level playoff experience than any other 21-year-old in NBA history. In European competition, he played against any number of NBA players and similar veterans, and he thrived and won while possessing an unwavering confidence and self-belief. Everything we’ve seen suggests Doncic plays winning basketball, and from what I have observed in his competitive makeup, he will be ready for the pressure that will come when he makes his NBA playoff debut with the Mavericks. — Mike Schmitz
Clippers will be locked on Luka
A first-round series with the Clippers could be a problem — even for someone as amazing as Doncic.
One of Doncic’s most devastating traits is that he poses a huge defensive mismatch against most opponents. Listed at 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, he combines the ballhandling and court vision of a point guard with the ability to both finish at the rim and knock down shots from long range off the dribble. As such, he is too big and physical for most guards to defend but too quick and skilled to be slowed by most players his own size. He is dominant at driving into the paint and creating, producing 1.19 points per direct drive to rank first in the NBA among players with at least 200 drives this season, according to Second Spectrum.
But the Clippers, blessed with some of the greatest perimeter defenders in the NBA, are suited to defend him. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Leonard and George, who finished third in last season’s DPOY vote, are both strong at defending the drive, with George yielding only 0.915 points per direct drive and Leonard yielding 0.957, according to Second Spectrum. Overall, Leonard is second among NBA small forwards with a defensive real plus-minus score of 2.83 points per 100 possessions.
After lighting up the NBA bubble in his previous two games, averaging 37 points and 11.5 assists on 52.3% shooting, Doncic faced the Clippers on Thursday. While he managed 29 points and six assists in the Mavericks’ 126-111 loss, he was less efficient, continuing the trend — in three games against the Clippers this season Doncic is shooting only 42.6% from the field and 27.3% from beyond the arc, with a whopping 15 turnovers versus 21 total assists. Those numbers are subpar relative to his season averages.
Doncic has had an amazing season, and the experience he gains this postseason will serve him well in his quest to reach the top of the game. But he’ll likely be facing one of the toughest defenses in the NBA, one that can match his strengths. If the season is any predictor, he is unlikely to be quite as dominant in the playoffs as he has been thus far. — Andre Snellings
Mike Schmitz is an NBA draft expert and a contributor to DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and international teams.