Luka Dončić returns to form as Mavericks' offense comes to life to even series with Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY — Considering the top-seeded Thunder’s youth and this roster’s relative postseason inexperience, Paycom Center boasts nothing short of a seasoned second-round environment. There are vestiges of playoffs past anywhere you look — a white Kevin Durant jersey spotted during an afternoon walk through Scissortail Park, the piped fence around a parking lot between 2nd Street and Hudson Avenue has rusted over plenty of its Thunder blue paint. This crowd’s been coordinating their free T-shirts for 11 of the past 15 playoffs, and they jeered Luka Dončić all Thursday evening as if it was second nature.

The boos and taunts are nothing new for Dončić, either. He can channel all that noise, as if it's charging his battery for an extra burst of playmaking and punch. He wants your hate. He might even need it on some nights. “It’s every game for him,” Mavericks forward P.J. Washington said. “He’s just being himself out there.” After a dismal Tuesday performance by Dončić’s lofty standards — the NBA announced he finished third in MVP voting between Games 1 and 2 — he had a bounce in his legs and a snarl to go along with his step-back from the opening tip. While the arena erupted with a second, even louder chorus of “Luka sucks!” with just under six minutes remaining, he drilled a 17-foot turnaround jumper over Thunder ball-hawker Luguentz Dort, then capped his final bucket of Dallas’ 119-110 victory by howling “Luka what?” to the angry sea of detractors. He could sense right then and right there the Mavericks would knot this series 1-1.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - MAY 09: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks drives to the basket between Chet Holmgren #7 and Luguentz Dort #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first quarter in Game Two of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs at Paycom Center on May 09, 2024 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)

“Today was one of the hardest games I’ve had to play,” Dončić said. “I’m battling out there. I’m trying to do my best to help the team win.”

He faced Dort for much of that battle, before Thunder rookie Cason Wallace did his damndest to deny Dončić even a touch of the ball. Jalen Williams spent time on Dončić, but it didn’t really matter which OKC defender was spending time on him. After a 1-of-8 effort from beyond the arc Tuesday, Dončić cashed four from distance in the first quarter alone, to the point he launched an unsavory heat-check, an especially long step-back from the left side, only to raise his finger in mea culpa while jogging back on defense. He admitted the hurdles of finding power in his legs while dealing with a bum knee and nicked ankles, but Dončić drilled five from deep en route to 29 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists.

“I was happy I at least hit some threes. I was so happy,” Dončić said. “I was just trying to focus on my balance. My balance on shots wasn’t good [in Game 1]. So I was just trying to focus on that, and when I get on my balance, the shot normally goes in.”

His first triple came on a rope pass from Washington. While Dallas features two of the game’s greatest ball-handlers in Dončić and Kyrie Irving, the Mavericks scripted their first few possessions to operate through Washington out of the post. “We wanted to look at something different,” head coach Jason Kidd said. “And it worked.” Washington found Daniel Gafford first, then Dončić at the top of the key, and then Maverick after Maverick found Washington in return. He was downright dangerous from the corners. On one early sequence, Dončić tap danced into another step-back, then head-faked around his defender, only to fire a soccer pass right into Washington’s shooting pocket. It may have taken every player by surprise besides the 6-foot-7 forward Dallas acquired from Charlotte before February’s trade deadline. “I always know that, at any time, the ball can be coming my way,” Washington said.

Washington finished with 29 points of his own, tying a career high of seven made 3-pointers. Hornets figures once felt Washington had a tendency to fade during critical moments. Now, Dončić and Washington are the first pair of teammates in NBA history to both score 25-plus points, grab at least 10 rebounds and drain at least five from beyond the arc. “We went to him the first play,” Dončić said of Washington. “We gotta do that more. We gotta give him the ball more.”

OKC hadn’t surrendered more than 95 points in any of their first five games of these playoffs, all wins. Dallas tallied 99 by the end of Thursday’s third quarter. It wasn’t just Dončić and Washington. Tim Hardaway Jr. posted a fruitless night in Game 1, only to spark 17 points off the bench in this second go around. Josh Green connected on 3-of-5 from deep. The Mavericks converted 18-of-37 from beyond the arc, tallying 24 more points than the Thunder on 3-pointers, while many of OKC’s fourth-quarter heaves were way off the mark — perhaps revealing some semblance of jitters the nascent Thunder had fought off so far.

Irving had quite a role — poking dribbles free, jumping into passing lanes, tallying two blocks — in thwarting OKC’s high-octane offense. After blanketing James Harden for six games in the first round, Irving has been everywhere against the Thunder as well. It’s a true rarity to witness a microwave scorer turn up the heat defensively with equal ease. “He’s taken the challenge,” Kidd said.

With stops and steals, Dallas was able to race out to Mavericks staffers’ preferred pace. Dončić may be at his best slowly probing and prodding the double teams OKC throws his way, but Dallas personnel believes this roster is maximized when its defense translates into runaway opportunities, when Irving is skipping a three-quarter-court bounce pass to Hardaway Jr., when Dončić is tossing lobs from the timeline.

“We tried to get over the speed limit tonight,” Kidd said. “We’ve been under the speed limit. We’ve been more in the school zone.”

They will jet back to Dallas for Saturday’s Game 3, expecting another counterpunch from Oklahoma City. The Thunder logged even more of their two-big lineup with Chet Holmgren and Jaylin Williams in this one, compared to the teams’ first clash. Coach of the Year Mark Daigneault then swapped rangy swingman Aaron Wiggins into his second-half starting lineup in place of Josh Giddey. This matchup and these adjustments have only just begun.

“They're not going to stop coming at you,” Irving said. “We just got to be ready for whatever they throw at us."