Mavericks’ slow start looks like last season — Luka Dončić is the reason it’s not


Watch Luka Dončić enough and there’s a setting you’ll sometimes see him tune in to. It’s when his determination to win seemingly rises above anything that could oppose him: opponents, deficits, teammates, even his own basketball mortality. He’ll start hitting shots he hadn’t made for weeks; he’ll make a game’s results feel like they could be determined only by him. Many times, he’ll sputter and his team will lose. But the other times, oh, you know them well. They’re the shots that fill his montages, the invincible performances that are talked about with reverence.

What happened Wednesday is rarer. Dončić was in one of those modes — 42 points on 28 shots — and yet the Dallas Mavericks (9-8) still lost decisively, 125-112, to the Boston Celtics (14-4). He often was the single set of footprints in the sand carrying his teammates, and he played 40 minutes and nearly the entire second half to do so. It wasn’t nearly enough against the league’s best team. Only a mild second-half comeback attempt turned Wednesday’s game from a decisive blowout loss to a respectable defeat.

Last season, the Mavericks’ two games against Boston provided statements. The first was in November, and Dončić had sputtered and wheezed his way through the season’s opening weeks. He was averaging fewer than 24 points and enduring national conversations about his weight and offseason commitment when the matchup arrived. His response to all that was his best performance of the season and a game-winning 3.

When the teams met again in March, things were different. Boston had emerged as one of the league’s best teams, and Dallas was growing into its identity after its midseason trade. The team had been playing well, but it felt too sudden and too unexplainable to be certain it was real. And then it won that game. It made me write: “How many more times does this team need to convincingly beat the highest tier of opponents to stop putting ceilings on them? For me, at least, I won’t do that anymore.” It felt like a true moment of arrival.

The result Wednesday, of course, felt far from either of those games. No, it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. There was Boston’s familiar defensive style, which queued up Dončić.

“He had one assist at halftime,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla told ESPN before the fourth quarter. “We let the other guys get going in the third quarter.”

The Celtics switched every screen and rarely sent committed help, which caused Dončić to seek out Boston’s weakest defenders and attack relentlessly. Because Boston doesn’t have many weak ones, Dončić launched 15 midrange jumpers. Because he was in one of those determined can’t-lose moods, he made 11. That’s Dirk Nowitzki-esque efficiency.

But another familiarity is how Boston’s defensive approach — one used often by opponents this season — showed the limitations of Dončić’s teammates. Dončić’s pick-and-roll frequency has fallen 12 percentage points since last season, per Synergy Sports, from 44.3 percent to 32.3 percent. Wednesday, the Celtics once again limited the most Dončić-dependent players in the lineup. Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock combined for 15 points in 64 minutes. Dwight Powell didn’t attempt a single shot. Though the Celtics are great, they have only the 17th-best defense with Robert Williams yet to return from offseason surgery. It took this type of Dončić performance to be trailing by only 21 points at halftime, not more.

Those statement wins against Boston last season stand out because they felt like the brightest points of the season’s dual nature. The first was Dončić reminding everyone he’s still special, still otherworldly, when neither he nor the Mavericks were playing well, the other providing recognition of the midseason turnaround.

It might seem optimistic to believe the same midseason turnaround will eventually come in the same manner this season. It would be nice to think the same cohesive success this team had last year awaits. But there’s an obvious difference in these results against Boston: Dončić can’t play better than this. Among all the factors that changed last season, nothing was more important than Dončić’s own. He went from sluggish inefficiency to a half-season of MVP-level dominance. Once he did, Dallas started beating teams like Boston. Wednesday, in a nationally televised litmus test that called back to last season, what might have been Dončić’s most brilliant performance this season went wasted.

This has been seen in the opening month of the regular season as the Mavericks have tallied up an impressive list of baffling losses. Crucially, it doesn’t mean they can’t be more successful in another manner than they’ve been thus far. But if any statement was made this time around against the Celtics, it was something we knew several games into the season: that this team isn’t last year’s team.

If this team’s own unique turnaround is coming, it’ll surely look more like the second half did. The five players who received the most minutes that half were Dončić, Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie, Josh Green and Christian Wood. Mavs coach Jason Kidd finally gave the most minutes to the five players who have been this team’s best performers this season.

Dallas obviously misses how Jalen Brunson complemented Dončić and Dinwiddie, but there aren’t enough dynamic ballhandlers — players who can just do something once or twice — on the roster. Green and Wood provide the closest thing to that. Green’s role has been increasing, while Wood’s minutes have been scrutinized closely. It’s not discipleship to think he’s earned more minutes than he’s received. It wasn’t just his 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting Wednesday, but that might have been his best defensive performance in a Mavericks jersey yet.

Boston kept Dončić away from the rim even in single coverage by slanting and shading defenders toward him. The Celtics could cut off driving lanes with enough time to recover if Dončić passed, and the difference between what each team’s role players could do off the dribble — simple things like attacking closeouts — was stark. But Wood adds back some dynamism within the offense that has been lacking without Brunson. It’s a different type, one that also has to be used differently. But even the best defenders get spooked by Dončić when he’s been cooking them all night. It was telling, with 3:02 remaining in the fourth quarter, when Wood slipped a screen he set for Dončić and Jayson Tatum briefly hesitated to switch onto him. Dončić passed right over the top for Wood to dunk it.

Dončić feasts against traditional pick-and-roll coverage so much that teams have stopped playing it. To get dunks again from a big man — something largely being taken away from pure roll men like Powell because of these defensive schemes — makes this offense feel more effective. If opponents are going to force Dallas into isolation-heavy attacks, Wood is the one other player on this roster who can score against it.

Look, Dončić can’t sustain 40-minute nights at this usage rate too often, and the time he’s not on the court remains troublesome. He won’t always hit that many midrange shots. There are still shooting concerns with the role players, issues that should work themselves out but haven’t. The defense, but for one fourth-quarter stretch that might have simply been the Celtics reducing their intensity, has not looked as connected as last season. There’s more at fault with this team than Wood’s minutes alone.

But for a mild case of optimism to emerge from an alarming defeat? It’s Rorschachian which side you choose to view it from, and only time will tell which one was right.

(Photo: Winslow Townson / Getty Images)


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