DALLAS — Luka Dončić’s frustrations boiled over during a timeout midway through the third quarter.
The Dallas Mavericks had unraveled in what became a 132-109 defeat on Wednesday to the Phoenix Suns. Once up 16 points in the second quarter, the team found itself down 25 when that timeout was called. As Dončić headed to the bench, a Suns fan seated two rows behind the media seats at the scorer’s table finally broke through his psyche.
“Luka, you tired?” the fan said. “Get on a treadmill.”
“LUKA YOU TIRED, GET ON THE TREADMILL!”
Luka Doncic reaction to fan incoming.
Luka Doncic has since pointed out the fan, who is being talked to by arena staff.
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) January 25, 2024
Those were the words, or a close approximation of them that those of us on media row and the fans behind us all agreed upon, that prompted Dončić to point out the fan to team security. The fan had been heckling Dončić for the entire night, but speaking as one media member who was seated there, what I did hear from him — which, as a media member often tuning out distractions around me, was not all of it — was not egregious compared to other fan incidents. I did not hear this fan push beyond Dončić’s on-court play. Two Mavericks fans seated directly behind me also said the Phoenix fan’s words seemed too mild to warrant Dončić’s attention.
“That was not the only thing he said,” Dončić said afterward. When one reporter pushed back, saying that we were seated near him, Dončić replied, “So that was the only time he said something? The only thing? I was hearing him the whole first half.”
The fan was not ejected. The stadium security asked him to watch the remainder of the game from the concourse, and he complied, citing the Suns’ 25-point lead and inevitable win as a reason he had no problem doing so. Later, Dončić said, “I never would eject a fan (who) pays for tickets, but I had enough. It was a little bit of frustration.”
It was a moment born from the team’s negative 41-point swing, one that turned what might have been another emphatic win against the Suns into a lackluster defeat.
“It’s fine,” Dončić said afterward. “It’s all over.”
— Bally Sports Southwest (@BallySportsSW) January 25, 2024
The story of the game is simpler: Dallas made 10 of its first 14 shots from 3, only to convert just one of its next 16. The shooting shift began when the Suns deployed a small lineup without Jusuf Nurkić as the center with 4 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Nurkić had been the Mavericks’ primary target in its pick-and-roll actions, which created constant scramble situations that allowed Dončić to find shooters.
Because Kyrie Irving missed the game with a right thumb sprain, Dallas didn’t have another quality option or elite secondary creator to fall back on. Dallas’ defense responds better when it can set up in the half court, and the team’s increased tempo is better used when that defense forces missed shots. Because the Suns began this game making just two of their 11 shots from distance, Dallas hummed.
Then, just one game after Kidd said the Mavericks lost focus due to the officiating in Monday’s loss to the Celtics, they seemed to do it again. After Phoenix closed the second quarter on a 13-4 run with its center-less lineup, Dončić received a technical foul heading into the locker room. (In a pool report, crew chief David Guthrie said: “(Dončić) had complained multiple times and was asked to stop prior to that. He did not stop but continued his complaining, and again as he was leaving the floor at halftime he yelled and complained at the officials again.”) In the opening minutes of the third quarter, Grant Williams was ejected with his second technical foul. Derrick Jones Jr. also received one after emphatically celebrating a highlight dunk.
That’s how this game unraveled. Dallas didn’t build enough of a lead when it had an overt 3-point advantage to withstand Phoenix’s inevitable comeback; Phoenix’s strategy shift clamped down on an offensive advantage Dallas was exploiting; Irving was missed; the officiating and the subsequent back-foot circumstances affected every other aspect of what has made Dallas successful this season.
But this story began with Dončić’s frustrations for a reason.
This is not the most frustrated that Dončić has ever been, not even close. That was last season, one where the team spiraled out of the postseason while he struggled with his conditioning. It might have been the least fun that Dončić ever had playing basketball, a sport he adores. There have been other moments, too, where Dončić wasn’t able to do what he knows he’s capable of on the court. The play-his-way-into-shape start of the 2021-22 season, for example, which ended in a conference finals run once he did.
