As playoff run ends, Luka Doncic says improving his defense can take Dallas Mavericks ‘to the next level’

As playoff run ends, Luka Doncic says improving his defense can take Dallas Mavericks 'to the next level'

SAN FRANCISCO — Luka Doncić‘s initial reaction to the end of the longest playoff run of his young NBA career was to express disappointment in himself.

“I don’t like losing, especially like this,” Doncic said after the Dallas Mavericks were eliminated Thursday night with a 120-110 Game 5 loss to the Golden State Warriors. “I played terrible.”

Doncic finished his final game of the season with 28 points, nine rebounds and six assists, but it was a performance that fell far short of his high standards, especially in potential elimination games. He was only 10-of-28 from the floor, including 3-of-13 from 3-point range, and frequently failed to get back on defense after his misses.

Doncic scored 15 points as the Mavs rallied in the third quarter, but Dallas couldn’t overcome a deficit that swelled to 25 points in part due to his poor performance in the first half, when he was just 2-of-12 from the floor with three turnovers.

However, it was the 10th time in these playoffs that Doncic led Dallas in points, rebounds and assists, breaking the record set by Lebron James in 2013 for the most such outings in a single postseason. He averaged 31.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists to lead the Mavericks, who had last won a playoff series during the franchise’s 2011 championship run, to the Western Conference finals.

“If we talk about our season, I’m really proud of this team — everybody, every player, every staff member,” Doncic said. “Nobody had us here. But I promise we fought until the end. Congratulations to Warriors. They were obviously the better team. But I’m really proud of this team.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr described Doncic as “impossible to guard.” At 23, Doncic has already proven to be a historically elite offensive threat in the playoffs, joining Wilt Chamberlin as the only players in NBA history to average at least 30 points per game in each of their first three postseasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Doncic said he’s confident that the Mavs are “on a great path” to become a championship team, but he said he needs to make significant strides defensively for the team to reach those heights.

“I think defense has got to be way better for me,” said Doncic, who was frequently targeted by playoff opponents. “Honestly, I think I made a huge step this year defensively, but there’s so much room for improvement. I’ve got to be way better there. I think that’s one spot that can take us to the next level.”

Doncic also discussed the “great relationship” he developed with first-year Mavs coach Jason Kidd, a Hall of Fame point guard whose on-court leadership played a key role in the Mavs’ lone title. He emphasized his trust of Kidd, who publicly challenged Doncic on a few occasions this season, such as calling him out for arguing with referees instead of running back on defense and challenging him to “participate” on defense.

Doncic earned his third consecutive first-team All-NBA selection despite having to play his way into shape. He reported to training camp weighing more than 260 pounds for the second consecutive season, and he didn’t perform like an MVP candidate until after taking three weeks off in December to recover from recurring ankle sprains and work on his conditioning.

Kidd didn’t specifically mention Doncic when relaying the postgame message that he delivered to the Mavs in the locker room, but it seemed to be intended for the superstar, who will spend much of the offseason playing for the Slovenian national team.

“Now it’s about, what is our appetite come next season?” Kidd said. “Are we going to tiptoe into the season or are we going to be hungry? Then, are we going to train this summer to understand what it means to play into May and June? Because it’s a long season.”

Doncic has made steady improvements since his Rookie of the Year campaign, such as adding a Dirk Nowitzki-esque one-legged fadeaway and polishing his floater. Mavs management anticipates that Doncic will return to Dallas with even more.

“That’s what the great ones do,” Mavs Governor Mark Cuban said. “He’s a top-three, top-one, top-two player in this league, and he’ll continue to get better. Some guys, who they are is who they are. That’s not Luka. Luka will continue to get better. “

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