Luka Doncic is playing chess and NBA defenders are stuck on a checkers board

Getty Images
10 Comments

LOS ANGELES — Luka Doncic’s second NBA season has been a revelation.

It’s not a surprise, everyone knew Doncic was good, he did just win Rookie of the Year last season (and was EuroLeague MVP before that). It’s how good — MVP-level good — and how fast that has been the revelation to fans (as well as a few NBA front offices that passed him up in the draft for “safer” choices).

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had his revelation much earlier.

“The first day he showed up in September [2018] and played pickup,” Carlisle said. “He dominated the pickup games with passing and vision, he wasn’t scoring that much. His size, strength, vision, power, stuff like that, it’s great for a young player.”

That young player was good, but the one filling up the stat sheet this season — and filling up NBA arenas to watch him play — is up another level. Or three. Doncic has been elite, averaging 30.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.2 assists a game this season, leading a Dallas offense that is the best in the league while putting himself in the middle of the MVP conversation.

And this is not even his ceiling — Doncic is just 20 years old and still improving. Fast.

What led to this season’s leap for Doncic is not one simple thing, but a combination of many elements that led him to be arguably the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in the game. Already. Before he can legally buy a drink.

The story of his leap starts in Europe at Real Madrid — Doncic played more than 120 games over a couple of seasons at the highest levels of basketball outside the NBA. Which means he may be just 20 but he’s seen defenses try everything on him to throw him off his game: Blitz, switch, ice, drop, hedge-and-recover, zones, whatever NBA teams try it’s not the first time he’s seen it. Doncic learned how to read and react, how to set his defender up, how to feign he was driving left just to draw a help defender one step to open a passing lane to the right.

“For me, playing basketball is like playing chess,” Doncic said of how teams defend him. “You got to read the game. If they double you, there’s going to be somebody open.”

Doncic shoots off the pick-and-roll 12.2 times a game and the Mavericks score an incredibly efficient 1.12 points per possession on those plays (for comparison, James Harden scores at a 1.02 rate). Doncic has an eFG% of 60.2 as the ball handler.

Doncic has amassed a Swiss Army Knife of moves he can break out, depending on the situation, and he put in the work in the gym to make those moves — those decoys or step-back jumpers — look smooth and effortless. He shortened the stride on his first step this season, making it both more explosive and easier to switch directions quickly. He can do any of this in games without hesitation, and this season added a floater (and, if he’s driving more from the wing, a bank-floater off the window).

“He really put in a great summer of work, in all areas of his game, from conditioning to all the skill areas,” Carlisle said. “In today’s pick-and-roll game, teams play it a lot of ways. We’ll see trapping, you see drop coverage where the big guys keep dropping, keep dropping and force you to make floaters, which are difficult two-point shots — analytically they are the shots you want to force opponents to take — but he’s got better at executing those at the basket. Some of it is just experience, having gone through it a year, but most of it is just hard work.”

Having gone through it a year matters a lot, too. Last season when the Mavericks came to Staples Center and played the Lakers, it was the first time Doncic went up against his idol LeBron James. The 19-year-old asked for a jersey after the game in the hallway.

“Normally, I was never nervous before a game. That game, I was nervous, for sure,” Doncic said after his team snapped LeBron and the Lakers’ 10-game win streak last Sunday. “It was something special for me. Just growing up, I used to watch him a lot…. I still admire him very much.”

Don’t confuse that with Doncic holding back — he dropped a 27-foot stepback on LeBron last Sunday to help seal Dallas’ win.

The teams that give Doncic trouble have multiple long defenders who can be aggressive. Minnesota, with Josh Okogie and Robert Covington, were able to do that Wednesday night and Doncic shot 8-of-22 (but Dallas still won the game). A week ago, the Clippers with their length and quality defenders did the same thing, overloading Doncic’s side of the floor and forcing him into a 4-of-14 shooting night with seven turnovers.

The Lakers tried the same thing with their length, but Doncic and the Mavs adjusted.

