2022 has been good so far for the Dallas Mavericks and the returning Luka Doncic.
Yes, the victory came at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Doncic was clearly showing signs of rust after a long layoff, but getting a win as their franchise star gets back into the groove is pretty much the perfect scenario in what has so far been an up-and-down season.
The two-time All-NBA selection was looking to build on a strong showing in the Tokyo Olympics, where he led Slovenia to a fourth-place finish in their first Olympic tournament. However, the temptations of the offseason and the adjustment to the system of new head coach Jason Kidd have contributed to the Mavericks struggling right out of the gate.
Knee and ankle injuries to Doncic certainly didn’t help and the latest string of ankle ailments and COVID-19 health and safety protocols led to a 10-game absence where Dallas went 5-5. For Doncic, it was tough to sit out especially as prior to that, he had been averaging 26.8 points on 47.0 percent shooting along with his 7.5 rebounds and 9.4 assists.
Nevertheless, the two-time All-Star’s return came on a good note in spite of having been out for 23 days. In the 95-86 win over the Thunder, Doncic finished with a near triple-double of 14 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds, a feat that would nearly have been an unfavorable quadruple-double thanks to his seven turnovers.
Sub-par shooting and errors aside, Doncic played 31 minutes and helped the Mavericks put together an offense that made 38 field goals on 28 assists. Seven players scored at least nine points for Dallas, who led by as many as 15 points in the first half and gave Kristaps Porzingis the night off in anticipation of their matchup against the Denver Nuggets in the second night of a back-to-back set.
There is never rust for basketball IQ as Doncic continued to find his teammates despite being away from them for quite some time. Oklahoma City’s defense didn’t care if he was misfiring nor that he was dealing with lower leg injuries as his threat extends beyond his physical abilities. The 2018-2019 Rookie of the Year gladly took advantage of that.
Doncic will likely be on a minutes restriction over the next few games and may even sit out the second night of back-to-back contests, a precaution that is warranted given that his ankle injuries have been recurring. That he didn’t attempt any free throws against OKC further pointed to how he remained prudent in his approach despite having his fingerprints all over the Mavs’ second consecutive win.
His stint in the health and safety protocols allowed him more time to heal and offered him another perspective on his teammates. Jalen Brunson, who averaged 21.0 points (on .513/.375/.775 shooting splits) and 7.4 assists over the last 10 games, finished with 12 points and seven assists against the Thunder while continuing to show the ability to run some of the offense with and without Doncic. Tim Hardaway and Marquese Chriss, both of whom finished with a team-high 15 points, greatly benefitted from Doncic’s return as the Slovenian found them in spots where the defense barely had any answers for them.
He will, however, remain an open target on defense, especially considering he was a liability on that end even prior to his injuries this season. There are times his smarts help on the defensive side of the ball but Kidd and the rest of Dallas’ coaching staff would be wise to give him an easier defensive assignment or even hide him on that end as apart from the Nuggets, the Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, and the Memphis Grizzlies have backcourts that will challenge Doncic on defense.
All things considered, the Dallas Mavericks will always have a better chance of winning games when Luka Doncic is on rather than off the court. His health certainly complicates matters, but Doncic’s presence on the floor changes how opposing teams view the Mavericks and as competitive as the Western Conference is, that may make all the difference.