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IN A NEW NBA, IMAGINE LUKA PUTTING CURRY … OUT TO PASTURE?
The emergence of Doncic as a generational force, at 23, reminds us that a certain baby-faced assassin is 34, a signal that a league is moving forward to fresh superstars and title contenders
In what alternate universe is Steph Curry considered an old man? It’s the present-day world, actually, in a Next Gen NBA that has him wearing dad jeans even if his eyes still twinkle like a child’s and his hips shimmy when he drills the 3-pointers he made fashionable. Only fools would doubt him and the Golden State Warriors, who are in the unique spot of trying to extend a dynasty — four titles, eight years — after a grueling, tricky slog.
But when tipoff arrives Wednesday in San Francisco, in an antiseptic arena unfamiliar with the raucous pit that hosted three champions across the bay, the fast-forward truth of basketball life will be unavoidable. Curry, 34, no longer is the postseason centerpiece of yore. Until further notice in the Western Conference finals, he’s a grudging sidepiece, still electrifying but in the jury box surveying Luka Doncic with the rest of us.
Is a babe truly plotting a full-blown takeover, including a championship? When LeBron James all but begs the Mavericks to rescue him from his Los Angeles nightmare and forge an all-time collaboration — “LUKA. He’s my fav player!!” he tweeted Tuesday — does it give pause about the magnitude of what’s happening here?
The rage of the sport is the grinning young bull cunningly backing down an opponent with his 250 pounds of body mass, banging and reducing the guy to a pinball bumper, stepping back with European panache and flicking the ball through the hole with stirring efficiency. Doncic can do this without being in optimum shape. No part of his body is chiseled. His legs are heavy and covered in compression sleeves to protect his calves from popping. His core doesn’t allow his Dallas jersey to slide routinely into his shorts, unlike Curry and most professional athletes, as much as it hangs slightly over his gut. Dare we say he has baby fat?
Why not? He’s only 23. And though the finest version of Luka probably is years away, and though he’s playing for a team without another headliner, he literally just completed a laugher — snickering and cackling and howling all the way — that shamed the Phoenix Suns in Game 7 and subjected Chris Paul, 37 and forever ring-less, to elder abuse. When you see Doncic wreck a 64-win team on its homecourt, amid boos from fans expecting a title, it’s more than another development in the league’s natural progression.
No, this is the official arrival of the closest thing we’ve seen to a hoops cyborg. Doncic could not stop roaring and showing up the proud team he was vanquishing. Dissing and one-upmanship, of course, have been part of the league’s gutter culture for decades. But his open display of prolonged ridicule was unprecedented, no doubt a response to several slights during the series, including a shot by Suns star Devin Booker after Game 2 that Doncic “is going to have to guard a bit.” The Mavericks won four of the final five games while Luka, yeah, guarded a bit in a postseason when he has averaged 31.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists. In his domain, humiliating the trash-talkers seems as important as the joy of winning.
“It gets me going. It’s fun,” Doncic said breezily. “It’s competitive basketball and I like it.”
But isn’t he concerned his antics will haunt him someday? Evidently not. “I’m having fun, man,” he said. “I always say, ‘When I am having fun, it’s the way I best play.’ So I was having fun, man. But it wasn’t all me. It was the whole team.”
He even enjoys it when his teammates insult him. When Suns center Deandre Ayton landed an elbow upside Doncic’s skull, Boban Marjanovic told him, “I hope Ayton’s elbow is good, ‘cause your head is so big.’’ Luka just laughed. “Bobby is the best trash-talker,’’ he said.
The operative question is whether fun will fuel a Doncic joyride to the NBA Finals. The Warriors have experienced ominous singular threats since their emergence as champs, and if Steve Kerr is to confirm himself as the best coach of the current era, he’ll need one of his smartest plans yet. Andrew Wiggins will draw the primary early assignment, but waiting in the shadows, with the potential for goonery, is Draymond Green. He behaved in a wildly contentious Memphis series after his ejection in Game 1, when he hit Brandon Clarke in the head, grabbed his jersey and pulled him to the floor. But this also is the loon who snagged James’ groin region in Game 4 of the 2016 Finals, which led to Green’s suspension for the next game and Golden State’s eventual demise against Cleveland. Green might be thinking the best way to eliminate Luka is to knock him out, but knowing how thick and indestructible Doncic is, Draymond might hurt himself in the process and get tossed again.
“Oh, we’re going to have some words,” said Doncic, while professing respect for Green’s game.
What we do know is how Luka has grown up in a hurry. It wasn’t long ago when critics called him an overweight ballhog obsessed with how the officials were calling his games. Eventually, his young psyche caught up to his gasp-inducing adult skills. We forget he won championships with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team as a teen prodigy. He had to mature before our eyes in America, where his mother accompanied him to Texas when he joined the Mavericks at 19, but he is far beyond his years in his ability to control the big moment.