Dončić also doesn’t seem to be taking his frustration with him off the court. After the game, two Slovenian journalists from one of the country’s biggest newspapers told me he sat down with them for a one-on-one interview earlier this week. Once unwilling to even hold press conferences when he returned to his home country, to the frustration of media members who lived there, Dončić happily talked about everything the reporters asked him. Late last year, Dončić became a father, something he told these reporters has completely changed his perspective on life.
But on Wednesday, in a game that spun out of his control, he was certainly frustrated. And that does matter.
Dončić was frustrated, foremost, because his team was losing. He orchestrated all of the success the Mavericks had as they built that early 16-point lead, carving up an overmatched center like he has many times before. (Two years ago, when the Mavericks famously beat the Suns in the semifinals, they nearly ran DeAndre Ayton off the court in a similar manner.) When that was happening, when the 3s were falling, Dončić even made an unusually spirited off-ball cut that would have worked if his teammate had found him. But Jones instead ran over Suns guard Bradley Beal for an offensive foul.
In the minutes that followed, Dončić’s teammates did not do enough to support the brilliance he showed in the first half. It’s who they are. Even as the front office regenerated this roster more meaningfully than in any prior season, it still has not put enough starter-level talent next to Dončić avoid this dilemma. It was the primary cause to the team’s demise Wednesday.
“We have role players who have to play at a high level,” Kidd said afterward. “That’s just the nature of our roster. We’ve got guys who are making minimums who are playing at a high level, and we’ve stretched them in the first half of the season.”
In the third quarter, as it became clear that the Suns had captured this game’s result, Dončić responded with one of his old tendencies in an attempt to cut momentum: early shot clock stepback 3s, Those missed, too. All of that probably contributed to Dončić’s moment of fury with the opposing fan who caught his ear.
As last season’s catastrophe wore on, it became very clear the Mavericks understand Dončić’s superstardom. The team knows the manner in which he has replaced Dirk Nowitzki as the franchise’s talisman is not guaranteed to continue with the same patience as Nowitzki afforded. And in those same moments, it was clear that Dončić understands his status within the league, too. Because of this, the Mavericks must understand where Dončić’s frustrations come from — and they do. The team’s as-urgent-as-ever need to improve its roster is not lost on those within the front office.
Dončić, too, has more room to grow. Even when Dončić has the roster around him he’s always wanted, he will remain the figure tasked with leading it.
“It’s a trend here,” Kidd said of the team’s distracted focus when the officiating skews against them. “The referees are the referees, and they’re going to make bad calls. It’s a nature of the league. We can’t get calls every time down. We’ve got to be better.”
And because teams are molded by their leading man, he might as well have been talking directly to Dončić himself.
“His focus has improved, his maturity has improved, he’s 24 years old,” Kidd said. “We’re asking him to do a lot every night. Giving him grace, to be that Picasso that we think he is, there’s gonna be nights he doesn’t have enough paint and he doesn’t have enough brush.”
Whether Kidd has done enough to help Dončić grow in the past two-and-a-half years as head coach, who knows. It must be something the team’s decision-makers will be thinking about. But it is certain that Dončić’s future, as much determined by his own maturity as any external factors, matters. That he’ll fall amongst the league’s greatest ever players is an inevitably, but where he lands will be determined by the coming years.
That’s why this moment of frustration with the Suns fan is worth lingering on for this long. What caused it must be parsed because Dončić’s future is so important to so many. It matters to this franchise, and its ability to respond to his quintessence in a timely manner that prevents any doubt from creeping in. It matters to history, one to which he most certainly isn’t beholden, but one that he will be judged by, thanks to his chosen profession, all the same. And, I truly think, that does matter to him.
It’s just a moment, one that will quickly be forgotten when this league speeds ever forward. It just might be one we look back upon many years from now because it represents so many unknown futures, for him and many others, ones we can’t help but wonder where they’ll go from here.
(Photo of Luka Dončić: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)