LOS ANGELES — The setting left Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic feeling anxious. And why wouldn’t it? For the first time in his NBA career, he would face LeBron James.
Nearly a year later, Doncic has framed the Los Angeles Lakers jersey that James signed for him following their first matchup. Even if Doncic still maintains those giddy feelings toward James, he no longer appears intimidated matching up against NBA superstars. One of the reasons? Doncic has become one of them.
In the Mavericks' 114-100 win over the Lakers on Sunday at Staples Center, Doncic established himself against James with 27 points while shooting 10-of-23 from the field and 4-of-10 from 3-point range along with 10 assists and nine rebounds. Doncic did it despite frequently drawing double-teams as well as one-on-one assignments against James and Anthony Davis. Although Davis (27 points) and James (25) also dominated, Doncic became more effective with maximizing the Mavericks’ depth.
We’ve seen a lot of big games this season from Luka, but it means a little more to play well against your [email protected] | #MFFLpic.twitter.com/nELTEfKZQ3
"Normally, I’m never nervous before the game. That game, I was nervous for sure," Doncic about last year's matchup with James. "I admire him today, too. He was my idol growing up. It’s not different."
The 20-year-old Doncic studied James when he first played with Real Madrid, the Slovenian national team and in the Euroleague. During those stints, Doncic offered a blend of versatile scoring and play-making just like James has. That explains why the Mavericks selected Doncic with the No. 3 pick in last year’s draft. That explains why Dallas coach Rick Carlisle became convinced Doncic would be special after seeing him thrive during his first pick-up game before training camp. It explains why Doncic collected eight triple-doubles en route to last year’s Rookie of the Year award.
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Still, Doncic entered this season with something to prove. Could Doncic provide a worthy encore to his compelling original?
"I got to be honest, I thought he would have a tougher transition here in year two," said recently retired Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki, who received a video tribute at Staples Center on Sunday. "Just because he was so phenomenal last year with all the triple-doubles, I thought people were really going to hone in on him. But he seemed to have gotten even better."
Renaissance man @Luka7Doncic talks defense, European basketball, and even shows off his bi-lingual skills!#MFFLpic.twitter.com/SEdpQ0XDGk
The numbers back up that claim.
Doncic already has seven triple-doubles. He has logged three 40-point games and 10 30-point games. He joined Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook as the only players in NBA history to average a 30-point triple-double during a calendar month. He has improved in almost every statistical category from his rookie season, including points (21.2 to 30.8), shooting percentage (42.7% to 48.3%), free-throw shooting (71.3% to 82.7%), rebounds (7.8 to 9.9) and assists (6.0 to 9.6).
In the Lakers’ win over Dallas last month, Doncic had 39 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds. Afterwards, James embraced Doncic and called him a "bad (expletive)." Following the Mavericks' win on Sunday? James did not say anything whatsoever to Doncic. Perhaps that is because, as Nowitzki put it, "Luka is playing out of this world."
"I guess I was wrong," Nowitzki said, chuckling. "Even the experts can be wrong. He’s looking fantastic."
Doncic looked that way despite having a first half that he called "awful." He shot 2-of-9 from the field. James stole the ball from him on one possession and drew a charge on another. On another play, Davis stuffed Doncic at the rim.
Luka Doncic on his mindset to play well after starting off the game with a 2-of-9 clip pic.twitter.com/uESbqH38Td
Doncic soon began performing highlight reels. He fueled the Mavericks’ 35-17 third-quarter run by logging 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting and five assists. He attacked the rim when he had a one-on-one matchups. When the Lakers packed the paint, Doncic punished them with his outside shot. When he drew multiple defenders, Doncic found an open teammate.
"He made really good play calls and took advantage of what was happening out there with matchups," Carlisle said. "He hit a couple of hellacious shots that only a small handful of guys in the whole world that can hit."
Carlisle then named a certain player that Doncic has idolized.
"LeBron James is one of them. (Doncic’s) one of them," Carlisle said. "Stepback 30-footers, it’s hard to describe how difficult the shot is and how easy he makes it look."
Yet, Doncic has done just that partly by playing the same way that James does.
"Basketball is like playing chess," Doncic said. "You have to read the game. If they double you, there’s going to be somebody open."
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