Tuesday, January 31, 2023 Jan 31, 2023
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Basketball

Luka Doncic’s Masterpiece Is Why We Watch Sports

No one had ever seen a game like that until last night.
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If you watched last night, you won't forget this shot. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If you caught last night’s Mavs game, you saw Luka Doncic play the greatest regular-season game in franchise history. Prior to Tuesday, no Dallas Maverick had ever eclipsed 53 points in a game, let alone cracked 60. Only James Harden, in the 76-year history of the NBA, had produced a 60-point triple-double. No one had ever put up a 60-point, 20-rebound triple-double. Luka did all of those things in Dallas’ overtime win against Jalen Brunson’s New York Knicks (Brunson sat out the game with a quad injury).

These are the facts. But what matters are the feelings. Of all the popular entertainments, sports have the lowest and highest return on investment. We sink weeks into tuning in to game after game, the calendar moving along in two-and-a-half-hour chunks. And for what? Most of the time, nothing worth remembering. I have already forgotten most of the details of last month’s failure against Houston, and I suspect I’ll soon say the same about the Mavs’ December 1 letdown in Detroit. This is healthy; our hard drives are not meant to retain as much regular-season basketball as the NBA demands we pump into them. It’s why the league’s ratings suck.

Even Doncic, for all his brilliance, is only so sticky on a nightly basis. Already, he is less generational than he is epochal, a talent who will shape the next era of basketball and, barring catastrophic injury, will have his name live on well after he’s gone. He makes the outstanding seem ordinary. Part of the cost for us watching is a sort of snow blindness, an inability to really internalize all of it at a granular level. How can you fully appreciate the odd 24-point, eight-rebound, six-assist game—a stellar performance for anyone else on the roster—when you know full well that this is his off night?

But last night? I’ll carry last night with me until I’m in the ground. The putback at the end of regulation most of all, both for the absurd degree of difficulty as well as Luka practically vibrating in delight because he thought he’d won the game. But smaller things, too. His five-point mini-run to close out the first quarter, in which he flashed everything you need to know about him as a scorer. The exhaustion in his face during a timeout in overtime, sometime after he passed Dirk Nowitzki for the franchise scoring record. The note-perfect fadeaway he hit anyway to score the first bucket for either team in overtime. His demand for a recovery beer when it was all over, which I daresay is the pinnacle of athletic excellence.

Because this is what it’s all for: the chance, on any day, to see spectacularly talented human beings do something unprecedented. Consider everything that’s happened over these past 76 years of NBA basketball. Wars were fought and the 21st century dawned. Diseases cropped up and were cured. Art forms were revolutionized. The internet was invented. Billions of people were born and died. An idiot in Dallas started the sports site you’re reading.

And prior to yesterday, not a single soul had witnessed someone play a basketball game like that. That’s why Dick Vitale, the rare human whose brain is built to retain this much basketball, said it’s the best individual performance he’s ever seen. Given how long it took for this to happen, those of us who watched it may never see something like it again.  

Does that sound grandiose? If so, I don’t apologize. Because a 23-year-old Slovenian in Dallas made people across the world feel things last night. He probably won’t be able do so in quite the same way ever again. But we’ll keep watching. Because who knows? If Luka had managed just eight more steals last night, he would have put up a 60-point quadruple-double. Pretty far-fetched, I grant you. But with him, anything seems possible.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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