Luka Dončić inspires Mavericks’ win over Clippers not with magic, but with ’emotional’ fire

LOS ANGELES — Luka Dončić bellowed into the crowd, a guttural howl aimed at no one in the arena and yet received by all, a reverberating exultation that represented the very id of who he is.

Dončić had just hit his final shot over James Harden, a stepback 3, the creation finally besting its creator. It put the Dallas Mavericks up by nine points with less than 90 seconds remaining in Tuesday’s Game 2 against the L.A. Clippers, an eventual 96-93 Mavs win in a pivotal matchup where neither team ever led by double digits. And so Dončić yelled the yell he often yells, screaming into the rafters with his emotions emanating from it all: His posture, his pose, his presence.

This is who the true Luka Dončić is. The shot and the scream, both quintessential to his essence, forever connected.

Dončić led his Dallas teammates to the victory that evened its first-round series against this old foe, but he’s also been leading the Mavericks. Dončić’s leadership is not Hallmark movie speeches. It’s not his burden alone, not since Kyrie Irving joined him as a co-star. He admitted after the game that he leaves that rah-rah voice to Irving, saying, “Kai was talking to the bench and we just had to keep the guys together.”

But those emotions, even the negative ones Dončić worked to display less frequently even when they still slip out, stimulate who he is. In turn, they fuel those around him, as well.

“What I’ve learned with Luka is that you’ve got to trust him,” Irving said after the win. “He’s an incredible leader next to me, and we empower people to have a voice. And when he’s emotional, he’s honest. I’d rather be out there with someone who’s emotional and wants to get better for himself and the team than someone who’s quiet, allowing things to happen and depending on everyone else to step in. He’s one of those leaders who just wants to make his presence be felt.”



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After the team’s series-opening defeat, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd put culpability upon the absence of the team’s physicality, that undefinable motor he deemed to be missing when the game initially began. Dončić, this team’s primary piston, deserved much of that culpability even with his typically gaudy statistics. In Tuesday’s rematch, the Clippers challenged him in the same manner they had two days prior, targeting him with a fervor meant to wear him down even if he stood up to the initial onslaught.

“That’s funny,” said Dončić, asked about how he was sought out as a perceived mismatch. “It gets me going at the defensive end. If they want to attack me, that’s fine. I think I played good defense today.”

Dončić has been a defensive liability before  —even earlier this season — not only for his feet, which don’t always twitch fast, but far more for his inattentiveness. But he’s also been challenged before, like he was in another Game 2 two years ago against the Phoenix Suns that his team lost in part because of his unsure defensive stances. This time, Dončić needed no wake up call. When the Clippers put up shots with him as the nearest defender, per ESPN, he held them to two makes on 17 attempts. While he’s always been genius on the court’s other end, Dončić might never have been better than he was Tuesday as a defensive force, too.

“(His teammates) understand, when he’s playing at that level, they’ve got to step up, too,” Kidd said. “They’ve got to step up to the level of their leader.”

Dallas’ win came from a game fought with clubs in the mud with no rules of engagement. It was around March, Kidd said, when Dallas fully recognized how the league’s midseason emphasis had increased how much physicality was allowed. “We stepped up, and we embraced it,” Kidd said. “That’s who we are.”

Until Dallas’ 31-point fourth quarter on Tuesday, neither team had cracked 30 in a frame and both ended up with fewer than 100 points. Dallas even scored more in Sunday’s defeat, which featured an eight-point quarter. With Kawhi Leonard making his return, Dallas needed Dončić or Irving to guard one of the Clippers’ star triumvirate. Irving met that challenge early, too, providing hawking defense that oozed with effort.

“It comes from the regular season preparation, and pushing ourselves and knowing what we have left in the tank,” ” Irving said.

In asking for such exertion, Kidd manipulated the postseason’s longer television timeouts and found other moments within the game to steal rest for his superstars even as Dončić played 46 minutes and Irving 42.

“If you ask (Dončić), he would say he could play 48,” Kidd said. “The sheet’s going to say 46, but we were using different ways during the timeout to get him more than that.”

Kidd’s two stars delivered still in the fourth quarter, combining for 15 points on eight shots while Dončić added another four assists. His best pass, his one moment of true magic in a game where brute force otherwise reigned, came on the very last possession. It wasn’t a shot or an assist, but a bounce pass in his own backcourt falling out of bounds in a one-possession game.

Asked as he left the post-game press conference podium, Irving laughed, telling the arriving Dončić, “Bro, he’s asking about that pass that you threw.” If there was ever any doubt that the basketball would trickle through that narrow window as Dončić intended, Irving said, “Trust the guy.”

Nearly out of the room, Irving added, “It was a great pass.”

After that play, Irving was subsequently fouled. He missed the second free throw after making it a two-score game, but Mavericks center Maxi Kleber grabbed the carom, a game-sealing rebound that clinched the result.

In the aftermath of that moment, of another intentional foul, Dončić beelined for Kleber and hugged him on the court. Kleber had been a frequent past recipient of glares and visible frustration from Dončić; it even happened in Game 1 after Kleber failed to catch one of Dončić’s passes. But while those moments may always exist within Dončić’s ever-competitive psyche, so are these. His hug, not only grateful that Kleber had just made the win certain, might have even been apologetic.

It was in his second season, Dončić said, that he truly began realizing how his emotions affect his teammates around him. After a rookie season filled with defeats, Dončić started leading his team to wins, and “from that moment, I just had to talk to my teammates, (to) be encouraging all the time,” he said.

He’s gotten better at basketball since then, too, adding more skill and poise to the ruthlessness with which he has always played. But he’s getting better at leading, too, as he asks his teammates to follow alongside him in the path he sets. Which, on Tuesday, was a victorious one.

(Photo of Luka Donċić: Keith Birmingham / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

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