Luka Legend: How Luka Dončić bent the ending of Game 2 to his will

Luka Legend: How Luka Dončić bent the ending of Game 2 to his will

MINNEAPOLIS — The great ones all seem to have this magnetism in clutch situations. They become one with the ball, one with the moment, almost freezing everyone in a building to bend the game to their will.

It didn’t matter if it was a Defensive Player of the Year guarding Luka Dončić, or any other overmatched defender. Sometimes things seem to go in slow motion, and everyone else is powerless to stop it.

Dončić is used to the quiet in crazy moments, attracted to the sensation of a stunned arena, drawn to building the legend of Luka, shot by shot.

“I knew that sh** was good. I knew it was good. The way it left his hands,” Dallas Mavericks rookie Dereck Lively II said.

“I know exactly what he was thinking, so it was time to get ready for the magic to happen,” Mavs guard Kyrie Irving said.

“We talked about taking the two, we’re only down two, but when he got to dancing with [Rudy] Gobert, you can see the stepback was coming, and the rest is history,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said.

Lively II set the screen to create the switch to get Timberwolves wing Jaden McDaniels off Dončić. Irving’s shot-making prowess had to be respected, so Dončić could have the space to work. Kidd called the play for Dončić, but left his wizard to his own devices.

Luka Dončić shoots the game-winning 3-pointer over Rudy Gobert in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals at Target Center on May 24, 2024, in Minneapolis. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Everyone contributed to the moment authored by Dončić, as his 3-pointer Friday night with 3.0 seconds left lifted the Dallas Mavericks to another road win in the Western Conference finals, taking a 2-0 lead back to Dallas with a 109-108 win at Target Center.

Even Gobert played right into the moment, allowing Dončić to bait him on a drive to the basket but changing course for that signature stepback.

“We switched on the pick-and-roll,” Gobert said. “I was in iso. He hit a big shot. I let my team down on the last play. They believed in me to get a stop, and he scored a 3.”

Honestly, as helpless as Gobert was, it could’ve been anybody wearing a Timberwolves jersey, or jersey of any kind — Dončić seemingly has an appointment with history of some kind, and nothing was going to stop the inevitable on this evening.

“I didn’t decide before the play, I just took what the defense gives me,” Dončić said. “We were just gonna play the pick-and-roll and figure it out from there.”

Dončić, quite demure after the game, was anything but on the floor — yelling an expletive at Gobert and then taunting the crowd after Naz Reid’s final 3-pointer rimmed out, another moment frozen in time, considering Reid hit seven 3-pointers and scored a team-high 23 points to nearly stop the Timberwolves from capsizing.

“I don’t know what I was thinking. I almost passed out,” said Dončić of Reid’s shot as it traveled toward the rim.

It capped off a frenetic 99 seconds, when the Timberwolves held a tender 108-103 lead. But Irving hit a 3-pointer, then forced a turnover on McDaniels after an official’s review, then another Minnesota turnover followed, setting up Dončić’s moment.

Dončić recalled his game-winner in the Orlando bubble against the Clippers and also his leaning buzzer-beater in Memphis the next season — both to empty crowds in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He created a similar sound, this time in front of a raucous Target Center crowd, in a moment that felt both unbelievable and inevitable all at once. It was the capper in a 32-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound performance from the man steadily climbing into the conversation of the best player in the world.

It was almost as if Dončić had been setting up that moment all game long, even when Dallas looked like it was satisfied with stealing a game on the road and claiming home-court advantage with Game 1’s win.

Trailing by 18, Dončić kept working the game, playing the chess match between himself and the Timberwolves bigs protecting the basket, and he kept manipulating coverages with his eyes — thus, someone like Lively can make all six of his field goals, almost all courtesy of feeds from Dončić.

Ditto with starting center Daniel Gafford, who was 8-of-10 from the field.

The Mavericks find themselves two games from the NBA Finals — the first time they could make such a claim since their surprising romp through the 2011 playoffs — because they play with equal parts poise and urgency.

And the more you watch them, the more Luka’s magic becomes obvious. It’s almost irresistible to call them the team of today. In the first round, the Mavs beat the Clippers, a team with urgency but too much age. Last round, they dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team with youth and energy but a team for tomorrow. Now, they’re taking on a blend of the two in the Timberwolves but are simply outlasting them, out-executing them and recognizing the opportunity of today, not tomorrow.

“Just the trust and calmness of the group,” Kidd said. “We could’ve just got on the bus after Kai missed the two free throws. But, we believe in our defense, we got stops. Give a lot of credit to our bench, giving energy in a positive way.”

Irving switched roles with Dončić from Game 1. Dončić scored 15 in the fourth after Irving got them started. Friday, it was Irving who was on fire, hitting four fourth-quarter triples for 13 points but shockingly missing three of four free throws in the waning minutes.

“I don’t want to get fined, but I was like, 'Holy gosh, what the heck is going on?” said Irving with a laugh. “A lot of emotions were going through my head, a brief moment of disappointment. The fans were going crazy. I think they got free chicken, right?”

That’s all the fans would leave the arena with, however.

Usually, that fervor would spell doom for a visiting team in such circumstances, but with the Timberwolves, they’re at an altitude higher than the mile high from last round, and they’ve yet to catch their wind.

The Mavericks are stymieing Anthony Edwards, as the 22-year-old is showing his age. Through two games, he’s 11-for-33 and unable to get into the lane without seeing a sea of bodies waiting for him.

The Mavericks' lob game also played Karl-Anthony Towns off the floor for the final eight minutes. Towns struggled on both ends, shooting 4-of-16 in 25 minutes and causing Timberwolves coach Chris Finch to call on Reid, the league’s best sixth man, for offense — and he delivered.

But these games are rarely decided by the role players. It’s the stars being stars who usually show the difference between star and superstar, superstar and supernova.

Dallas has a blazing supernova, who exploded one more time with a blazing shot into the Minneapolis sky, coming down like purple rain.


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