The Slovenian sensation can be angsty with the officials, touchy when tested by opponents and gleeful after drilling a big shot. In good moments and bad, look elsewhere for a poker face. In the best moment of Doncic’s young NBA career, he was all dimples and teeth.
“You can’t get this smile off my face right now,” he said.
I have never seen anyone smile after every bucket 😂😂😂
— Nikola Vucevic (@NikolaVucevic) May 16, 2022
There were plenty of reasons for joy following Dallas’s 123-90 Game 7 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, a stunning blowout that eliminated the reigning Western Conference champions on their home court. For the Mavericks, the wire-to-wire victory completed a remarkable comeback from a 2-0 deficit in this second-round series and delivered their first Western Conference finals appearance since their 2011 title season. Doncic and the Mavericks will face Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors in Game 1 in San Francisco on Wednesday.
Doncic scored Dallas’s first eight points and never looked back, needing just 30 minutes to pour in a game-high 35 points. After picking apart Dallas’s defense earlier in the series, Phoenix guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker combined to shoot 0 for 11 in a dreadful first half. Remarkably, Doncic had 27 points at halftime, matching Phoenix’s team-wide total. Things only got uglier from there: Dallas built a 46-point lead in the final period, and Phoenix center Deandre Ayton played less than four minutes in the second half following an exchange with Coach Monty Williams.
“It was a good old-fashioned a– whooping, beginning to end,” said Booker, who had several tense interactions with Doncic during the series. “As a team, we have to own it.”
Paul vowed that Phoenix would be back next season — “I’m not retiring tomorrow” — but the thoroughness and force of Dallas’s victory turned the series’ prevailing narrative upside down. Instead of wondering whether the 37-year-old Paul would finally be able to get a ring, the talk turns now to the 23-year-old Doncic’s first title chase.
The whiplash is real. Don’t forget, Dallas was under .500 and in the West’s eighth seed. On Feb. 10, the Mavericks traded Kristaps Porzingis, Doncic’s highest-profile teammate, to the Washington Wizards. On April 10, Doncic suffered a calf strain in the final game of the regular season, an injury that sidelined him for the first three playoff games.
As recently as May 4, Doncic’s lackluster defense was grabbing headlines after a Game 2 blowout loss to Phoenix. And last Tuesday, with the Mavericks down 3-2 and facing elimination, a frustrated Doncic left the court muttering about the Suns.
“Everybody’s acting tough when they’re up,” Doncic said.
But the Mavericks’ defense, which ranked seventh in the regular season, turned the screws on Paul and Booker, who couldn’t find the proper adjustment. Meanwhile, Doncic just kept scoring and scoring against a Phoenix defense that started to crumble as the series unfolded.
Doncic has averaged 31.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game in the postseason, ranking second to Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo in points and placing in the top 10 in both rebounds and assists. His reputation as a big-game player — which includes his professional career overseas, his Olympics appearances and impressive series against the Los Angeles Clippers in 2020 and 2021 — has only swelled. Without another all-star alongside him, Doncic outplayed Paul and Booker in back-to-back elimination games.
“I like these games,” Doncic said. “It’s pressure. We were the underdogs. Everybody had the Suns to win this one. It’s the same as trash-talking. It gets me going. Nobody picked us. It was motivation for us. The whole locker room believed. That’s what won us the game.”
The past month has had a fast-forward effect on Doncic’s career. Entering the playoffs, the fourth-year pro was playing catch-up to 2018 draft classmates like Ayton and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, whose teams both made deep postseason runs last year. What’s more, Doncic was in danger of falling behind all-time greats like Michael Jordan, who won his first playoff series in his fourth season, and LeBron James, who checked that box in his third year.
Suddenly, Doncic has a chance to join party-crashers like James and Kevin Durant, who each reached their first conference finals at age 22. If the Mavericks were to upset the Warriors and go on to win the title, Doncic would stand apart in modern NBA history, as singular stars rarely win so much, so soon.
Jordan didn’t get his first ring until he was 28. James was 27. Antetokounmpo was 26. Magic Johnson was 20, but he had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kobe Bryant was 21, but he rode shotgun to Shaquille O’Neal. Tim Duncan was 23, but he was flanked by David Robinson.
Then again, history just might decide to smile on Doncic, who has cultivated a reputation as a hoops prodigy since he was a teenager at Real Madrid.
“When I’m having fun, I play the best,” he said, still soaking up the afterglow. “Today was just incredible.”