“[Doncic] made a really good adjustment in the second quarter, he started moving the ball quickly then getting the ball back, and that put him in some positions that were a little harder to predict for the defense,” Carlisle said. “The second half was more of the same…

“He hit a couple of hellacious shots that only a handful of people in the world can hit,” Carlisle added. Dallas pulled away to beat the Lakers comfortably.

Dallas has become dependant on Doncic and a few of those hellacious shots a game.

Doncic leads the league in touches at 97.7 per game, and he holds the ball an average of 5.59 seconds per touch (to be fair, him bringing the ball up the court skews that time number). Dallas has become dependant upon him to create, and Carlisle adjusted the starting lineup, rounding it out with shooters and finishers who can work off the ball, such as Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dwight Powell, and Dorian Finney-Smith. That group gives Doncic options: a roll man in Powell, a pick-and-pop guy in Porzingis, plus shooters and size everywhere (the shortest starter for Dallas is Hardaway at 6’5”).

Doncic was playing chess against Minnesota — they had taken away what works for him, but it opened up the opportunity for Jalen Brunson to come in off the bench and have room to operate. Brunson had 14 points in the fourth quarter, Doncic seven, and Dallas got the win.

Looking back to June 2018 now it seems laughable: The reason teams passed on Doncic in the draft were questions about how high his ceiling really went. With two seasons of high-level basketball in Europe to watch, teams picked his game apart and decided he wasn’t athletic enough, or that he had come close to maxing out what he could do in the pick-and-roll. Teams became enamored with American players such as Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley Jr. who were seen to have higher ceilings. It’s also always safer for a GM to miss on a high draft pick with American prospect than a European one, there’s less stigma. So Doncic slid down the board a little.

Doncic knows what any good chess player knows: Fortune often favors the bold. Mark Cuban’s Mavericks understood that and made the bold move, trading for Doncic.

The revelation that comes with that boldness is Dallas is going to be a force in the West for years to come. Because they have one of the top five players in the game and put the ball in his hands.

Watch Harden run onto court from bench mid-play to defend

0 Comments

It takes a second to notice, but the 76ers had just four players on the court trying to defend the Nuggets on a late third-quarter possession.

But when James Harden — sitting on the bench — notices it, he stands up and runs into play, drawing a technical.

The technical foul was for having four men on the court, not on Harden specifically.

While that may have been a rare instance of Harden rushing to play defense, the 76ers as a team cranked up their defense in the second half against the Nuggets and went on to get the home win behind 47 points from Joel Embiid.

LeBron livid over no foul call at end of regulation, Lakers fall to Celtics in OT

0 Comments

“The best player on earth can’t get a call. It’s amazing.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham made that comment out of frustration after another game where the Lakers felt robbed at the end. He wasn’t the only Laker.

LeBron James was once again brilliant — 41 points, nine rebounds and eight assists — but with the game tied against the Celtics and 4.1 seconds on the clock, he drove the lane and didn’t get the foul call when it clearly looked like Jayson Tatum hit him on the arm as he shot.

After the game, referee crew chief Eric Lewis admitted the officials missed the call:

There was contact. At the time, during the game, we did not see a foul. The crew missed the play.”

Patrick Beverley picked up a technical foul for bringing a photographer’s camera over to the referee to show evidence of the foul.

These losses are a punch to the gut for a Laker team with little margin for error and trying to make up ground in the West (at 23-27 they sit 13th in the conference). But LeBron sees a pattern — he is scoring 30.2 points per game (sixth in the league) but is getting to the line just 4.9 times per game, fewer than anyone else in the top nine in the league in scoring.

“I don’t get it. I’m attacking the paint, just as much as any of the guys in this league that’s shooting double-digit free throws a night, and I don’t get it. I don’t understand it,” James said postgame in Boston.

The other Lakers were a little more direct.

Boston pulled away in overtime to get the 125-121 win, snapping their own three-game losing streak.

LeBron finished with 41, Anthony Davis 16 (on 6-of-15 shooting off the bench) and Beverley had 15 including a key putback dunk. Jaylen Brown scored 37 for Boston, Tatum 30 and Malcolm Brogdon had 26 off the bench.

