SAITAMA, Japan — The only difference between the Luka Doncic who made his Olympic debut with Slovenia on Monday and the Luka Doncic who’s played three stellar seasons for the Mavericks was his jersey.
Otherwise, Doncic’s stepback shooting, crafty passing, Jordan Brand swagger and, yes, even his distaste for some no-calls transcended international borders and pandemic restrictions to dazzle on Day 3 of the Games.
Doncic scored 48 points in Slovenia’s 118-100 win over Argentina to power the country’s first Olympic basketball victory in its first Olympic basketball game and to make some history in the process.
He tied Australia’s Eddie Palubinskas’s 48 points against Mexico at the 1976 Games for the second-most points all-time in an Olympic game. With 31 points by halftime, Doncic was on pace to break the record (55 points) that Brazil’s Oscar Schmidt set against Spain in 1988.
The 22-year-old All-Star shot 12 of 15 from the field (80%) and 6 of 14 from three (43%) while grabbing 11 rebounds, dishing five assists and blocking three shots. He even zapped his free throw woes from last Mavericks season, going 6 of 7 from the line.
With parts of Japan in a state of emergency and spectators barred from most Olympic venues amid the pandemic, Doncic performed in person for a handful of officials, reporters, a public address announcer who used Doncic’s “Wonder Boy” nickname and an arena technician from Hungary who wore a Mavericks T-Shirt.
But back in Dallas, 14 hours behind the 1:40 p.m. local start time, scores of fans stayed up past midnight to watch a slice of Slovenian sports history, powered by a Ljubljana prodigy they knew wouldn’t disappoint.
“He is the best player in the world, including the NBA,” Argentina head coach Sergio Hernandez said. “If there was any doubt in my mind, there is no doubt any more. He is the best player in the world, and it’s an honor to be there in the game with him.”
No non-credentialed spectators allowed in the arena because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean Luka doesn’t have any fans here.
An official from Hungary who’s part of the broadcast and technical operations unit is watching in his Mavs shirt. pic.twitter.com/7tsNyQ3Yv9
— Callie Caplan (@CallieCaplan) July 26, 2021
IInternational Basketball Federation rules differ from those in the NBA.
FIBA quarters last 10 minutes, not 12. Courts are 2 feet shorter in length and 1 foot narrower in width. The 3-point line is about 3 feet closer.
In his third major tournament with the national team, Doncic capitalized on all the quirks.
Even with eight fewer minutes of game time, Doncic surpassed his NBA career-best 46 points. He’s the only player in history to score at least 45 points in the Olympics and in the NBA, according to an ESPN researcher.
He made three 3-pointers in the first 2:30 and scored 15 of Slovenia’s first 21 points, outscoring Argentina by himself by the time he subbed out late in the first quarter. Doncic finished with 17 points in the first quarter and 31 by halftime.
When he checked out for the last time — with 4:35 remaining and Slovenia up by 26 — the announcer recited Doncic’s stat line and reminded those in the cavernous arena of his proximity to Olympic scoring history.
Slovenia’s coaching staff gave him the option to return to chase the record, but his teammates said Doncic declined, not wanting extra attention on a milestone day for his country.
“I don’t care about records,” Doncic said. “We got a win, and that’s what we came here for.”
But returning to try for 56 points wouldn’t have jeopardized Slovenia’s chance to win, right?
“It doesn’t matter,” Doncic reiterated. “I think it was what — three, four minutes? It doesn’t matter. We won the game.”
Argentina — with 41-year-old former NBA forward Luis Scola as its leading scorer — didn’t pose the same challenge to Doncic as, say, the Los Angeles Clippers did in the NBA playoffs last month.
But Doncic didn’t take it easy.
He whizzed passes over his head and around the court without looking. At one point midway through the third quarter, he swished a 3-pointer and then blocked an Argentina layup attempt on the other end.
In the first half, he became heated while jawing with Argentinian officials who sat opposite the benches, and later he drew his first Olympic technical foul for arguing with referees.
The scorer’s table here has “United by Emotion” printed across the middle.
A not-so-subtle request for Luka and the Olympic refs to avoid too many techs? pic.twitter.com/fbESUEqHsJ
— Callie Caplan (@CallieCaplan) July 26, 2021
Slovenia’s win — the first of three games in pool play over the next week — capped a whirlwind few days for Doncic and his teammates since they arrived at the Athletes Village just before the Games started after holding a training camp outside the city.
Doncic has drawn massive attention while living among some of the world’s best athletes, and teammates have joked they have to budget two hours to eat lunch with him because of frequent requests for photos.
Doncic, though, said his popularity at the compound hasn’t reached the levels of Novak Djokovic.
They walked in the Opening Ceremonies, waving miniature flags, and just like in his first Olympic game, Doncic made sure to put his twist on that moment, too.
Adidas designed Slovenia’s uniforms and Opening Ceremonies outfits, but Doncic, a Jordan Brand signee, wasn’t too keen on disrupting his sponsorship ties. He wore a pair of Nikes to the ceremonies and tied a jacket around his neck like a cape, with the sleeves hanging in front of him, covering the Adidas logo.
The Jordan Brand shoes he wore during Monday’s game featured a swirling red design, reflective green accent and neon yellow colorway.
They made him easy to spot on the court — in case his dynamic dominance wasn’t clear enough.
“To be honest, I didn’t think about his points, even though he was amazing,” Slovenia head coach Aleksander Sekulic said. “This shows the character that he has, that he came here to do something for Slovenia, not himself.”
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