Luka Dončić, basketball’s most effective derriere, strikes back in the NBA finals

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Luka Dončić;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Luka Dončić</a> scored 29 points in the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Dallas Mavericks;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Dallas Mavericks</a>’ Game 4 beatdown of the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Boston Celtics;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Boston Celtics</a>. </span><span>Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP</span>

When Luka Dončić dropped 73 points on the Atlanta Hawks in January – the fourth highest individual points tally in NBA history – Dallas head coach Jason Kidd was asked whether his star player’s prodigious scoring feats threatened to disrupt the Mavericks’ gameplan. “He is the gameplan,” Kidd replied.

Related: Mavericks keep NBA finals alive with beatdown of Celtics in Game 4

For much of these finals that gameplan, like the man it was centered on, seemed decidedly iffy. The Mavericks looked unbalanced, dangerously overreliant on their star guard pairing, and Dončić himself – nursing injuries to both knee and chest – was in the middle of a historic series stinker in defense, footage of him lazily swatting at the ball as the Celtics repeatedly blew by him on offense threatened to become the visual summary of the entire finals. But in Game 4, Dallas obliterated Boston by the third-largest margin of victory in NBA finals history, reversing the pattern of the series with scrambling, urgent basketball at both ends of the court; suddenly, it was the Mavericks, not the Celtics, authoring all the blow-bys, authoritative dunks in transition, and handy cameos off the bench. The sweep has been averted. A once-moribund series has come thrillingly to life. And most importantly, the Mavs’ main man is back.


Best-of-seven series. All times US eastern time (EDT). 

Thu 6 Jun Game 1: Celtics 107, Mavericks 89

Sun 9 Jun Game 2: Celtics 105, Mavericks 98

Wed 12 Jun Game 3: Celtics 106, Mavericks 99

Fri 14 Jun Game 4: Mavericks 122, Celtics 84

Mon 17 Jun Game 5: Mavericks at Celtics (8.30pm, ABC)

Thu 20 Jun Game 6: Celtics at Mavericks (8.30pm, ABC)*

Sun 23 Jun Game 7: Mavericks at Celtics (, ABC)*

*if necessary

In fairness, this was also a victory for Dallas’s supporting cast, who were comfortably outclassed by the Celtics through the first three games but looked far more assured on Friday night. The hugely promising – and hugely haired – 20-year-old Dereck Lively uncorked his second double-double in a row, center Daniel Gafford got in on the scoring spree with a flashy alley-oop, and the Mavs’ Australian mafia, Josh Green and Dante Exum, produced its best performance in ages, Green a terrier in defense and Exum murderously cool from mid-range. Tim Hardaway Jr wound down the game’s final minutes by reeling off a string of nonchalant threes. Kyrie Irving, the McCartney to Dončić’s Lennon, was efficient in offense, though for someone who struggles horribly at the TD Garden, the pressure to put up big numbers now grows as Dallas travel to Boston with the aim of prolonging the series.

Irving said after Game 3 that his message to Dončić was “he’s not alone in this,” and so it proved. Dončić himself seemed to raise his level in response to the improvement of those around him. Before the game he’d spoken of the need to “go back to playing fun,” and there was plenty of that here, the snarls and pleas and whining – arms outstretched, the facial expression a picture of silent-comedy shock – of the series’ first three games replaced by smiles and nods and winks to his teammates and bench. This was basketball as therapy, a working out of the issues that have brought the Mavericks to the brink of finals humiliation. And it worked. Where was this version of Luka in the first three games?

As an offensive threat, Dončić has been as reliable as ever through these finals, and he top-scored again in Game 4 for the third time in the series. But at American Airlines Center it was his defense that was the real surprise. The Celtics relentlessly targeted the Mavs’ star through the first three games, and for Dallas fans the stat line looked grim: over the course of the first three finals games, the Celtics blew by Dončić on 67.7% of their drives against him – the highest blow-by percentage conceded by a single defender in a playoff series in the past 10 years. But in the three quarters he completed on Friday night (he was given a rest in the final quarter once the beatdown was assured), all the fragility and flappiness of the first three games was forgotten. Dončić has never struggled to make himself annoying to the opposition, but here he exhibited the heft, authority, and discipline in defense to make his nagging count, restricting Jayson Tatum to 15 points and marking the Celtics’ main offensive threat out of the game.

In many ways, this was the complete Luka Dončić performance, a perfect advertisement for his rich and relentlessly watchable talent. Dončić is not quite as improbable as a basketball star as someone like Nikola Jokić, the human athletic miracle whose physique and on-court presence seem not merely unsuited to professional sport but a repudiation of everything that professional sport is about. But the Slovenian has some of his Serb counterpart’s jolly, knocked-together, these-limbs-will-do physicality; like Jokić, he is the basketballing version of a found object.