“He's Luka. He loves the stage,” said his coach, Jason Kidd. “As it gets bigger, he gets better.”
“He's never scared of the moment. He wants to go toe-to-toe with the best and he wants to throw that knockout punch,’’ said teammate Spencer Dinwiddie, who will have to join Jalen Brunson in playing huge supporting roles if the Mavs are to advance.
Said Kerr: “He’s a really unique player and clearly one of the very best players in the league. I think the ability to shoot the step-back 3 and also get to the rim and pass the ball so well makes him a really difficult cover. He’s got a lot of confidence, he feeds his players confidence, you can see that, there’s a good vibe on that team, a good spirit. There’s a reason they’re here in the conference finals.”
The four conference finalists are built the right way. Not a superteam is in the vicinity, the Lakers and Nets and 76ers all self-sabotaged, and how refreshing to have no LeBron, no Paul, no Kevin Durant, no James Harden, none of the marquee names that have dominated the league most of this century. Every remaining team is dedicated to defense, including Dallas, and those who find fault with the modern NBA should enjoy a tournament with no obvious favorite.
If you think you know which team will win it all, with Miami up 1-0 on undermanned Boston in the East finals, you’re having too-quick amnesia about the last round. Adam Silver has what we all want: Parity in his final four and no predictability. Remember what just happened? The Mavs looked dead after two games. The Warriors were clobbered in Game 5 by the Grizzlies, who led by 55 points without Ja Morant. The Celtics faced elimination while struggling to contain the sum quintessence of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Heat, built in the authoritarian vision of Pat Riley as carried out by disciple Erik Spoelstra, needed Jimmy Butler to carry them away from trouble, as he did Tuesday night with 41 in Game 1.
The only top-five superstars remaining, though Butler and Jayson Tatum are forcing themselves into the pantheon, are Doncic and Curry. Luka will maintain the sport’s powerful international influence after recent dominance by Antetokounmpo, who won back-to-back MVPs and the championship last season before giving way to Nikola Jokic, who won the last two MVP races and held off Joel Embiid this season. In that sense, we have an Olympic final of sorts, Luka against three American gold medalists — Curry, Green and Klay Thompson — and the current Team USA coach, Kerr. More than that, this is about a kid whirlwind trying to put three worn-and-weary horses to bed … and ruin their standing goal. “I think we still have to prove that we want to go down as some of the greats,” Thompson said. “And the greats have won in multiple decades, and we have yet to win in the 2020s. So it’s right there for us.”
As yet, these are not the Warriors fit for comparisons to the Jordan Bulls when they went 16-1 in the 2017 playoffs. Durant fled to Brooklyn, which hasn’t worked out too well, and every time you’re ready to pronounce the new San Francisco iteration as title favorites, something happens. Curry might have a shooting slump or come up lame. Thompson was brilliant in the Game 6 closeout of the Grizzlies, but don’t you pray every time his surgically repaired knee or Achilles’ tendon becomes entangled? Green seems to have one foot in the TNT studio, picking fights with fellow media members such as ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins, which Kerr might want to stop before the distraction stage. While Jordan Poole and Wiggins are notable additions, they’re new to the May/June grind. And all the turnovers? Why don’t they take care of the ball?
“I think we can obviously play better,’’ Curry said. “Not lost on this journey is the fact that we are still trying to peak at the right time as a team that's going through this for the first time together.”
Logic would suggest Golden State’s experience and home advantage are enough to win in six or seven. But that would be conveniently ignoring the generational dawn of Doncic and how he made Chris Paul an infamous figure in postseason history — the first player to blow five 2-0 leads, with four straight losses in Game 7. So is Curry his next geriatric victim?
“There’s the acknowledgement of how funny it is when I look at some of those guys and am reminded of how young they are,” Curry said. “Jayson Tatum is 24. Luka is 23. Ja is 22. That’s the only part where you realize they’re really that young. You look at what you were doing at that age, trying to come into this scene of playoff basketball.”
But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Curry, back when his assassin’s face was more babyish, also has conquered James and Harden and Paul himself. He hasn’t tasted championship champagne since 2018. This might be his best chance to gulp and spray again. He knows he might not be back.
“We’re hungry enough knowing we haven’t been on the radar for the last few years in terms of being realistic contenders,” Curry said. “Now we’re knocking on the door, trying to get back to the Finals. I’m not trying to claim the ‘old guy’ tag, but we’re as hungry as they are to get it done.”
All I know is, when Luka was born on the 28th day of February in 1999 to Mirjam Poterbin and Sasha Doncic, in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, Stephen Curry was 11 and not far off from changing the mechanics of his shot.
We all get old, even the kid shooting jumpers in the driveway next door, as another does the same halfway across the world.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.