For 21 seasons in Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki has shot down those antiquated takes on Europeans with his beautiful jumper, amassing an MVP trophy and an NBA title. On Thursday in Denver, the next generation lit the torch and carried it to a thrilling finish.
Luka Doncic, the Slovenian wunderkind whose highlights never cease, added another clip to his reel with a ferocious, one-handed slam that put Dallas up by one on the Nuggets with 5.8 seconds remaining.
Then, Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ own European-born star, responded with a bit of high-post wizardry. The newly minted All-Star drove right and threw up a leaning, right-handed push shot that somehow evaded airtight defense and hit nothing but net, handing Denver the 100-99 victory.
More on Jokic’s buzzer-beater in a minute. For now, bask in an NBA that very nearly saw two young European stars log triple-doubles on the same night. Jokic (11 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists) and Doncic (24 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) will be league headliners for a long, long time.
As always, we rate game-winning buzzer-beaters on our Horry Scale.
Reminder: The Horry Scale breaks down a game-winning buzzer-beater (GWBB) in the categories of difficulty, game situation (was the team tied or behind at the time?), importance (playoff game or garden-variety night in January?) and celebration. Then we give it an overall grade on a scale of 1-5 Robert Horrys, named for the patron saint of last-second answered prayers.
DIFFICULTY: Jokic averages just 2.3 of his 20.1 points per game on drives, per NBA Stats. It’s not his go-to move, but the Serbian big man didn’t hesitate to put the ball on the floor. He had the patience to stop, fake-pivot back and then forward again in a last-ditch effort to lose his defender. Dwight Powell stayed with Jokic, forcing him into an awkward release while fading to his right. There was a good amount of contact on the play, but that didn’t stop Jokic from muscling the shot directly on target. Not easy by anyone, but especially a big man unused to such off-the-dribble improv.
GAME SITUATION: Denver trailed by as many as 12 early in the fourth quarter, and that was the second comeback they were forced to make after erasing an eight-point hole in the first half. Dallas, all but assured of missing the playoffs, would have gained little from the win. Yet Denver remains just a game back of Golden State for the No. 1 seed in the West. The Nuggets wanted — and might wind up needing — this win.
CELEBRATION: Neither Jokic nor his teammates went over the top in their post-win euphoria. They simply surrounded their monolithic big man with hugs and head pats that seemed to confirm he’s the guy who will lead them forward, both this season and in the future. Jokic took it all in happy stride, giving off a very “I’ve-been-here-before” vibe for someone who had just hit his first NBA game-winning buzzer beater.
GRADE: The outcome mattered to Denver far more than it did to Dallas, but the Nuggets now approach the postseason with a fresh example of their best player’s ability to step up in big moments. Just as compelling were the characters in the finals scene: two up-and-coming NBA stars from Slovenia and Serbia, respectively. The NBA has come a long way. 4 1/2 Horrys.
For Indiana, Wesley Matthews wasn’t a buyout luxury. The Pacers, intent on remaining among the East’s upper crust even without All-Star Victor Oladipo (ruptured quad), badly needed Matthews. The 32-year-old fit their mold of hard-working, switchable defenders capable of doing more than just one thing on offense.
That extra thing isn’t usually an offensive put-back with time running out, but that’s what Matthews did to secure an enormous victory against Oklahoma City on Thursday night.
The play capped off a 19-point second-half comeback despite Indiana boasting neither of the two best players in the game. Russell Westbrook’s triple-double and Paul George’s 36 points weren’t enough against a Pacers lineup that is coming into its own.
Matthews is part of that quintet, one that coach Nate McMillan has only begun to use, playing Oladipo’s nominal two-guard position, an injury-carved gap Indiana tried to fill with everyone from Tyreke Evans (can’t shoot), Cory Joseph (too small) and even Edmond Sumner (too green). Matthews (6-foot-5 and a 37-percent shooter from 3) single-handedly negates any of those weaknesses.
With 6:25 remaining, McMillan sent Matthews — along with Myles Turner and Bojan Bogdanovic — back into the game to join Domantas Sabonis and Darren Collison. It’s a group that, entering Thursday, had only played 14 minutes together. In that time, they were a plus-13.
Over the final six-plus minutes, that same five-man crew outscored the star-studded Thunder, 23-10. Matthews scored eight points in that stretch, including a pair of 3s to go with the game-winner.
Sabonis is the other driving force behind Indiana’s Oladipo-less overachievement. He is too often forgotten in the Kia Sixth Man of the Year discussions, which revolve around the pair of bench beasts fueling the Clippers’ own unlikely playoff push (Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell). The other half of the Paul George trade is averaging 14.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists in fewer than 25 minutes per game.
Thaddeus Young, whose minutes are most affected by Sabonis, might have made the (other) play of the night when he told McMillan to keep him on the bench in favor of Sabonis. McMillan may be forced to make that call more often, especially with a group that doubled its plus-minus in less than seven minutes of action.
Wow. Nate McMillan says Thad Young was supposed to sub back in in the fourth quarter but Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis were playing so well that Thad note Nate, “Let them go.”
Tremendous leadership from the #Pacers captain.
— Wheat Hotchkiss (@Wheat_Hotchkiss) March 15, 2019
Oh, and those pesky Pacers? They’re back at third place in the East.
Kyrie carves up Kings
Whether the Celtics are “back” or not, there is no arguing that Kyrie Irving is enjoying the best year of his career. That’s a big deal for a six-time All-Star who mysteriously boasts just one All-NBA honor (2014-15 Third Team) on his resume.
Another may be forthcoming. Irving’s second career triple-double, which came against the Kings (31 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds), marked the sixth time this season he has logged at least 30 points and 10 assists in a game. He owned just five such nights over his previous seven seasons combined.
Dirk’s still got it
The Mavericks’ living legend broke the mold for the “stretch” era of NBA big men. He’s not afraid to say as much to his younger teammates, either.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) March 15, 2019
A few minutes into the first quarter, Nowitzki showed exactly why he can brag on himself whenever he darn well pleases.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) March 15, 2019