How Luka Dončić and his 73 points broke Atlanta’s defense, step-by-step


Last Friday, Luka Dončić scored 73 points in a game.

It was his maestro performance, one which set highs for his career, the Dallas Mavericks franchise and this NBA season. It’s tied for the fourth-highest point total ever. It was the most efficient 70-point game we’ve ever seen, with Dončić making 25 of his 33 attempts. It was more than just scoring: Dončić contributed to 27 more points — 100 total point scored, assisted and created — through his passing. It was necessary: Dallas won by only five, 148-143, against the Atlanta Hawks.

He broke Atlanta, a bad defensive team who didn’t have enough answers. “You almost have to be perfect,” said Atlanta coach Quin Synder, and the Hawks certainly were not on that night.

But Dončić breaks every defense in the league, causing nightmares for opposing coaching staffs. He can shoot over you, step around you, beat you forward to the rim or backward to a favored spot. He can beat your pick-and-roll coverages, your double teams, your best individual defenders, your organized team concepts.

“S—, we were trying everything,” Hawks star Trae Young said afterward.

As Dončić methodically broke down every single plan that the Hawks tried using against him, he underscored the nightmare he poses to opponents. Here’s how Atlanta tried, and failed, to slow him down, point by point.

GO DEEPER

How to try – and mostly fail – to stop Luka Dončić


6

It took three baskets for Dončić to shatter Atlanta’s opening plan for him.

The Hawks began Friday’s game guarding Dončić’s pick-and-rolls with just two defenders, staying home on Dallas’ shooters and asking Jalen Johnson (guarding Dončić) and Clint Capela (guarding Dereck Lively II) to contain Dončić’s two-man game. Capela played drop coverage, coming up to about the 3-point line, while Johnson swam over the Lively screen and attempted to recover. It looked like this:

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Saddiq Bey, guarding Grant Williams on the right wing, could have dug down into the paint to “tag” the rolling Lively. It would have allowed Capela to come higher and given Johnson more time to retreat back between the ball and the rim. But it also would have created a situation where Dejounte Murray was guarding both Williams and his own man, Derrick Jones Jr., in the corner. While Bey sagged off his defender, he didn’t commit to helping on Dončić.

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Despite Johnson’s attempts to get back between Dončić and the rim, he was doomed. Dončić played low, trapping Johnson on his back hip while he headed toward the rim.

With Johnson out of the play and no help, all Lively had to do was eliminate Atlanta’s last defender, Capela, by rolling right into him. Dončić finishes with a layup.

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On the next possession, Dončić flares up from the right corner off a down screen from his teammate Jones and receives a handoff from Lively, who rolls to the rim. It looks different, but it’s functionally the same action as before. Dončić finishes with a short floater just outside of the restricted area. He’s up to four points.

“We started (Johnson) on him,” Synder said afterward. “We wanted size. I don’t think we really got up into him as much as we needed to.”

Dončić gets his third basket through another Lively pick-and-roll. Instead of getting all the way to the rim, Dončić uses Johnson’s momentum while trying to reestablish guarding position after going over the screen to create room for a stepback mid-ranger.

Dončić has six points.

13

Atlanta throws out its drop coverage and begins switching Dončić’s pick-and-rolls. Dončić responds with a pull-up 3; though it was one of his rare misses on Friday, it shows his quick adaption to the changed coverage. As you can see, Capela has come up further and Johnson has begun tracking Lively’s roll. Again, although this play develops quickly, there’s no sign that Atlanta’s other defenders are going to commit help to the two-man game just yet.

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Dončić has been a big-man switch killer since he entered the league, which Capela should remember. In December 2018, a 19-year-old Dončić’ went on an 11-0 run to close out a comeback win against the Houston Rockets. It came at Capela’s expense. Twice, Dončić stepped back against him to make 3-pointers, making the spry Swiss center, then a member of the Rockets, look molasses-like in his inability to catch up to Dončić’s strategic retreat. The stepback 3 has long been Dončić’s preferred giant killer.

It works because of Dončić’s elite athleticism, one which manifests itself in a different manner than typical American markers. No, Dončić doesn’t test well when measuring his maximum vertical or his 40-yard dash. But when a 15-year-old Dončić visited P3 Applied Sports Science, a Santa Barbara institution led by Marcus Elliott that aims to measure functional physical traits, he decelerated faster than almost anyone they had seen before. I wrote this about why his stepback jumper works in 2018:

Doncic’s athleticism allows him more power, and more force, when launching himself from what should be a position of weakness, where his muscles have already been engaged in forward momentum. The amount of physical stress your body puts on your joints is volitional, Elliott said; Doncic’s body knows it can handle more than an average athlete, and it shows. Sometimes, Doncic just hops backwards, but more frequently, he feints towards the rim before hurdling backward on his patented move. That combination of acceleration, then deceleration, and then force, and the speed at which he transitions between those phases, is rare.

