The Dallas Mavericks’ home opener, and first Mavericks’ game I attended since Dirk Nowitzki’s jersey retirement, can only be described with one word:
The American Airlines Center was as pristine as ever. The seat renovations certainly elevate the experience, as does the impressive new jumbotron. And who, of course, could forget the beloved Mavs ManiAACs?
The game hit emotional high notes before it even started. Beyond being the home opener, this was the first time Dorian Finney-Smith (my favorite active former Maverick) returned to Dallas after he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets for Kyrie Irving, and a heartwarming tribute video highlighted his best moments as a Mav (former Maverick Spencer Dinwiddie, shipped to Brooklyn in the same trade, received his tribute video in the first quarter). Dončić then came onto the court, telling Mavs fans it would be a “special season.”
Dončić, however, could not have predicted how soon that “special” would arrive.
The game was a rollercoaster from the opening tip. Dončić came swinging out of the gate, Dereck Lively II looked as good as advertised and Grant Williams brought exciting defensive intensity. The Nets, however, could not miss, shooting over 50% from three and going into halftime with a lead.
While the first half was filled with excitement, the third quarter was filled with frustration. Without center Nic Claxton, the Nets’ were forced to play small ball. Yet, instead of leaning into Lively II, who scored nine points and played good defense in the first half, Mavericks’ Head Coach Jason Kidd relied on rotation mainstay Maxi Kleber to man the middle, who was largely ineffective. Tim Hardaway Jr. was also a frustrating enigma as always, yet Kidd was determined to give him significant playing time.
In most worlds, this article spirals into a criticism of Kidd’s rotations. Yet, this isn’t most worlds.
This is Dončić’s world.
Dončić scored 14 points in the final frame, converting on all four of his threes in herculean fashion. The first fell with three minutes left in the game and with Dallas down by five as he nailed his signature step-back three-pointer over both Cam Thomas and Royce O’Neal. The second came with two minutes left and Dallas still trailing by five, with Dončić making a catch-and-shoot three over Dinwiddie. Dončić then somehow drained another step-back over the perfect defense of Mikal Bridges, giving Dallas a one-point lead with 90 seconds left.
The last shot he made, however, was unfathomable.
Trapped in the corner and smothered by none other than Finney-Smith, Dončić hoisted up a one-handed, skyhook-esque three to break the tie with just 30 seconds left. When the shot went up, you could hear a pin drop in the arena.
What followed was a mix of pandemonium and utter disbelief.
Somehow, someway, Dončić not only made what would be the game-sealing shot, but he banked it in off the glass. Some were screaming. Others, like me, were standing in complete shock and silence.
How is that even possible?
“I don’t know. I saw there were two or three seconds left and just knew I had to put it up and touch the rim so that we would have a chance of reloading (the shot clock).” Dončić stated during post game on what was going through his head during the 3-point shot with 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter to take the lead.
For a moment, I felt the helplessness that the Nets’ players and coaching staff surely felt. No matter what they did and no matter who guarded Dončić, nobody was bothering him and nobody was stopping him. Each tactic and each defender thrust at Dončić was easily diffused by his brilliance, and the ridiculousness of the shot difficulty only added to the absurdity of the moment.
Dončić also said it was probably his toughest shot in his career, but he knew it was going in.
“Yes, actually. It was feeling good. I promise.”Luka Dončić
Having watched the Mavericks from afar for most of Dončić’s career, I was deluded into thinking I’d seen all that “Luka Magic” had to offer. I’d seen the last-second, game-tying three against the Portland Trailblazers, the cold-blooded step-back game-winners against the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, the one-footed, buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer against the Memphis Grizzlies and the missed free throw into game-tying shot against the New York Knicks.
It is one thing to watch those moments on television. It is a wholly different experience to be in the arena as another preposterous Dončić moment unfolds. This experience – Luka Dončić experience – can only be described with one word: