TORONTO – The NBA is a star-driven league.
The path to success in the world’s greatest basketball league generally starts with acquiring a great player (through the draft, free agency or in a trade) and building a team around that guy so he can then take you to the Promised Land.
For the Dallas Mavericks, that shining light is Luka Doncic, whom they traded up to acquire in the 2018 NBA Draft.
In just his fourth NBA season, Doncic has already established himself as a true superstar in the league, having made two all-star teams, and almost assuredly heading to his third straight, two All-NBA first-team selections and has perennially been in the MVP conversation for the last couple seasons, to boot.
In short, the 22-year-old from Slovenia is really, really good, and is the reason why many expect the Mavericks to eventually take the step to becoming legitimate championship contenders.
Like when LeBron James was first drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Mavericks’ ascension, with time, feels inevitable because of the kind of supernova talent Doncic is.
And, unfortunately, for the Toronto Raptors, they don’t have a player quite at the calibre of a Doncic, who went off for 41 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists on 13-of-24 shooting to help lead the Mavericks to a 102-98 victory Wednesday night, their 10th win in 11 games.
For the Raptors, the loss dropped their record to a dead-even 21-21 and dropped their record to 1-3 on this five-game road trip that will conclude Friday in Washington when they take on the Wizards.
Despite the loss, like seen in recent defeats to the likes of the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat, and a big win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors seem encouraged by the fact they can hang with some of the NBA’s elite, despite looking to be a few steps behind.
“It’s promising for sure,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “As you well know, there’s not hardly any teams coming into these places and winning so I think we’re making a lot of progress. We’re playing our guts out.”
Added Fred VanVleet: “I think all of these games have been winnable. I’m not the type to dwell on it or be inspired by it. I think we’ve played good basketball in spots. It takes a lot more to win in this league. We’re learning that as a team. You take your lumps and move on to the next one.”
During Wednesday’s contest, Doncic, of course, was brilliant, and while he did get some help from the likes of Kristaps Porzingis (18 points) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (16 points coming off the bench), it was his individual greatness that carried Dallas in what was, for the most part, a very competitive game.
In particular, Doncic helped seal the victory for his Mavericks when he hit a three-pointer from about 27 feet out with about a minute to play to put Dallas up 100-96, a play Nurse believes shouldn’t have happened as rookie Scottie Barnes appeared to make a mistake and, in Nurse’s words, “didn’t guard (Doncic) well enough.”
In general, however, despite Doncic’s gaudy stat line, Nurse believes his team defended the Slovenian well enough to position itself to win.
“I mean, I thought overall our defence was okay,” said Nurse. “Obviously he had a big night and was going. I thought we did a good job of turning ‘em over. I thought we made some great reads. I thought we went some great stretches of getting the ball out of his hands for a majority of the second half there. Just a few stretches kind of back there where he shook free.”
Unfortunately for Toronto, while its defence appeared to be on par, it’s offensive attack simply couldn’t keep up with Doncic as the Raptors featured a more well-balanced attack with six different players scoring in double-digits, but no one player taking over the same way the Mavericks’ star was able to.
Considering the way the Raptors are constructed, this isn’t surprising, but it was odd to see neither one of Pascal Siakam nor VanVleet assert themselves as that’s what has been the norm for at least one of the two of them since about New Year’s Eve.
Siakam was alright, finishing with 20 points, but on 7-of-18 shooting, but VanVleet simply wasn’t as he shot 4-for-20 from the floor, including a 3-of-15 mark from deep for 18 points on the evening.
“I don’t really make excuses, I think you guys know that about me,” said VanVleet of his off shooting night. “I didn’t shoot it well enough tonight, I don’t have many of these in the season, I try to make them as few as possible. You guys watched the game, I’ll let you make of that what you will, I’m definitely not gonna make any excuses here.
“I gotta be better, and if I make a couple more shots we probably sneak out of here with a win.”
It was disappointing to see Toronto’s stars unable to match Doncic, but it could easily just be chopped up to an off night for Siakam and VanVleet.
Well, that is, an off night and, likely some serious fatigue.
Nurse has noticeably been running with a rotation that’s run only six or seven men deep while on this five-game, eight-day road trip.
For the most part, the team has performed well, but with the injuries to Gary Trent Jr. and Khem Birch (both of whom once again missed Wednesday’s affair) and the lack of trust Nurse appears to have in Yuta Watanabe and Svi Mykhailiuk, the limited number of men available, most logging heavy minutes, just took its toll and showed in the team’s performance.
Making matters worse, with Doncic on the kind of heater that he was on – and the fact that he appeared to be acutely aware of how few players the Raptors were playing and was hunting to draw fouls on them – it simply wasn’t to be for the Raptors as, down the stretch, they just ran out of gas.
In the fourth quarter, the Raptors shot just 8-of-24 from the floor, missing many open looks that could’ve potentially seen them come within one, tie the game or take the lead, including a couple of threes from VanVleet and Chris Boucher under 20 seconds left to play that would’ve put Toronto up one.
The effort was there, the heart was there, but the legs just didn’t appear to be, and Doncic took advantage of that all game long.
Doncic was nigh-unstoppable during the first half, going off for 22 points in the first two quarters on 8-of-15 shooting.
As part of this first-half eruption, Doncic led a 14-5 Mavericks run that gave Dallas a 45-44 lead with 4:50 left to play in the second quarter that saw Doncic score 10 of the 14 as part of spurt. This helped propel Dallas to a slight 45-44 lead heading into the third quarter.
The Raptors don’t have a player like Doncic – few teams do – but they once again showed a ton of fight playing shorthanded against a good opponent.
They appeared tired, and that was likely their undoing, but considering how well Toronto played Wednesday, maybe we need to rethink the theory that the only way to win in the NBA is with a superstar like Doncic.
“I think our guys played a really good game,” said Nurse. “Our guys played their guts out here tonight against a team that's 10-1 in their last 11.”