With five minutes remaining in the first quarter, Dončić called for another pick-and-roll and accepted a switch onto Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu, who had replaced Capela. Later in the game, Dončić will hit a stepback 3 over Okongwu. This time, he sets up as if he’s going to take it.

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Instead, Dončić crosses over to his right hand and drives, creating enough space to reach the rim without fully eliminating Okongwu. Shot blockers like the Hawks’ 23-year-old rely on a specific two-step cadence that most drivers have. But Dončić isn’t like most. As Okongwu leaps into the air, expecting Dončić to be jumping with him for the finish, he must be confused when he realizes Dončić hasn’t even left the ground yet.

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Thanks to his deceleration, Dončić’s last step is the same sort of athletic weapon as another player’s first one. All Dončić has to do is wait out Okongwu’s leap before finishing the point-blank layup.

Dončić has 13.

25

Atlanta’s defense allows the league’s fifth-most points per 100 possessions, and the team’s rotation is filled with guards (Young, Garrison Mathews, Patty Mills) whose defensive limitations must be covered up. But it must be stressed that the Hawks tried every defensive variation possible against Dončić throughout the course of his historic performance.

“We changed coverages on him,” Synder said. “We did a bunch of different things. Sometimes, you’re trying to do too much, even, but I thought the game required that. Anyone who’s going like that, you’re going to try to find something that can get him off balance.”

Synder may have favored the team’s initial stay-at-home strategy to avoid putting his guards into scramble situations, hoping his two bigger wings (Johnson and Bey) and athletic centers (Capela and Okongwu) could do enough to slow down Dončić. At one point in the second quarter, Bogdan Bogdanović is assigned to Dončić. Synder might have been setting the team up to trap or help more aggressively, putting more trust in Bey to make the right rotation on the opposite side.

But Dončić sees the smaller Bogdanović and drains a 3 over him before the rest of the Hawks can react.

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“That was an unusual night, the way that he shot the ball,” Synder said.

Because Atlanta has a bad defense, Dončić did take advantage of mistakes. The most egregious defensive possession, one which circulated online as some sort of gotchu, was a coast-to-coast layup where Dončić’s primary defender, Johnson, started behind him and never recovered. Mavericks backup center Richaun Holmes cleared out Okungwu, and no other Hawk rotated to stop the ball.

It was a transition breakdown, yes, but it’s one that happens once or twice a game to defenses like this. It was a two-point mistake, one which doesn’t account for the way Dončić broke Atlanta’s many other efforts.

Dončić has 25.

37

This season, Dončić has added another simple trick to his ever diversifying scoring portfolio: the catch-and-shoot 3. He’s taking about two per game and knocking them down at a 43 percent clip, both career highs. His accuracy has contributed to him being behind only Stephen Curry in made 3s this year.

Atlanta has continued to switch Dončić’s pick-and-rolls, and this time, Capela forces Dončić to pass out of his first drive. It’s a well-played, brief success, the type an effective defensive possession requires several times. But Dončić has realized he can step back as easily without the ball as he can with it for the same result.

Dončić has 37.

55

There are points Dončić scored throughout this game that can be attributed to Atlanta’s poor defense. But there are also buckets he hit that no defense in the league could have accounted for.

Like this driving bank shot.

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Several possessions later, Dončić calls for Dallas wing Josh Green to set a screen to involve Young in a pick-and-roll. Because Atlanta doesn’t want to switch Young onto Dončić, the Hawks’ guard shows, which is a double team only meant to be maintained long enough for Bey to get back into position. But Young bails too soon, leaving room for Dončić to drive right. It’s a defensive mistake, yes, but it still takes this shot for Dončić to punish it.

 

Dončić has 55.

73

Atlanta, finally, commits to hard double teams against Dončić early in the fourth quarter.

“We had tried (to trap) throughout the course of the game,” Synder said. “We just weren’t executing it very well.”

Synder might have been referring to this dunk by Jones, who receives the ball in the corner after the Hawks trapped Dončić at half court. Dončić releases the ball to Dallas guard Dante Exum, who swings to Green, who finds Jones. Bogdanović’s rushed closeout gives Jones room to drive right by him for a dunk that Okongwu can’t really even contest.

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In the fourth quarter, Atlanta’s double-teams succeed in forcing the ball from Dončić’s hands more often, requiring his teammates to hit open shots. Of the 11 3s that Dončić’s teammates make in this game, five came in the final frame. But on one late possession, Dončić calls for a Lively screen, anticipating the double team, and splits it himself.

You must understand that this moment …

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… and this crossover to avoid Capela’s hands …

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… and this push-ahead dribble in one motion …

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… is not normal, easy or something most players can do.

Dončić has 73, and this performance from him will live in the history books forever.

(Top photo: Adam Hagy / NBAE via Getty Images)





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