Luka Doncic was on a roll. In fact, he had been marching confidently along uncharted territory; he put up at least 30 points and 10 assists in leading the Mavericks to victory in each of their last four games, a torrid stretch no other player in franchise history had been able to carve. And so it wasn’t without reason that he figured to do the same against the vaunted Clippers. Far more than simply being in familiar confines, he exuded the type of confidence and carried the gait that only all-world LeBron James managed to at his age.

Unfortunately for Doncic, the Clippers aren’t like any of the opponents he torched over the last week. They’re certainly loads better than the overmatched Warriors, Spurs, and Cavaliers, and superior even to the highly regarded Rockets. And if there’s anything they wanted to prove heading into the American Airlines Center, it’s that they really have no peer when they greet opening tip with a full complement. And, yesterday, they underscored their dominance from the get-go; they were all over the Rookie of the Year, trapping him at every opportunity and forcing him to press.

That the Clippers didn’t take long to compel Doncic to stray from his comfort zone speaks to both their defensive prowess and his youth. For all the praises having been sung his way, he hasn’t yet found all the possible answers to sophisticated coverages around the league, and certainly not to those he saw thrown at him yesterday. Against the unparalleled length and athleticism presented by the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George-Patrick Beverley-Jamychal Green-Montrezl Harrell-Maurice Harkless tandem, he proved to be at his most vulnerable for the season to date.

Doncic did manage to go to the line a whopping 16 times, but the extremely physical defense nonetheless took its toll on him; he canned a mere four of his 14 attempts from the field, and none of eight three-point tries. Just as tellingly, he finished with just six dimes versus seven — yes, seven — turnovers, as clear a manifestation as any of his inability to find release valves in the midst of stifling pressure. Little wonder, then, that the Clippers won in convincing fashion, and that he was left to stew in the aftermath.

True, Doncic will get better — make that much, much better. It’s a scary proposition given how much he has already accomplished. Then again, the Clippers did show that he still has a lot to learn. The Mavericks are good, even respectable, because of him, so it necessarily follows that their ceiling is his. And, as yesterday showed, he has a long way to go before he trumps the capacity of the best of the best in the league to keep it low.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.