2024 NBA Finals – Inside the Mavericks Proving Ground for Luka and Kyrie’s Next Magic Tricks

GOD SHAMMGOD ENTER in a defensive stance, the 3-foot-long padded extensions attached to each arm serving as tools against the isolation magic of Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic.

They’re in the middle of some one-on-one work in the Mavs’ practice facility, and Shammgod shadows the left side of Doncic’s hip to prevent the superstar from launching into his signature move.

“You can’t go!” Shammgod yells as he defends Doncic on the perimeter. “You can’t shoot recoil properly!” »

Shammgod knows Doncic will take the taunt as a challenge, but the Mavs’ fourth-year assistant and head of player development is just following the scouting report. Doncic made 527 step-back 3-pointers during the regular season and playoffs, according to his NBA Advanced Stats shooting breakdowns, and you can use your fingers to count the number of times he went to his right.

At least that was the scouting report until the final seconds of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, when, after shaking Wolves center Rudy Gobert, Doncic fooled the four-time Defensive Player of the Year by dropping back on his right and piercing the winner. 3. This was the first time in the playoffs that Doncic didn’t go to his preferred left on his stepback 3.

But Shammgod and other Mavs assistants weren’t stunned. They have been beaten by this decision all season.

They had seen Doncic take numerous steps back during individual sessions after practice, during which Doncic and partner Kyrie Irving take turns attacking the rotating trio of assistants that also includes Darrell Armstrong and Marko Milic.

And just when they had seen Doncic’s new wrinkle on his step back, Irving landed numerous left-handed hook shots from 20 feet past Shammgod & Co. before throwing one at the buzzer to shock the defending champion Denver Nuggets in March.

“We’re just trying new things,” Doncic told ESPN of the 30- to 60-minute sessions. “We smile and we just play basketball. That’s what it’s all about.”

And, as Dallas prepares to host the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC), Doncic and Irving will build on the bond they’ve forged while deepening their arsenal of goal movements.

“That’s definitely the craft table right there,” Irving told ESPN. “Just working on our craft when no one’s watching. We’re having a lot of fun, man. It’s always a fun time when you can see someone working on things that they don’t necessarily show a lot in the game, but you know he has it in their bag.”

SHAMMGOD CUSHIONS ARE NOT It’s the only way the Mavs’ middle-aged assistant coaches can try to even the playing field against two of the most talented point guards in the NBA.

“They only have two or three dribbles now. They can’t get 16 dribbles,” Armstrong, 55, told ESPN. “You only have two or three to help us.”

Armstrong developed a reputation as a pesky defender during a 14-year NBA career that was highlighted by winning Sixth Man and Most Improved Player of the Year awards in 1998-99.

His feet aren’t as fast – and it probably doesn’t help that he only wears low-top Chuck Taylors to practice – but he says his downward sweep is still as effective as ever and talks relentlessly trash to Doncic. and Irving regardless of the results.

“I mean, I lock them,” Armstrong boasted playfully.

Doncic, meanwhile, raised his voice when Armstrong’s claim was relayed.

“Oh, hell no! DA?! No!” Doncic barked, breaking into a smile as he shook his head. “You know that’s not true.”

Armstrong, of course, readily admits that Doncic is right. His constant chatter aims to keep the mood light while providing fuel for Doncic and Irving’s competitive fires.

“It’s really just to keep them going, to do a good job for them,” Armstrong said. “It’s just fun to not be serious, but competitive. I talk shit and get my ass kicked.

“You already know Luka talks shit, but Kai is sneaky about it too. Kai is sneaky. The way they treat us, I don’t blame them.”

Armstrong has been on the Mavs coaching staff for a decade, before Doncic arrived in Dallas. The relationship between Doncic and Milic, as well as Irving and Shammgod, goes back much further.

Milic, 47, was Slovenia’s first NBA player, a tough, bouncy 6-foot-6 forward who played 44 games as Jason Kidd’s Phoenix Suns teammate from 1997 to 1999 before returning to Europe. Milic was a teammate of Doncic’s father Sasa during Slovenian club Union Olimpija’s Adriatic League championship season in 2007-08, when the young Luka was a ball boy. Milic, an assistant coach for the Slovenian national team, joined the Mavs team before last season.

Shammgod, 48, a New York native known for his ball-handling skills, has been friends with Irving’s father, Drederick, and Kyrie’s godfather, former NBA star Rod Strickland, for decades. Irving’s relationship with Shammgod, who has been on the Mavs staff since 2019, was among the factors that made the eight-time All-Star feel comfortable in Dallas upon arriving via trade after a turbulent tenure 2 and a half years with the Brooklyn Nets.

“For (Doncic and Irving), it’s so many developments,” Shammgod said. “It’s great. It’s like a painting where I have this beautiful canvas, and I can just keep adding elements to the canvas.”

DONCIC AND IRVING have never faced each other one-on-one — “Next year we’ll try,” Doncic said — but they still compete against each other in sessions, as well as in the regular free-throw and 3-point contests.

When Doncic pulls off the kind of move that makes jaws drop, Irving will try to imitate or surpass him. And vice versa.

“He does crazy things that I can’t do, but sometimes I try,” said Doncic, one of several current or former players who have called Irving the most talented ball handler in football history .

“It’s healthy creativity, man, and that’s what you want,” Irving said. “Call it osmosis. We’re in this environment together. He tries new moves, I try new moves. We take things back and add them to our game.”

Sometimes the movements are spontaneous. On other occasions, Doncic and Irving follow the suggestions of Shammgod, who only played 20 games in his NBA career for the Washington Wizards but has a unique cachet among current players.

Shammgod, who signed a shoe deal with Puma, is widely considered one of the most creative ball handlers in the history of the game. There is a famous one-handed crossover commonly referred to as “The Shammgod”, a move which Doncic used in his warmup before Game 1 of the NBA Finals while being guarded by the namesake himself.

Doncic and Irving are more than receptive to Shammgod’s comments. This is often a tip about a seemingly small detail, like Doncic working on getting used to his usual step back after passing between his legs from left to right, instead of always having to dribble back with his hand LEFT.

“The players love them,” Shammgod said, “you give small things and then they make it bigger. They make it bigger with their imagination. It seems small, but for big players, small things are important.”

In many cases, Doncic and Irving can appear to be messing around. The more difficult a shot, the more fun it is.

But there is a practical reason for this kind of artistic competition. They never know if a game-ending moment in the Finals will require a left-handed runner from outside the paint or a sidearm 3-point shot, like Doncic did for a clutch bucket in an early season victory against the Nets.

“In practice, they miss a lot of shots,” Milic said. “But they are ready for the game, for special occasions.”

“They have these extra surprise moves – a surprise for us. To them, they make it look natural.”

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