SAN FRANCISCO — Luka Doncic rubbed his hands through his hair as confetti streamed from the Chase Center rafters.
Call it the look of exhaustion and temporary disappointment for a 23-year-old superstar who’d believed his Mavericks could stave off elimination again — and again, and again — in pursuit of the NBA Finals.
No chance — and no heroics — Thursday night.
Doncic’s standout fourth NBA season ended in the Mavericks’ 120-110 loss in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors.
He tallied 28 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 40 minutes, but his inefficient shooting — 10 of 28 from the floor and 3 of 13 from three —proved no match for the championship-experienced Warriors’ closeout confidence.
Dallas’ longest playoff run since 2011 ended in a 3-1 series loss but with a positive look toward what the franchise views as a promising, title-contending future with Doncic.
“I don’t like losing, especially like this,” Doncic said. “I played terrible.”
But what about the long-term view once the bitterness of defeat eases?
“Great,” Doncic said. “Honestly great. I think this year we made a huge, huge step. Maybe a couple steps. I think we are in a great way.”
Luka Doncic meets with his closest crew after the game — Dirk, Goran Dragic, dad Sasa, agent Bill Duffy, Mark Cuban, his girlfriend. etc pic.twitter.com/68GXY9qKCl
— Callie Caplan (@CallieCaplan) May 27, 2022
A change in tone just like Doncic’s slide-to-glide switch at halftime.
The Warriors knew Doncic’s elimination-game prowess long before tipoff Thursday.
He’s thrived in win-or-go-home settings since his teenage Real Madrid days, and particularly so over the last year.
He dropped 46 points and 14 assists in the Mavericks’ Game 7 against the Clippers in 2021. He powered Slovenia to and through the Tokyo Olympics’ medal rounds with historic success.
As the Mavericks won three straight elimination games this postseason — Games 6 and 7 against the Phoenix Suns and Game 4 to avoid a Golden State sweep — Doncic averaged 32.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and seven assists.
Coach Jason Kidd ran out of ways to say his 23-year-old superstar loved “the big stage.”
No wonder the Warriors blitzed and flustered him from the first possession of Game 5
Golden State sent two defenders to him the first time he touched the ball and hounded him full-court throughout the game.
Doncic missed his first four shots. Then 10 of his first 12, including all four from three, by halftime.
He finished the first half with six points — on 2 of 12 field-goal attempts — five rebounds, four assists and three turnovers.
Many lamented his defense most.
Most of Doncic’s misses came in the paint, including a few at the rim, but officials didn’t call all the fouls he felt he drew amid the Warriors’ swarm of bodies down low.
Several times after falling to the court, he’d stand up slowly, barking or gesturing toward officials, rather than hustling back to defense to help slow a Warriors offense that shot 55.8% from the floor in the first half.
Coach Jason Kidd has chided Doncic for allowing complaints to hinder his defensive effort this season.
Scores of fans and commentators echoed the criticism Thursday night, including TNT analyst Charles Barkleywho was “very disappointed” that Doncic “came out lackadaisical, just jacking up threes” and played without two-way energy.
Doncic changed his shoes at halftime — from his white signature Luka 1 colorway to black.
Maybe the apparel swap helped.
In the third quarter, Doncic tallied 15 points on 5 of 8 from the floor, including two threes. He added two rebounds and two assists to help the Mavericks compile a 22-5 run late in the period and cut the Warriors’ 25-point lead to 8 points in about five minutes.
But fresh kicks and new energy didn’t change the Warriors’ leading trio’s dominance.
Klay Thompson — legendary for Game 6 performances — showed out a couple days early, leading the Warriors with 32 points in 37 minutes. He shot 8 of 16 from three in Game 5 after combining to make 7 of 24 attempts (29.2%) in the first four games of this series.
Draymond Green tallied a personal playoff-high 17 points, while Western Conference finals MVP Steph Curry played star facilitator with 15 points and nine assists to seal Golden State’s sixth NBA Finals appearance in the last eight seasons.
“We can all agree it wasn’t [Luka’s] best game, but this is a great lesson for him and for everyone,” coach Jason Kidd said. “He carries the load as well as anyone, and I think for us as an organization, we’ll help lighten that load as we go forward.”
The sting falling three wins short of the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 2011 didn’t dull the Mavericks’ pride and appreciation for a first season under Kidd and general manager Nico Harrison’s leadership that included buzzer-beating twists, trade deadline surprises and COVID-ravaged obstacles.
Nor did it dim Kidd’s expectations for Doncic’s growth and development after a season he finished fifth in MVP voting, made first-team All-NBA for a third consecutive year and enjoyed extended playoff experience for the first time.
“We’re all going to go on a ride with him on this journey,” Kidd said, “and hopefully at one of the years … we can hold that trophy. That’s what it’s all about. But he’s going to get better. By being in this situation more will only help him.”
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