I remember when it happened. March 2, when the Dallas Mavericks played the Los Angeles Lakers. That’s when I realized Luka Doncic was a top-5 player.
But Sunday night, after Luka Magic’s Mavericks ran up a 47-point lead to dismiss the league-best Suns in Game 7 — in Phoenix — I realized top-5 might not do him justice.
Doncic repeatedly sought LeBron James in pick-and-roll switches and attacked him time after time in the fourth quarter of that March game. It was similar to his all-out assault on the Suns on May 15 that began with 27 points in the first half.
The Mavericks, who had blown a 21-point lead to the Lakers and trailed by six in the final period, won by five in that decisive March matchup, delivering all but the death blow to a Lakers team still delusional enough to believe it had a chance at the playoffs, let alone the Play-In.
“Until you stomp me out, cut my head off, bury me 12 feet under, I’ve got a chance,” James said. “So that’s my confidence.”
No, no. That’s Luka’s confidence.
It’s become more clear with every opponent who steps in the Slovenian Savage’s path: Luka Doncic is undeniable. Doncic played on a bad calf and still hung 33 on that so-called vaunted Utah Jazz defense. He made every single Phoenix defender — from Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mikal Bridges, to prototypical 3-and-D wing Jae Crowder, to the helpless switching center Deandre Ayton — look like a chair on the basketball floor. Cameron Johnson was a folding chair in Game 7, when Doncic shook him so hard, he fell to the ground, in a moment that rivaled James Harden’s breakdown of Wesley Johnson years back.
Talk about a path to the NBA Finals. If Doncic makes it there, he’ll have gone through the gauntlet.
The Jazz, for all their shortcomings, are still one of the best defenses in basketball, as are the Suns, and as are the Golden State Warriors, who are waiting, with one of the greatest defensive players in basketball history, Draymond Green.
If Green can’t guard Doncic, then no one can. The Warriors will throw some mix of Green, Klay Thompson, rookie Jonathan Kuminga, Andrew Wiggins, Otto Porter and Kevon Looney — and if Gary Payton II was healthy, he’d get his shot at Doncic, too.
And if the Mavericks defy the odds once again and defeat the Warriors in the conference finals, Doncic will have to face one of the two best defenses in all of basketball: DPOY Marcus Smart’s Boston Celtics, or DPOY snub Bam Adebayo’s Miami Heat.
What Doncic has proven so far is that he’s not ducking any smoke. He’s seeking it, just like he sought LeBron James on those early-March switches.
Shoutouts to the Mavericks for having the foresight to pull off such a deal on draft night. The gap between Doncic and Trae Young just got wider, and that says a lot because Young is one helluva player.
But he’s not top-5, and Doncic ain’t No. 5.
CP0 FOR LAST 6
Talk about a disappointment. No one took a harder hit in the eye of public perception than Chris Paul, who is now 0-for-6 in his last six Game 7s.
Think about the optics on that: In his last six win-or-go-home matchups, Chris Paul has lost. Isiah Thomas would never. Neither would Magic Johnson.
That’s the standard you have to live by when you’ve been crowned the Point God. Paul is assuredly the regular-season point god, but in the playoffs, specifically when the season is on the line, Paul is proving no more than a false idol.
And you can’t blame Scott Foster for this one. He wasn’t an official Sunday night.
The true constant is Paul, who was the first player in NBA history to blow four 2-0 playoff series leads, before extending his own record to five against the Mavericks on Sunday night.
Paul said he isn’t going to retire, even though his production plummeted like the crypto market after his 37th birthday following Game 2.
It’s all good, king. Keep collecting them coins. Paul has three more years left on his deal, which is worth about $90 million. The Suns will be back next year, and they better pay Ayton his worth, too.
BUCK STOPS HERE
Just how valuable is home-court advantage? It’s about worth a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bucks and Celtics both faced the same decision in their regular season finale: Win and face Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s Nets in the first round, or lose and take the No. 3 seed. The Bucks rested all of their starters and lost intentionally, while the Celtics put a 30-point pounding on the Grizzlies.
Which means the Bucks gave the Celtics home-court advantage, in Boston of all places, which came back to bite them because Khris Middleton missed the entire series with an MCL injury.
We all know the drill from here. Role players historically play better at home, especially in elimination games. The Celtics shot 22-of-50 from downtown — led by 7-of-18 shooting from deep by Grant Williams — while the Bucks logged just four makes on 33 attempts.