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Column: The Luka Doncic one-man highlight show is a serious threat to Clippers’ title hopes

Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic celebrates his winning three-point basket with teammates.
Luka Doncic is swarmed by teammates after hitting a buzzer-beating three-pointer in overtime to lift the Dallas Mavericks to a 135-133 victory over the Clippers in Game 4 of the Western Conference quarterfinals Sunday.
(Kevin C. Cox / Associated Press)

Growing up in Slovenia, Luka Doncic didn’t watch many NBA games or highlight shows on TV. He had a good reason. “It was like 3 a.m. in my country and I had to go in school in the morning,” the Dallas Mavericks’ second-year standout said of the sport’s usual air time.

Doncic became a one-man international highlight show on Sunday, capping a 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist performance with a buzzer-beating three-point basket that left the Clippers reeling. “Luka just raised his level of play, just like a star should,” Dallas guard Trey Burke said, “and we followed behind him.”

Doncic was the one who put himself in the middle of a happy pileup on the court at the Disney World campus, letting out a roar after his 28-foot shot gave Dallas a 135-133 overtime victory and tied the teams’ first-round playoff series at two games each.

“Just a phenomenal effort,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said, a sincere yet still inadequate description of Doncic’s exceptional performance. “We know this kid has got a flair for the dramatic. He’s a performer as well as a great player. He’s a guy that looks for these moments and is completely fearless.”

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The Clippers acquired Paul George and Kawhi Leonard for games like this, for times like this, when they need leadership and direction and someone to carry the team on his back. Leonard had 32 points on Sunday but George’s postseason shooting woes continued with a three-for-14 performance.

The Clippers’ roster and slogans may change, but their playoff disappointments linger. Nearly everything had lined up in their favor on Sunday, too: Doncic, who rolled his left ankle Friday night, was questionable until game time. Kristaps Porzingis, who averaged 23.7 points and 8.7 rebounds for Dallas in the first three games, couldn’t play at all because of a sore knee. The Clippers appeared to pounce on those advantages when they took a 21-point lead in the second quarter.

But they couldn’t pull away, awakening memories of the most painful collapse in their playoff history. In 2015 they held a 3-1 edge in their second-round series against the Rockets, lost Game 5 in Houston, and blew a 19-point late in the third quarter of Game 6 at home. They lost that series and still haven’t gotten past the second round, a journey Leonard and George were brought in to lead. The Clippers can’t think about reaching the Promised Land of the conference finals if they can’t beat Dallas in this round, and it’s suddenly far from sure that they’ll advance.

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Highlights from the Clippers’ 135-133 overtime loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4.

The Clippers, who thrived during the season by being scrappy and fighting for every possession, couldn’t handle prosperity on Sunday and failed to put the game out of reach. “When you have a big lead you kind of feel crazy about it,” Lou Williams said. That sloppiness spilled over to every part of their game. “Our defense was pretty good for the first 20 minutes and kind of went downhill,” Leonard said.

Doncic won it more than the Clippers lost it, ignoring their physicality while he spun off defenders, barged into the paint, and thwarted the Clippers’ defensive switches. They tried to rattle him with trash talk but he wasn’t thrown off. “Just basketball motivates me,” he said. “I know they’re going to be talking to me, trying to get me out of the game, but I think I’m doing a better job. I still got to work on it. I just ignore it and play basketball and enjoy it. It’s going to be this every game.”

Burke praised Doncic’s ability to focus no matter the pressure, situation, or chippiness of the game. “He plays with a different type of passion,” Burke said. “He don’t back down from nobody. That’s one of the first things I seen about him last season, is it don’t matter who’s talking to him, he’s not going to back down. It kind of raises his level of play, to be honest.”

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Though the Lakers have a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with the Trail Blazers, they also sense that this season is all about Kobe Bryant’s legacy.

Carlisle said Doncic reminded him in some ways of Jason Kidd and Larry Bird, no small compliment. “I think both those guys are from the same fabric competitively, and in terms of their will to win and their resourcefulness to find ways to impact the game in unique forms,” Carlisle said. “It’s not just about putting the ball in the basket. It’s about giving teammates confidence. It’s about knowing how to channel your emotions.”

If Doncic’s ankle bothered him on Sunday he didn’t let it show except for an occasional wince when he landed. “He kept telling me that he was good, he was good for as many minutes as we needed him,” Carlisle said. “I didn’t even try to get him out before the quarter breaks. That would have been a fistfight, and I wasn’t into that today.”

If they’d gone to battle, Doncic probably would have won that, too. That’s what stars do. The Clippers’ stars fell short on Sunday, and a few more performances like that will lead to another unsatisfying playoff finish for a team that set its sights so much higher.

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Elliott reported from Los Angeles.


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