The last time Steph Curry held the NBA trophy aloft in 2018, Luka Doncic was a 19-year-old kid who had just landed in the United States. The Slovenian had been signed that summer for the draft by the Atlanta Hawks and was immediately traded to the Dallas Mavericks. Four years later, Curry and Doncic are to meet in the Western Conference Finals. The encounter between the two stars will see a clash between a legendary veteran and one of the figures singled out as the future of the NBA. The Boy Wonder is coming of age.
Used to being hailed a genius even when he was a teen, Doncic, who was born in Ljubljana in 1999, has an uphill battle ahead of him as point guard against Golden State, which holds a 3-0 series lead with the next game in Dallas on Tuesday, May 24. In Curry’s team, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green pulled on experience in the second half of Friday’s game and turned the tables with the Mavericks’ defense then letting a 19-point lead slip away. “We’re going to believe until the end,” said the Slovenian, who scored 43 points in the second encounter. On Sunday’s game, Golden State took advantage of their momentum and seized a 3-0 series lead.
Before Friday’s game, there was concern in the Dallas camp as Doncic had suffered a bad night after Game 1 on May 18 in which Dallas was beaten 112-87, wrestling with sleeping and gastric problems. On Friday, he confessed that he was also feeling some pain in his right shoulder, although he insisted that it was “nothing serious.”
The disadvantage is not insurmountable for Doncic, who has led Dallas in the playoffs for three straight years. The Mavericks beat the Warriors three games out of four in the regular season. Besides, Game 7 against the Phoenix Suns, which is the top team in the West, is still fresh in fans’ memories. The point guard, who averaged 28.4 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists per game – his best score since 2019 – was the game-changer in the series finale. He scored 35 points, 27 of them in the first half, the same as the entire Arizona squad totaled by halftime and spent much of the game smiling. It was a humiliating end for Chris Paul and Devin Booker, who had started the semifinals with two wins over Texas.
The son of Mirjam Poterbin, a world champion dancer, and Slovenian basketball player Saša Dončić, Luka was practically born with a basketball in his hands. At just three months old, he was cheering his father on at games and, aged six, he was starting to shoot from mid-range and learn about on-court tactics.
Doncic is resilient. It’s part of his make-up, nurtured since he arrived as a fresh young talent at Real Madrid in 2015, for whom he played almost 100 games, winning two Leagues, an Intercontinental and a Cup. On his arrival in the US, where he is playing his fourth season and where he won the 2019 Rookie of the Year award, he has clocked up several notorious performances when his team was knocked out by the Los Angeles Clippers. Last year, he scored 46 points in the Game 7 defeat. In the previous game, the NBA played in the Disney bubble due to the pandemic and Doncic got a better scoring average (31) in the playoffs than Michael Jordan.
But the start of this season has been the toughest yet for Doncic. After his team was eliminated by Kahwi Leonard’s squad, he joined his country’s national team for the Tokyo Olympics, helping Slovenia win fourth place. When he rejoined the Mavs, it was noted that he was a little overweight. “He’s shuffling from one end of the court to the other. He’s got to slim down,” said legendary Reggie Miller during his commentary. “I took three weeks off and relaxed a little bit. Maybe too much,” said Doncic, whose weight had risen from 104 kilos to 117 kilos
“I think he didn’t like being called out for his weight and other things, and it finally clicked that there’s a level of discipline that’s required,” Mavericks boss Mark Cuban said at the time. “All athletes at his level go through it at some level, where things are just easy and you’re always used to being the best and you’re always used to getting all the accolades. Then when something doesn’t go according to expected, it makes you reconsider.”
Still, Doncic was the leading scorer in 59 of 82 games this season (he scored 51 points against the Clippers in February). He changed his diet and lost the excess weight. Dallas also shed dead weight in February, sending Kristaps Porzingis to Washington in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie. The plan worked for Jason Kidd who, after qualifying for the team, gave Dallas its first post-season win by knocking out Utah.
Dallas was a one-time champion in 2011 with another European legend, Dirk Nowitzki. The German retired in 2019, during Doncic’s first season, handing the baton to Luka. “I have tried to mentor him very little,” said Nowitzki in April. “Obviously, he’s already very good. He’s already better than I was.” Nowitzki likes to fantasize about the kind of team Dallas might have been if the two had coincided in their prime.
But it will be Doncic’s job now to push Dallas forwards and upwards in the future. His name is starting to crop up more and more in conversations about the NBA’s top talent. In this year’s MVP voting, Doncic came in fifth behind Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiidd of Philadelphia, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, and Devin Booker. The consensus seems to be that Luka’s time has come. Before that, however, Steph Curry and an era-defining Warriors are getting ready to take him on.