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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: Luka Takes the Leap

A 40-point triple-double confirmed the Mavs wunderkind was not only destined for greatness, he was already great

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

Luka Doncic has the ball alone at the top of the key. There are technically five members of the Zombie Spurs trying to stop him from delivering the game’s final dagger—and four Mavericks teammates who have enjoyed a good view of his 39-11-11 performance thus far—but none of them matter. There’s still plenty of time on the shot clock, but that doesn’t matter, either. Stepback. Bucket. Game.

It’s a new career high for Doncic and the first 40-point triple-double of his career, and he joins LeBron as one of only two players under the age of 21 to hit that mark. And this is his reaction:

That is the face of someone who knows he’s a very bad man, playing the hero ball we’re supposed to loathe but secretly love, rendering everyone else on the court for a rival franchise that made 22 consecutive playoffs irrelevant, all because he can.

You know that point in the movie, right before the montage, when the protagonist really figures it out? Daniel LaRusso realizes, “Wait, I actually do know karate.” Happy Gilmore learns how to putt. Neo stops all the bullets in The Matrix. Maybe something else from a movie that came out in the past 10 years, I don’t know. If you had to pinpoint when Luka made the leap from “great young player” to “guy who might actually end up breaking basketball,” the 40-point triple-double against the Spurs was it.

The floodgates opened immediately afterward. Doncic dropped 35-10-11 in less than 26 minutes the next game. Dallas was still hovering around .500 (where it was projected to finish before the season started) at the time, but won its next two games by a combined 90 points before rattling off seven wins in its next nine contests. The Mavs never sniffed mediocrity again, with Doncic guiding a unicorn and a bunch of other dudes to the best offensive rating in NBA history.

About a month after icing the Spurs, Doncic recorded another 40-plus-point triple-double against the Pistons, which vaulted him into elite company. All nine inactive players who recorded multiple 40-point triple-doubles are in the Hall of Fame. Doncic joined that group in his second season, before he could legally order a beer.

The context is important, because the totality of Doncic’s game at this point is more impressive than the individual parts. Describing Doncic’s biggest strengths always sounds underwhelming (maybe I’m spending too much time talking about footwork?), but the triple-double is an easily digestible representation of someone being great at a lot of different things. It’s what made Ricky Davis elevate to a different plane of consciousness while trying to get his, or why Austin Rivers has never looked more devastated than when he accidentally denied James Harden one, or why Ice Cube had a good day. It’s an accomplishment that carries some weight.

But in that game against the Spurs, Doncic didn’t strain to get his triple-double. It was special and ordinary all at the same time—the kind of casual brilliance typically reserved for the game’s established elite. Everything felt a little too easy. And when a career night feels like it could have happened on just about any other night, that’s when you know. This is when Luka made the leap.

D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.