DALLAS — The person least impressed by Dallas Mavericks rookie star Luka Doncic‘s performance in Saturday night’s 107-104 comeback win over the Houston Rockets was probably the Slovenian teen himself.
“I wasn’t playing great,” he said after scoring 21 points and taking over the game down the stretch. “My game wasn’t good at all. I get confident at the end of the game, and obviously then I feel comfortable.”
That’s one way to put it after Doncic scored 11 straight points during crunch time, capping the flurry with a step-back 3-pointer over Houston center Clint Capela to give the Mavs the lead for good with 57.8 seconds remaining.
Doncic struggled for most of the night at American Airlines Center, changing his Nikes from a neon red pair to black after going 1-of-9 from the floor in the first half. He was 3-of-13 before knocking down an open corner 3 off a feed from Wesley Matthews to pull the Mavs within five points with 2:49 remaining.
On the Mavs’ next possession, Doncic took advantage of a switch by swishing a step back over Capela from well behind the 3-point line. Doncic tied the score on the next trip when he calmly bodied PJ Tucker, one of the league’s most physical defenders, on a pick-and-roll to create space for a floater in the lane.
Then Doncic drilled the go-ahead step-back 3 over Capela, who bit so hard on the early Rookie of the Year favorite’s hard dribble to the right that he had both feet in the paint before attempting to recover and challenge the shot.
“It was special,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of Doncic’s clutch heroics. “It’s pretty clear that he’s got a flair for the moment. He’s unafraid. You don’t see that every day.”
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Doncic is only the fourth NBA player to go on a personal 11-0 run this season. The others: two-time MVP Stephen Curry, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and reigning MVP James Harden. Harden is the only other player to have such a run in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 straight in the Rockets’ Nov. 3 win over the Chicago Bulls
But Harden faded in the fourth quarter Saturday, scoring only four of his game-high 35 points and missing a pair of off-dribble 3s during Doncic’s run, as the Rockets wrapped up a winless, three-game road trip.
“We all go through tough times in life,” Harden said after the Rockets fell to 11-14. “You just have to figure your way out of it. Obviously, we want to be perfect, we want things to go great. Sometimes they don’t, and you hit a speed bump. We’ve got to figure it out. That’s what makes you who you are.”
Doncic, 19, already has displayed the ability to figure things out on the fly even when he struggles for most of a game. His 11 consecutive points — matching the longest run by a rookie since Kyrie Irving scored 12 straight points in 2012, per Elias — is just the most recent and remarkable example.
“He’s not an ordinary 19-year-old, we’ll say that,” Mavs guard Devin Harris said. “He’s got a next-play mentality, doesn’t get hung up on what happened earlier in the game. With the way we play and our profession, you’ve got to have that quick amnesia. He has that, and he showed it tonight.”
Doncic downplayed his crunch-time dominance, saying it was “just a couple of good shots and that’s it.” He has consistently excelled down the stretch of close games. According to NBA.com/stats, Doncic has scored 40 points in 33 clutch minutes, defined as when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime. He is 14-of-22 from the floor in those situations, matching Indiana Pacers All-Star guard Victor Oladipo for the best clutch field goal percentage among 53 players with at least 50 attempts this season.
Carlisle attributes Doncic’s rare cool in the clutch at such a young age to his extensive experience before arriving in the NBA. Doncic, the youngest MVP in Euroleague history last season, made a lot of clutch plays while winning titles with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team.
“It’s easier for him to digest the game over here the same way,” Carlisle said. “As long as that clock’s still ticking, we’ve got time to make a move. We’ve got time to make some plays. That was his approach, and obviously he did some very special things.”
It was no big deal, according to Doncic.
“It’s just basketball,” said Doncic, who is averaging 18.2 points per game to lead all rookies. “If you’re going to make shots there in Europe, you’re going to make shots here. It’s just confidence. This gives me a lot of confidence — believe in me a little more. I’m just glad my team believes in me.”