How about that cackle? How about Luka Doncic just straight laughing in the face of whatever poor Phoenix Sun was assigned to stop him on Sunday?
Over and over the Dallas Mavericks' star would step back and drain a three-pointer — or occasionally take it to the hoop — and then promptly backpedal down the court where he’d try to catch his opponent’s eye and break into an almost sinister, knowing laugh.
Basketball has a long and colorful legacy of trash talk. It’s part of the game. Larry Bird would offer insults to the bench. Dikembe Mutombo would wag his finger in defiance. Reggie Miller made a choking sign. Michael Jordan once shrugged his shoulders at his own brilliance.
For generations, chests have been beaten, jerseys have been popped and gums have been flapped from the NBA Finals to the And1 Mixtape Tour. It’s the mental feeding into the physical. Or vice versa.
Yet, has anyone ever cackled the way Doncic did Sunday?
It was completely disrespectful but, if this makes any sense, done not in a disrespectful manner. It was, undoubtedly, embarrassing for the Suns, but came across as almost playful bravado.
“I’m having fun, man,” Luka said.
He was straight out of a Marvel movie, the diabolic villain not just hell-bent on world domination but apparently with both the power and the plan that perhaps not even a superhero could stop.
Phoenix certainly couldn’t. Doncic had 35 points, powering a 123-90, Game 7 victory over the 64-win Suns, the defending Western Conference champs. He could have put up 50 but it wasn’t needed. He played just over 30 minutes. He and his teammates didn’t just crush Phoenix, they emasculated the Suns one laugh at a time.
It was the latest performance by the 23-year-old that moves him into the rarefied air of NBA superstardom. Over in the East, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, 24, is doing the same, yet with a more traditional demeanor. The future of the league is suddenly now — with just Golden State (West) and Miami (East) standing in the way of a NextGenNow Finals.
It is Doncic's Slovenia twist that seems new, a fresh perspective on an old game of confidence and intimidation.
Luke scored eight points in the first 2:13 of the game Sunday. He was interacting with the crowd after his second bucket, clearly brimming with belief that he wasn’t going to be stopped.
It felt like Phoenix quit soon after.
By halftime, he had 27 points, the same as the entire Suns team.
Were you aware of that, he was asked after the game?
“Oh yeah,” Doncic said. “Of course.”
He laughed. Half the reporters in attendance did as well. His 35 points for the game were just behind the combined 37 of the Suns’ starters. Here’s guessing that if Luka had known that, he’d have dropped one more three just for the fun of it.
“I think our defense was amazing,” Doncic said. “... This was a team win, a team effort, everybody played amazing, everybody left everything on the court …
“I like these games; it’s pressure.”
This wasn’t just a playoff victory, it was a changing of the guard, a gutting of a Phoenix team that may never recover in its present form. And it felt MJ-level personal that some of those 35 points came against an overmatched, and soon benched, Deandre Ayton, who had the misfortune of being selected first overall (to Doncic’s third) in the 2018 draft.
Golden State has Draymond Green, among others, so there is a defender in the next round who won’t wilt in the face of Doncic’s physical and emotional might. This won’t get easier and Dallas may not be able to survive against the Warriors.
We’ll see. But Sunday — these entire playoffs really — has been about Doncic’s arrival for Dallas. Everyone could see this coming when he was rookie of the year. But talent is one thing. The wherewithal to take an opponent, or an entire series, by the throat is another. Only the truly great ones have that.
Doncic does. So does Tatum and a lot of other young players. The league is awash in under-25 talent that aren’t here to just make friends.
Maybe the Nets, Sixers, Lakers and Suns gobbled up all the regular season attention but it’s Dallas, Boston and Miami that are still standing. (Golden State never lacks for hype).
And it was Doncic on Sunday who delivered the masterpiece, a combination of skill, strength and borderline degradation that can’t be measured.
How do you keep playing when the guy you can’t guard is cackling at you?
“I always say, ‘When I am having fun it’s the way I best play,’” Doncic said. “So I was having fun, man. But it wasn’t all me. It was the whole team.”
It was Dallas and its young star, laughing off to the Western Conference finals.