There are no moral victories for these Lakers more than halfway into the season, playing the team with the best record in the NBA close and almost winning does not count. Time is running out on LeBron and his team, they need to string together some wins. They felt they should have gotten the chance to win this one.

Watch Embiid score 47, lift 76ers past Jokic, Nuggets 126-119

0 Comments

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid won the battle of MVP candidates with 47 points and 18 rebounds as the Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to seven games with a 126-119 win over Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second in voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award over the last two seasons. Both are among the top candidates for MVP as this season hits the halfway mark, although Embiid was not named among the All-Star starters from the Eastern Conference.

“I’m used to it and it’s not the first time,” Embiid said. “I think it’s more of a motivation to go out there and try to win the whole thing. That’s the only way that I’ll get that respect.”

Jokic gave Embiid a nod for his play.

“He’s really talented,” Jokic told the Denver Post of Embiid. “Really shifty.”

James Harden had 17 points and 13 assists, and Tobias Harris scored all 14 of his points in the second half after being shut down by Denver’s defense in the first half.

“We were able to figure some things out and get some stops,” Harris said. “Guys stepping up and making shots was huge for us to cut the deficit in the fourth quarter to try and make something happen.”

Jokic had 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists for Denver, which has lost three of its last four games. Jamal Murray chipped in 22 points and Michael Porter added 20.

“We turned it over and they just turned up the pressure on us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They got to the basket way too easy with their attack mentality. And we just got way too careless with the basketball.”

Embiid has scored 40 or more points nine times this season and 35 times in his career. In addition to the All-Star snub, Embiid was also given a $25,000 fine by the NBA on Friday for an on-court demonstration after-basket celebration during Wednesday night’s win over Brooklyn.

“Let’s keep offending Joel by fining him and not putting him among the All-Star starters,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said sarcastically.

The Nuggets began the day with the second-best team field goal percentage at 50.7% and tops in 3-point percentage at 39.5%. In the first half, they overwhelmed Philadelphia’s perimeter defense, shooting 65.9% (29 for 44) from the floor and 10 of 17 (58.8%) from beyond the 3-point line. The hot shooting helped the Nuggets to a 73-58 lead at halftime.

Embiid started to take over toward the end of the third quarter, putting together a 16-point quarter on 5-of-6 shooting that keyed a 14-0 run that allowed the Sixers to close within 99-98 early in the fourth.

In the final quarter, Philadelphia wore down a Nuggets team playing the final game of a three-game, week-long trip. P.J. Tucker– who had switched defenively to Jokic and slowed him down in the second half- followed a Harden missed 3-pointer with a tip-in with over a minute left to stretch the lead to five. Embiid then hit a 3-pointer to restore an eight-point lead.

“I’ve always like to think I am a closer and I am,” Embiid said. “Taking the last shot or taking a last second shot with the clock ticking is fun for me. I love getting into those types of possession where you have to make the plays. That’s where you find out who is who and who is made up for those kinds of moments.”

Report: Myles Turner agrees to two-year, $60 million extension with Pacers

Indiana Pacers v Milwaukee Bucks
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
0 Comments

Take Myles Turner off the trade market.

After months of negotiations, the Pacers and Turner have agreed to a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This has since been confirmed by other sources.

Turner — back playing his natural center spot this season with Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento — is having the best season of his career, averaging 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. He has been one of the keys to a surprisingly good Pacers team this season.

That $60 million contract extension number can be a little misleading. Turner was already making $18 million this season, but because the Pacers are $24.4 million under the salary cap, they can do a re-negotiation and extension with the big man, giving him a $17.1 million bump right now (to a total of $35.1 million for this season) and extend off of that for two years, the first at $20.2 million and the second at $19.9 million, according to Shams Charania.

Technically Turner can still be traded at the Feb. 9 deadline, but the Pacers have no intention of doing so (as this signing signals). There had been a lot of trade interest in Turner, going back to last summer, most prominently with the Los Angeles Lakers in a swap that would have sent Buddy Hield and Turner to the West Coast for Russell Westbrook and two first-round picks. That draft pick compensation kept the deal from getting done (the Pacers wanted two unprotected first-rounders).