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Dallas Mavericks

Stat Just Happened: The clutch has not been kind to Luka Doncic this season. What gives?

"Stat Just Happened" is our new series where we'll pair an important stat with how it actually unfolded on the floor. Our aim? To answer key questions, uncover hidden truths and peel back the curtain on why some numbers matter more than others.

Today, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic takes the spotlight.

41.9

According to NBA.com, that's Luka Doncic's true shooting percentage - a catch-all measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-pointers and free throws - in the clutch this season.

Why is it noteworthy? It's ... not good.

As I wrote a couple of months ago, there are 54 players this season who have scored at least 50 points in the clutch, otherwise known as the last five minutes of a five-point game. Surprisingly, the second-least efficient of those players has been LeBron James, who has posted a true shooting percentage of 43.3 percent in the clutch. The only player who has been less efficient than James with the game in the balance is Doncic with a true shooting percentage of 41.9.

It's the result of Doncic shooting 21-for-65 (32.3 percent) from the field, 6-for-35 (17.1 percent) from the 3-point line and 15-for-23 (65.2 percent) from the free throw line. Based on those numbers, it probably won't come as a surprise to hear that the Mavericks haven't been great with the one-time All-Star on the court in those situations, scoring at an abysmal rate of 95.2 points per 100 possessions.

Now, numbers can be misleading, so I watched all 65 of the shots Doncic has taken in the clutch this season to get a better sense of what's going on. The biggest thing that jumped out is that he settles for a lot of tough 3s late in the shot clock. Over half of his field goal attempts in the clutch have been 3-pointers and the bulk of those 3-pointers have been step backs.

I took a closer look at Doncic's confusing 3-point shooting earlier in this hiatus. His shooting in the clutch is a microcosm of everything that I covered. The TL;DR version is that it's incredibly difficult to distinguish between what a bad shot and a good shot is for Doncic because he's one of the league's premiere tough shot-makers. And when those shots are falling, he becomes practically impossible to defend because those step backs open up the rest of his game.

For example, this isn't a good shot for 99.9 percent of NBA players...

...but it's one Doncic has proven he can make.

According to NBA.com, Doncic has connected on 34.7 percent of his step back 3s this season. There is some noise to that number - as I found out, it doesn't include every step back 3 he's attempted - but it's still impressive considering the volume with which he shoots them. While there's no way of filtering which players have made the most step back 3s this season on NBA.com, it's safe to assume that Doncic is second to only the step back king himself, James Harden.

Doncic will bust them out against anyone, including guards like Jrue Holiday...

...forwards like LeBron James...

...even towering centres like Hassan Whiteside.

That's not to excuse some of the 3s Doncic has taken in the clutch this season. (He's launched some real head-scratchers, like a step back from 34-feet with 20 seconds remaining in a three-point game against the New York Knicks that Damian Lillard might have even scoffed at). If anything, he'd benefit from being more selective with the step back 3s he's fallen in love with at the end of games, both because he hasn't been able to knock them down at a high enough rate to warrant taking as many as he has and because good things tend to happen when he attacks the paint, where he's a threat to score and pass.

Doncic's finishing around the basket has also taken a hit in the clutch, but he's scoring in the restricted area at a league average rate (56.0 percent), which is an improvement over what he's shooting from the perimeter (17.1 percent). He's among the league leaders in crunch time assists as well. According to NBA.com, he has dished out 21 assists in the clutch, ranking him behind only Devonte' Graham (27), LeBron James (26), Spencer Dinwiddie (25), DeMar DeRozan (24), Marcus Smart (24), Nikola Jokic (24) and Ricky Rubio (24) for most in the league.

Many of Doncic's assists have come on plays like this, with him blowing by his defender, collapsing the paint and dishing it out to a shooter...

...or a cutter.

Those assists have come with a decent amount of turnovers, but that sort of comes with the territory of being a high usage playmaker. Doncic's usage rate in the clutch is 36.2 percent this season, meaning he has used over a third of the Mavericks' plays in the minutes he's been on the court at the end of close games. Once again, that's one of the highest rates in the league.

One of the issues the Mavericks face is that Kristaps Porzingis, their second-leading scorer, hasn't been particularly reliable in the clutch either. He hasn't carried nearly the same load as Doncic has, but he's shooting only 12-for-40 (30.0 percent) from the field and 2-for-16 (12.5 percent) from 3-point range with the game on the line this season. With both him and Doncic being unable to create efficient shots for themselves when the Mavericks need them the most, it's no wonder that they are only 14-21 in clutch games this season. (The Mavericks have lost only 27 games this season, so three-quarters of their losses have come in the clutch. Not great).

If there's reason for optimism, it's that Doncic was one of the best clutch performers in the league last season. If he was able to carve teams up when all eyes were on him as a 19-year-old rookie, you'd think the way he's played in the clutch this season is more of an anomaly than a sign of what's to come. There seemed to be less standing and watching for the Mavericks in the clutch last season - many more of Doncic's shots appeared to come off of high pick-and-rolls and he seemed to post up a little more, a part of his game I'm hoping we see more of in the years to come - but he still feasted on a steady diet of step back 3s and drives to the rim.

Still, as it pertains to this season, it could spell trouble for the Mavericks as they look to make some noise in the playoffs. It will be a learning experience for Doncic with it being his first postseason and all, but it's going to be tough for them to win against the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets if they can't close out games.

It's why that one number is so important...

41.9

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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