- Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) is a professor and an NBA analyst for ESPN.
The official scorer marked it as a 28-foot, unassisted 3-point field goal, but the shot heard ’round the bubble was much more than that. The internet is already running out of adjectives to describe Luka Doncic, but Sunday’s bucket, punctuating another breathtaking performance, made one thing clear: Doncic is the best young basketball player on Earth.
Reputations like that get theorized about in the regular season, but get proven in the postseason. That’s exactly what Doncic is doing this series, his playoff debut, against one of the best squads in the league. The LA Clippers had a 21-point lead when Doncic checked back into the game in the second quarter, and things then got crazy. Doncic ended the night with an insane stat-line: 43 points, 17 boards, 13 assists and the game-winner.
For context, check out his company (via Basketball Reference):
Most Points with a Game-Winning Buzzer-Beater, NBA Postseason History
2019: Damian Lillard, 50 points
2018: LeBron James, 44 points
1989: Michael Jordan, 44 points
2020: Luka Doncic, 43 points
2019: Kawhi Leonard, 41 points
That’s a good group. Putting up video-game numbers on a Tuesday in November is one thing; doing it against Kawhi Leonard in the postseason is another.
But about that game-winner: According to Second Spectrum, Doncic had just a 26.9% chance of making the shot, and going off conventional wisdom, contested step-backs from 28 feet are bad shots. The thing is though, shooters like Doncic, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and James Harden are destroying both defenses and conventional wisdom every season.
All four of these guys have not only broken records, but they’ve broken Twitter with face-melting prowess from long range. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Doncic’s game-winner is the second longest buzzer-beater in postseason history, trailing only Lillard’s unforgettable 36-footer that sent Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder packing last year.
George famously called that a “bad shot,” and a few years ago, he would’ve been right. But those days are gone, and George has been on the wrong end of a few of this era’s most dramatic game-winners. Step-back 3s are not only deadly, but also emblematic of greater trends in the game.
Step-back 3s in the NBA are literally five times more popular right now than they were in 2013-14. (This season, NBA shooters are taking over three step-back 3s per 100 possessions — in 2013-14, that number was 0.60.) And that trend shows no signs of slowing, as the league’s best offenses are the ones pressing the accelerator. The Houston Rockets shoot them three times more often than the league average; the Dallas Mavericks shoot them more than twice as much. Oh, and don’t forget about Curry, the guy who really started step-back mania in his back-to-back MVP campaigns.
Harden’s Rockets have been a top-three NBA offense in each of the last three seasons as he has leveraged a cartoonish volume of step-backs en route to three straight scoring titles. Meanwhile, Doncic plays a similar game and led the Mavs to nothing short of the NBA’s most efficient offensive rating in history this season. Dallas broke the record by pouring in 115.9 points per 100 possessions this year.
And alongside The Beard, Doncic is showing the world that dudes that can drive, finish, pass and hit step-backs are now this league’s most dominant offensive weapons. But driving, finishing and passing aren’t new — step-back 3s are, and they’re quickly becoming a new fundamental for every perimeter superstar in the NBA. Still, only Harden and Doncic made more than 100 step-backs this season.
But while haters are quick to point out this approach won’t work in crunchtime or in the postseason, Doncic is proving otherwise.
Doncic’s three step-back 3s in the clutch of Game 4 rank as the most by any player in a postseason game since Second Spectrum started tracking in 2013-14. It’s tied for the most in any game during that span, along with Harden against the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 3, 2019.
It makes sense. Step-backs provide teams with a great, low-maintenance option, particularly in late-shot clock scenarios when offensive efficiency craters every second. But these shots are hard and for years, coaches hated them and players didn’t practice them. That’s all changing, thanks to a new generation of sharpshooters who blend incredible handles, footwork, balance and the ability to create their own looks. The look and feel of offensive sets in the NBA are changing in kind.
The NBA used to play through the bigs in the low post and teams that had guys like Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Shaquille O’Neal would dominate. Now they play through guards above the break.
Step-backs are the new post-ups and as the league increasingly bends toward unassisted perimeter production, teams that have step-back threats will be better than those that don’t. It’s that simple.
As we saw in Game 4, Dallas has one of those dudes. And he’s only 21.
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