At this point, it’s a fools errand to ask Luka Doncic if something feels new or he has to adjust to something. Yet again and again, we continue to ask because it’s hard for our normal brains to accept the reality that Doncic has seen just about everything a basketball player can see. He’s still 20 years old, so we always think there has to be something new.
The difference is that Doncic has been a star basically since he’s known how to dribble a basketball. It’s all he knows. So when a team tries to turn up the pressure, like the Washington Wizards did on Wednesday night in the Mavericks 108-100 season opening win, Doncic never blinked. You think he didn’t see that consistently as a teenager in Europe’s best basketball league? Or when he played against the best international teams of Europe? Or entering the league as a 19-year-old and finishing the first season as the Rookie of the Year?
“I got used to it last year,” Doncic said, sitting at his locker with a grin, before emphasizing his point. “And the year before. And the year before. I’m used to it.”
Duly noted. The question all summer was if Doncic was ready to handle the heightened focus of being the guy Dirk Nowitzki handed the keys of the franchise to. It shouldn’t have been a hard question, but it was asked all the same because, hell, that’s seems like a normal thing to ask a 20-year-old second year budding star after the face of the franchise retires. That’s the normal progression of things — a star rookie makes a splash with lowered team expectations, then naturally things ramp up another level in the second season. Except this second season includes the additional pressure of replacing one of the greatest players in history. This should be hard, yet Doncic makes it easy.
He seemingly glided to 34 points on 19 shots, including 4-of-9 from three. Everything seemed effortless as Doncic’s prized deep shot kept the Wizards absolutely petrified of being looped on a Twitter highlight video for eternity. Doncic gladly took the extra space the Wizard defenders afforded him, making 8 of his 10 two points shots, a majority of those right at the rim.
Again, nothing about this felt new to Doncic, even if it was new to everyone in the building and watching at home. It was the first Mavericks regular season to open without Nowitzki since 1997, which feels like multiple lifetimes ago — probably because it is. The crowd didn’t seem dour for it — months after sending Dirk off with a spectacular retirement party after his final home game in April, the fans were buzzed for everything their new star attempted. Every Doncic crossover, step back or silky smooth drive to the cup was met with roars that I haven’t heard in years.
When compared to last year it was a breath of fresh air. Where last season the Mavericks team dynamics forced a push and pull between Doncic’s ascension and the pecking order of a stable of older veterans, this team feels like Doncic’s already. Every time Doncic was on the floor, he was the best player by a wide margin. Another Dirk trait Doncic shares? The ability to lift the quality of the team beyond their play. If you didn’t keep track of the scoreboard, Dallas played a somewhat meandering first half, typical for the first game of the season. The starters looked a little disjointed, passes weren’t crisp and plenty of good shots rimmed out. Yet at the halftime buzzer Dallas had 62 points, with 20 from Doncic. “Luka’s getting better every time he steps on the floor,” Rick Carlisle said after the game in the understatement of the century.
It continued in the third quarter, when Luka blitzed Washington with 12 points and two three pointers, reducing Wizards center Thomas Bryant to dust every time Bryant switched out on him. The Mavericks had a 23-point second half lead in their first game after a summer of hype and excitement and I still wasn’t completely convinced they were playing all that well. Again, a staple of a lot of the teams in Dirk’s prime, where he dragged so-so rosters to relevance and wins.
Even the physical play in the final minutes was a prime tactic against Dirk back in the day, employed by all sorts of teams that tried to bait Nowitzki into an ugly game once they realized they couldn’t stop him straight up. As Beal got into a defensive stance and hounded Doncic before he could cross half-court, the chirping started and the AAC turned into 20,000 people watching pickup at the park, oohing and humming with anticipation every possession Beal checked Doncic.
To the Wizards credit, it almost worked. They cut a 23-point lead down to single digits as the Mavericks offense stagnated a little with Luka and Beal dueling 1-on-1. “It became a personal battle out there,” Carlisle said. “And we all know there can be some pitfalls with that.” Dallas bent but never broke as Beal got ejected while Doncic stayed on the court, making free throws to ice the game away.
“First game of the season, our home game, we’re not going to back down from anybody,” Kristaps Porzingis said. “They were trying to be physical with us. I think we were smarter today. They committed some fouls early, some guys and toward the end they were trying to get us to react but we didn’t really react. We have to stay calm in those situations while we’re not going to back down from anybody.”
It seems the only remaining relevant question now is, where does it go from here? It’s only one game against a lottery bound team, but it feels like a little more. If the path to stardom typically features untold bumpy roads, dips and valleys, those feel impossible to foresee. Doncic seemingly has an answer or counter to everything in the NBA because he’s had to answer and counter on the basketball court for almost all of his entire life.
The rough patch to overcome will surely appear, like it does for every star eventually. For now? The Mavs will enjoy the ride Doncic is taking them on, one he already knows pretty well. What a wonder for a 20-year-old.