Dončić lumbers across the half court with the off-balance awkwardness of someone who’s just learned to dribble, or possibly even walk, and then it all somehow comes together: a casually invigorating three dropped from well beyond the perimeter; a buttocking spin; a deceptively rapid step back; a lob off the glass through traffic and the free throws secured while his markers splay like tenpins on a strike. As with all the great players, Dončić always seems to have time – time to get a shot off, make a pass, plan his next move, harangue the refs. Like a good joint of barbecued Texas brisket, Dončić’s shot is low and slow: even once the ball leaves his hands, especially from distance, it travels almost at half speed, as if briefly invested with some of its shooter’s heaviness of purpose, a malevolent fly droning towards the rim.

Together, Irving and Dončić form the most energetic guard partnership in the league. The contrast in styles is part of what makes them so fun to watch. Irving is a picture of classicism and elegance, so smooth on the ball he sometimes seems to dissolve into it, achieving a kind of evanescence. He launches the ball from distance in gorgeous, dolphining arcs and fillets defenses off both hands under the glass; his scoring shots often seem as if they should attract extra points, like a gymnast’s routine, for their visual perfection. Luka is nothing like this. Irving is crystal; Dončić is a brick. Irving always strives for the most extreme angle of execution (an “ethical basketballer,” as commentator JJ Reddick described him in these finals), as if difficulty will push his production to a higher plane of beauty; Dončić wants his points however he can find them. Where Irving sulks when things don’t go his way, Dončić rages at anyone and everything, using his undimmed anger as an offensive foil, a spur to all those impudent threes and zany fadeaways.

He has the aspect of a teenager who’s still growing into his body, and the after-school buzzcut to match. In many ways Dončić plays like a playground shark: he’s whiny, relentless, and perpetually up in the opposition’s face. For the opposition, his persistent brilliance – that tingling specialness, the rising sense of anticipation that grips the arena whenever the ball is in his hands – is made all the more enraging for his relentless chippiness. That verbal gift, let’s call it, was reined in on Friday but it has been on glorious display in these finals, perhaps most memorably when Dončić landed a step back three on the Timberwolves’ defensive giant Rudy Gobert and roared at the Frenchman, “You can’t fucking guard me!”

Stacked and jacked though his scoring numbers may be, pure statistical accumulation is not, in the final analysis, what makes this Ljubljana-made hero of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex so entertaining. Dončić is the rare basketballer whose hands – as supple and dexterous as they unquestionably are – form the least interesting part of his anatomy. Luka is all noggin, knees, ass, and lip, so much lip – a chunk of pure Slovenian beef, joints and glutes clearing his path through the forest of the opposition’s defense. Many feel Dončić should have been crowned this season’s MVP. Whether he is the best player in the NBA right now is a matter for social media debate, but there’s little doubt he’s basketball’s most effective derriere. I can’t vouch for this statistic’s methodological rigor but at least half his points seemingly come via the backside, that characteristic Dončić butt thrust in the paint that offers the separation needed to execute all those ta-da fadeaways, slipknot passes, and cheeky hooks. Where go this man’s buttocks, so go the Mavericks. Now Dallas will hope that Dončić’s anatomical armature can replicate the form of Friday night in Boston.

Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Wahlberg,and Patrick Mahomes have been among the courtside celebrities at these finals but the real contrast between the two teams can be read through its boosters from the world of European soccer. For Boston, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola – who’s struck up a friendship with young Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla – was at TD Garden for Game 1, while last night Real Madrid legend Sergio Ramos was in Dallas to cheer on his friend Dončić. Ramos is far more accomplished in defense than Luka, but there’s a clear stylistic affinity between the two men: both are bruising, cunning, brilliant, and always test the limits of fair play. The Celtics, for their part, are the closest thing to a Guardiola-style ensemble in the NBA: a team where every action is anticipated and every player knows his place, a side that attains, through scientific management, a kind of bloodless perfection.

Until last night, Boston’s system basketball – planned, regulated, perhaps at times a little dull – looked comfortably superior. But the beatdown in Dallas suggests that virtuoso basketball – explosive, unpredictable, reliant on passion and individual talent to succeed – can still, on its day, command the court. No team has ever come from 3-0 down to win an NBA championship. If Dallas succeed in scaling that mountain, it will be the ultimate triumph of individual virtuosity over collective endeavor. And at the center of it all – sometimes raging, sometimes smiling, but always pushing, chirping, elbowing, and bumming toward greatness – will be Dončić, maestro of the metroplex, gluteus maximus, the greatest mouth in the modern NBA.