USA TODAY International Edition

Doncic does the heavy lifting for Mavs

Child prodigy built for NBA but can’t do it alone

- Cydney Henderson

Jason Kidd says Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic “believes he never gets tired.”

“I was way more tired in Utah. I think it’s because of the altitude,” says Doncic, who helped Dallas beat the Utah Jazz to advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since the Mavs’ 2011 title run. “I feel way better ( in Phoenix) playing all those minutes. It’s the playoffs. I’m ready for that.”

Although he’s only 23, the Slovenianb­orn prodigy has a lot of playoff experience overseas. He won a EuroLeague title and was the EuroLeague MVP in 2018, three years after becoming the youngest player in Real Madrid history at 16.

Doncic is having similar success in the NBA, but he’s looking to take the next step toward superstard­om and that can only happen in the postseason. Following back- to- back first- round playoff losses to the Los Angeles Clippers, Doncic and the Mavericks finally got over that hump and into the second round for the first time in his career.

Doncic was built for this moment. Some would say it runs in his blood. Born in Ljubljana to longtime Slovenian player and coach Sasha Doncic, he first picked up a basketball when he was 7 months old.

“I played basketball because ( my dad) played basketball. I was always with him on the court. Always at the games just shooting basketball­s,” Doncic reflected during NBA All- Star Weekend, marking his third selection in his fourth year in the NBA.

Doncic signed a five- year contract with Spanish basketball giant Real Madrid at 13 and quickly collected various accomplish­ments on his ascent to phenom status. He was named the MVP of Spain’s under- 16 team at 14. He was 16 when he was named All- League in Spain’s under- 18 group, and that year Doncic became the youngest player to play for Real Madrid’s primary team.

By 16, Doncic was the MVP of the under- 18 Adidas Next Generation Tournament and made his profession­al debut on the senior team, becoming the youngest player in club history.

He made the jump from a 13- year- old to top internatio­nal prospect to the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NBA draft at age 19.

And Doncic’s star has continued to rise in the NBA, earning the 2018- 19 Rookie of the Year Award. He has his eyes on his next feat.

“I want to win a championsh­ip, that’s it,” Doncic said.

Doncic and the Mavericks will have to get through the Phoenix Suns, the team that didn’t take him with the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. ( The Suns drafted DeAndre Ayton instead.) The Western Conference semifinal series is tied at 2- 2, but not for Doncic’s lack of effort.

He combined for 80 minutes and 80 points in the Mavs’ Game 1 and Game 2 losses in the Western Conference semifinal, while the rest of the starters combined for 70 points.

“( Luka) had a great game, but no one else showed,” Kidd said after Game 2. “We can’t win with just him out there scoring 30 a night. Not at this time of the year and we’re playing the best team in the league, and so we’ve got to get other guys going.”

Doncic is used to doing a lot of heavy lifting. He had the highest usage rate during the regular season at 36.8%. That hasn’t changed during the postseason: He had a league- high 38.9% usage rate in the playoffs through the first six games he played after returning from a calf injury.

Nearly all of the Mavericks’ offense goes through Doncic, whether he’s setting his teammates up with a pass or shooting the ball himself inside the 3point arc or beyond it. But the massive workload will grind down any player over time, even one as talented as Doncic, especially as the Suns continue to challenge him on defense.

“He played 44 minutes in Game 1. We talked about that,” the Suns’ Jae Crowder said. “If you are going to be out there that long, we obviously feel like we got to make him work even more. Not let him shoot 40 shots a night.”

Kidd challenged Doncic after their Game 2 loss to “participat­e and play defense” if they wanted to avoid a 0- 3 deficit. Doncic acknowledg­ed that he needs to improve: “We’ve just got to play better defense. That’s it. It’s mostly me.”

Doncic and the Mavericks responded in Game 3 with an impressive effort, forcing 17 Phoenix turnovers. “( Luka) was diving on the floor – and when you see the best player doing that it sets the mood,” Dorian Finney- Smith said of their team’s leader. Doncic also got some help from Jalen Brunson ( 28 points), who was quiet in Games 1 and 2.

That’s what makes Doncic great, his coach says. He never backs down from criticism or pressure.

“He’s one that’s never run from criticism,” Kidd said. “He admits when he hasn’t played well but he tends to come back the next game and play well. I think he has ownership and he knows how much we need him to not just play well on the offensive end but participat­e on the defensive end. I thought he did a great job on both ends tonight.”

Said Doncic after Game 3: “I knew I had to do better. I knew I could do better, I think that I have made a big jump on defense this year and the second half was more by me; and I knew I had to get back to my team and play better defense.”

In Sunday’s 111- 101 series- tying win, he scored a team- high 26 points and had a double- double with 11 assists.

Game 5 is Tuesday ( 10 p. m. ET, TNT).

 ?? KEVIN JAIRAJ/ USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Mavericks guard Luka Doncic reacts during the fourth quarter against the Suns in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinal series.
KEVIN JAIRAJ/ USA TODAY SPORTS Mavericks guard Luka Doncic reacts during the fourth quarter against the Suns in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinal series.

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