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When Luka Doncic is this good, the Mavericks are unbeatable

Doncic has taken his defense to another level the last week or so and the Mavericks are a different, better team for it.

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

There was a play, with only a minute or so left in the second quarter that caught my eye. The Mavericks were well on their way to thumping the Charlotte Hornets, when the Mavericks defense forced a loose ball on a Gordon Hayward drive.

From there, Luka Doncic dove to the ground and not only saved the ball from going out of bounds, but managed to tap it to a teammate in one motion, which started the Mavericks own fastbreak. Trey Burke calmly canned a triple at the other end of the floor to push the Dallas lead to 17.

It wasn’t the best play of Luka’s young career — not even close. Even so, it felt different. It certainly felt like a Luka that was lightyears from the Luka that started the season.

After the first game of the season, that loss to the Suns which felt like many years ago, it was evident that Doncic was not ready to start the season. The Mavericks star looked sluggish, slow and off. This wasn’t a troll, it was just what everyone saw when the Mavericks started their season with a string of disappointing losses.

I mentioned in my write up that in the NBA, teams will only go as far as stars will take them. It doesn’t matter what the offseason moves are or how the role players perform, if your star doesn’t have it on a given night, your team likely won’t either. That’s not unique to Doncic, it’s just true for every star in this league.

So consider Wednesday night a complete reversal. Doncic didn’t look slow or sluggish. He looked engaged, feisty even. The level of defensive intensity seen from Doncic during the Mavericks four game winning streak is something we, quite frankly, haven’t seen from him since he arrived in Dallas in the summer of 2018. Sure, we’ve seen glimpses — blocking LeBron James in his rookie year — but nothing this sustained, this consistent, this forceful. Doncic took this game and shoved it down the Hornets throats. His teammates followed.

“When Luka and KP are invested on defense, everybody falls in line,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after the game.

That has never felt more true. While it’s still extremely early to make any grand conclusions, the Mavericks are third in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 106.2 points per 100 possessions, and have held five opponents to under 100 points, something that didn’t happen too often last season. The Mavericks had a staggering 12 blocks and eight steals against the Hornets, the type of difference-making defensive plays the team just wasn’t capable of in the last few years. When your star, your rock that carries your entire offense, leads the way with four blocks and two steals of his own, it trickles down to the rest of the team. Consider he gave this effort on a night where he only went to the free throw line two times. Last season or weeks ago, if that happens we’re watching Doncic bark at officials while he leaves his teammates out to dry in transition. That was no where to be found against the Hornets.

This is corny and cliché, but this stuff matters. “The way you win championships is to play defense,” Doncic said after the game, putting it succinctly. When your star is locked in, everyone else will follow his lead. That’s how this works.

  • It feels wild to write almost 600 words on Doncic in a big win and not even mention his offense. He was great on that end too, with 34 points on 14-of-25 shooting and nine assists. Doncic seems to be in command of his game inside the arc, as he canned a couple more mid-range shots, along with his usual brilliance near the basket. He even made threes! That 5-of-9 mark was a sight for sore eyes, especially when you consider the majority of those fives makes were not of the step-back variety. Doncic stepped into more threes Tuesday night than he has all season, it felt like. A great sign.
  • Imagine how much damage the Mavericks would have done defensively if they had Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber. This might have been a Clippers-level laugher if all three of them were active.
  • Kleber being out took away some of the drama behind a Kristaps Porzingis return, as it made sense to just slide him in for Kleber next to Willie Cauley-Stein. The duo combined for five of the Mavericks 12 blocks and just absolutely shut down anything the Hornets guard-heavy attack tried. Cauley-Stein is playing the best basketball of his career and the 14 rebounds, three blocks and one steal constitute one of his best outings in what is suddenly becoming a season of sparkling nights. I’m not sure what Carlisle does when Kleber returns, as the Porzingis/Kleber fit makes the most sense considering the success of their two big lineups, but if the only way you can coax engaged, competitive play out of Cauley-Stein is to start him, maybe you just ride that wave for as long as possible. Plus, Kleber’s shooting makes him a more malleable player — he can work well with the starting group or the bench. Cauley-Stein played 30 minutes and only had one foul, which is extremely rare for him.
  • This was about as good a showing for Porzingis as you can expect. He struggled a bit inside the three point line but finished 4-of-9 from three and moved very well, except for an awkward landing in the first half where he appeared to tweak an ankle. Thankfully, it didn’t bother him the rest of the game. It was a perfect game for Porzingis to return, because the tallest player to play for the Hornets outside of the 6’9 Bismack Biyombo was 6’7 P.J. Washington. There wasn’t a bunch of roughhousing in the paint, since the Hornets very much run all their offense through their many talented guards and wings. So really, all Porzingis had to do was chill out and spot up on offense and then rotate and guard drives to the rim on defense. There was a stretch in the second half where he made consecutive left corner threes and he was so open each time they felt like warm-up shots. The overall preseason feel of this game, due to the Mavericks dominance, was great for Porzingis to ease back in. His rim protection was sorely needed and when the Mavericks get the rest of their guys back, Dallas’ defense is only going to get better from what we saw Tuesday night.
  • Wes Iwundu was rewarded for his good effort against the Magic with a start against the Hornets and, well, it wasn’t great. He managed to score this time, but only went 1-of-7 from the field and seemed frighteningly skittish to shoot the open threes he received. I’m still glad he started though, because he deserved it after helping in the Orlando win. Josh Green came off the bench and for the first time all season, Carlisle allowed him to play through his mistakes. He got extended minutes in each of the halves, which let him settle in, calm down and finally make some plays. His stat line won’t wow you, but he had a nice alley-oop pass to Cauley-Stein (who finally finished one) and made some great hustle plays on the boards, in addition to finishing a couple plays near the rim on offense. Funny enough, both his alley-oops were layups and I almost wonder if he’s petrified of making any flashy mistakes, so he’s doing layups instead of dunks. Either way it was a good showing and honestly, the less discourse about Green, the better. It got out of hand after the Orlando game and we just simply need to sit back and see Green get more minutes. He’s an extremely raw player that needs time.
  • Luka’s brilliance sort of overshadowed how mediocre the Mavericks were on offense, scoring just 104 points on 41.7 percent shooting from the field and just 32.6 percent from three. Who are these Mavericks, winning games with defense? This can’t be!