NBA playoffs 2024: Luka Doncic's TD passes are driving the Mavericks' dominant West finals run

Windy: Mavericks are playing like a championship-level team (1:13)

Brian Windhorst explains why Luka Doncic's and Kyrie Irving's performances in the clutch are what has boosted the Mavericks over the Timberwolves. (1:13)

LUKA DONCIC SURVEYS the court after receiving the inbounds pass from near his own baseline, quickly locking eyes with his speedy Dallas co-star.

Just over two minutes remain in the second quarter of the NBA's Western Conference finals opener, and an easy score by Minnesota Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns has just pushed their lead to seven points. But Doncic senses some fatigue in Wolves guard Anthony Edwards, who is coming off a Game 7 comeback win two days prior -- and who is assigned to cover Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving along the right sideline.

With the defense scanned, Doncic and Irving instantly exchange a nonverbal message.


Starting from just beyond the Wolves bench, Irving accelerates to a full sprint by half court to gain a step on Edwards. Meanwhile, on the TNT broadcast, the camera barely cuts away from Towns' bucket before Doncic lofts his long-distance dime over the top of the defense.

Done without a dribble, and entirely from inside his own 3-point line, Doncic's pass hits Irving in stride on the opposite end of the floor, leading him into a layup over Wolves forward Kyle Anderson.

Doncic's elite playmaking helped secure Game 1 and has put Dallas one win from the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, his "touchdown passes" have been key to the Mavs' offense transforming into a nightly threat on the break.

The stout 6-foot-7 Doncic, known better for picking apart defenses with plodding ball dominance, has fully embraced coach Jason Kidd's preseason mission to become an up-tempo team. As a result, the Mavericks turned one of last season's slowest-paced offenses into the seventh quickest in the NBA this season.

And no one in the league throws a touchdown pass quite like Luka.

"That's something he likes to do so we can get easy opportunities to score," Irving told ESPN after the Mavs' 108-105 Game 1 win over the Wolves.

"It's like a receiver and a quarterback. He throws perfect passes. They're literally right in your hands."

And it seems however Doncic gets the ball in the first place -- inbounds passes, outlet passes, steals, rebounds -- he now instinctively scans the floor for touchdown opportunities, often with tight windows.

"Obviously, I'm not fast enough to push the pace," Doncic said earlier this postseason, "but my passes are faster than feet. I think with my vision, I can do those passes. ... I know [my teammates are] going to run, so I just try to [find] them.

"I think I could be a pretty good quarterback, honestly."

KIDD FINISHED HIS playing career with 12,091 assists, second most in NBA history, many from long range and behind half court. En route to the Hall of Fame, he mastered the look-ahead pass in an effort to speed up his teams' offenses, especially later in his career.

What impresses Kidd about his young protégé is how easy the 25-year-old Doncic can make passes launched from 40, 50, 60 feet and beyond look.

"With the flick of the wrist," Kidd told ESPN. "A lot of people got to load up and throw it like a quarterback. [It takes] strength."

Doncic ranked second in the league with 9.8 assists per game this season, but no one threw more deep-ball dimes. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, a league-leading 53 of his assists during the regular season traveled more than 40 feet in the air.

Doncic has added nine touchdown passes during the Mavs' playoff run, trailing only Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton for the most during this postseason.

Serious zip was necessary for Doncic's completion to Derrick Jones Jr. in the Mavs' Game 2 win over the LA Clippers in the first round. Like on the Irving connection, Doncic spotted Jones streaking down the court to his right and threw a laser that Clippers two-way star Paul George wrongly gambled on, resulting in a slam for Jones, a former All-Star dunk champion.

Doncic lofted a ball over 2017-18 MVP James Harden into Irving's hands late in the second quarter of the Mavs' Game 3 win over the Clippers. In that instance, Irving initially looked over his right shoulder but adjusted on Doncic's signal, zagging into the paint for a layup.

"Luka can throw the frozen rope," Kidd said, "or he can throw one like a pillow."

And, during Game 1 against the Wolves last week, Doncic weaved such a spectacular 50-foot bounce pass through a thicket of defenders that Mavs staffers raved about the play for days -- despite the fact that Wolves forward Naz Reid chased down Josh Green at the rim to prevent the highlight dunk.

DONCIC'S EYES ARE already down court when he grabs an outlet pass from P.J. Washington early in Game 5 against Oklahoma City. Doncic sees rookie 7-1 center Dereck Lively II, who had contested Josh Giddey's corner 3-pointer just seconds earlier, immediately streaking down the right sideline.

Doncic takes a dribble -- more to buy some time for his big man than to advance the ball -- and lets the pass fly as he steps over the 3-point line in the backcourt. It's a pinpoint alley-oop, a rainbow pass that lands in Lively's hands less than 2 feet from the rim.

Thunder center Chet Holmgren, a 7-1 rim protector who couldn't run down his fellow rookie from behind on the play, watches from below as Lively finishes with a two-handed dunk.

"Whenever I realized how close I was to the rim, I was like, 'Oh, wow, he really put it on the money,'" Lively told ESPN after that series. "Just having someone with the vision like that on the floor is amazing. Whenever he throws it so perfectly, you got to be able to catch it and dunk it."

That lob from Doncic to Lively traveled 61.6 feet in the air, the longest playoff alley-oop in Second Spectrum's player-tracking database (since the 2013-14 season).

That's not even Doncic's longest of the year. One of his 16 assists in a March 19 road win over the San Antonio Spurs was a line drive to Jones that traveled 66.1 feet, second in the database to only a 71.8-foot dime from Jokic to Aaron Gordon in October.

Luka launches 3/4-court pass to set up Derrick Jones' slam

Luka Doncic throws up the lob from the opposite free throw line to Derrick Jones Jr. for the electric slam.

"That's crazy. That's craaaaaazy," Jones recalls of the play.

After Spurs guard Devin Vassell hit a baseline jumper, Doncic found the mismatch when he noticed Vassell trailing several steps behind the speedy Jones. As Doncic caught the inbounds pass, he immediately turned and eyed Jones down the right lane of the floor. Doncic fired a two-handed fastball of a chest pass from just behind the free throw line, sailing it over Vassell's desperate wave and putting the ball just below the American flag decal on the corner of the backboard.

"He had to put some heat behind it," Jones said. "When the ball hit my hands, it literally just fell straight through the rim. It was an amazing feeling."

Jones and the rest of the Mavs have learned to run the floor regardless of circumstances -- off makes, misses, turnovers -- in part because Doncic has been making seemingly impossible passes look simple during Dallas' march through the West playoffs.

"With him at this moment," Jones said, "there's nothing that surprises me."

ESPN Stats & Information's Matt Williams contributed to this report.