Sunday, March 3, 2024

Luka Dončić exploits the NBA rule book as much as the opposing defenders in front of him

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Luka Dončić is playing 4D chess for more than 40 minutes on a night-in, night-out basis, and the defenders in front of him are just trying to force tough shots where they can. Because most of the time, Dončić dictates where the possession is going, not the defense.

He does it in part by manipulating things a level or two beyond just his own possession of the basketball — angles, spacing, his size and the size of the opposing defenders on the court. And the latest example of that comes to us from Dončić’s appearance on J.J. Redick’s “Old Man and the Three” podcast. Episode 208 was released Friday afternoon with Dončić as the featured guest.

Various teaser videos about the conversation, which went for just over an hour, caught our interest in the days before the episode was released, but this was a particularly interesting one.

First referencing a previous conversation between the two, Redick says:

“You said scoring 30 in the NBA was easier than scoring in Europe, and a lot of people have co-signed that. I’m not here to dispute that take at all. The other night you had 73 against the Hawks. … I’ve re-watched the 25 made baskets like five times, and to some degree, it did look easy. Did that 73 feel easy?”

Before we get to Dončić’s answer, which was a good one, I need to take at least a little exception to Redick’s premise there. I haven’t re-watched the Hawks game five times, but in general, I don’t think of Dončić as one of those guys who “makes it looks easy.” Steph Curry is a fan favorite in part because his diminutive stature and his ability to confound the opposing defense by seemingly just backing up another step and banging 3-pointer after 3-pointer gave fans the fantasy of being able to touch greatness. Heck, Curry isn’t super tall or built all sculpted or physically imposing in any way, until he happens to be drifting down the court in your general direction, ball in hand and mouthpiece akimbo.

Dončić’s game, however, reminds us how feeble we are, especially as you begin to see beyond the surface level of what’s going on in the eternal dance between offense and defense in the NBA. How incredibly far away we are from ever being able to touch what these geniuses do on the court. It doesn’t look easy. It’s not repeatable in my driveway. Especially not that cerebral element that Dončić employs to his advantage perhaps more than anyone else in the league.

Dončić, of course, laughs off the notion and answers Redick with a firm “No,” before explaining something really enlightening right off the cuff, and I’m not sure it’s something a lot of fans notice or appreciate enough in the course of viewing a game. It was a great shout by the goat.

In explaining why people may mistakenly say he makes the game look easy, Dončić said:

“I always say, it’s because of the rules. The three seconds in the paint on defense is huge. I don’t think people realize how huge that is. When I’m iso-ing, I’m watching the defender, so, he’s got to go out [of the lane] at some point. So when he’s going out, I try to attack, so that’s a huge difference. But no, it wasn’t easy scoring 73.”

A lot of that strategy that Dončić is talking about right there is further explained in this neat article from the Sporting News, further down on the page where it starts getting into how defenders avoid the defensive three-second call. The defenders cleanse themselves by briefly establishing footing outside the lane to reset their 3-second count, and for Dončić, and players like Denver’s Nikola Jokic in one of the videos from the article linked above, that is the perfect moment to strike. If you’ve leaned on your defender the right way for a couple seconds, you can get an advantage on him on your way to the basket. Then, if help comes, there’s an open shooter, and if not, its two for the good guys.

It’s cool to hear little tidbits about his mental breakdown of a possession.

Illegal defense and defensive three seconds are used interchangeably for the rule violation that dates back to the beginning of the 2001-02 season. It was implemented then to improve the pace of the game, because in the late 90s, you could win an NBA basketball game on some nights without scoring as many as 90 points, the way big men camped in the lane to clog things up for the opposing offense.

This, of course, is not a rule in the international game. Dončić and others who have played extensively overseas have almost a built-in advantage with the ability to walk in both worlds and spot market inefficiencies in each rule book and each style of play.

In general, Dončić was great in the interview. I also liked this quote, as Dončić and Redick were discussing his split-stance posture and how he uses it to get to his step-back:

“My step-back’s to the left, but I just take what the defense gives me. They send me left, I’ll go left. They send me right, I’ll go right. I think i have a couple moves in me.”

His league-leading 34.6 points per game this year all agree. This is why we love Luka.

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