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With Mavs contingent courtside, Luka Doncic guides Slovenia to win in EuroBasket opener

COLOGNE, Germany — Lithuania is a bigger country than Slovenia — in population and geographic size and global recognition — and its men’s national basketball team has more NBA experience and depth.

But Lithuania does not have Luka Doncic.

And the Mavericks, Slovenia — and Lithuania, once again — have learned Doncic’s talent and production can negate most mismatches.

The latest example came Thursday, in Slovenia’s 92-85 victory to open the prestigious EuroBasket tournament here in Lanxess Arena.

Doncic finished with 14 points (4-of-17 shooting), six rebounds, 10 assists and three steals in 35 minutes to power Slovenia’s come-from-behind group stage opener. Center Mike Tobey led with 24 points, many thanks to Doncic’s elite vision in the fourth quarter.

It marked Slovenia’s 10th consecutive EuroBasket win — a remarkable feat by any standard, but particularly for a nation smaller in population than Houston.

But one citizen of Slovenia’s 2.1 million has turned the country into a hotbed of basketball fandom with such national passion that it extends all the way to Dallas — and Lithuania knows better than most.

“He’s such an amazing talent,” Tobey said of Doncic, who did not do interviews after the game. “If you just give him and opportunity and a little bit of space, he’s going to make the right read every time.”

Doncic hasn’t been on this EuroBasket stage in five years, not since he was a rising 18-year-old international prospect who deferred often to veteran point guard and mentor Goran Dragic during Slovenia’s historic 2017 championship.

And he’d never been the face of a championship production.

But throughout the arena and the greater Cologne area, Doncic’s face is featured on posters, signage, netting and streetlight banners over the Rhine River.

As the face of these European championships, Doncic didn’t disappoint in his first of five group stage games.

Though quiet through the first three quarters — statistically, not with officials — Doncic logged several highlights in the early goings. Most notably: an ankle-breaking juke over New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas and a fiery run and dunk past former NBAer Ignas Brazdeikis.

Call the last few minutes of the fourth quarter one continuous highlight for Doncic, too.

Slovenia trailed by five points (78-73) with about 6 minutes remaining as Lithuania’s NBA big-man duo of Valanciunas and Indiana Pacers All-Star Domantas Sabonis targeted scoring in the paint.

But then came one Doncic assist to Tobey with a one-handed rifle pass.

Then another two-handed, overhand dart to Tobey at the rim.

And another.

Mavericks coach Jason Kidd often refers to Doncic as the “quarterback” of their scheme.

He had a clear view of the 23-year-old superstar taking the same role for Slovenia as Kidd, owner Mark Cuban, general manager Nico Harrison, assistant general manager Michael Finley and director of player health and performance Casey Smith watched courtside.

Lithuania fans are notoriously crazy and intense.

Look no further than the many in bright green, yellow, red and tie-dye shirts, pants, flags, clown wigs, capes and with fake machete knives who chanted, danced, clapped and hollered throughout the three-level arena Thursday as proof.

They formed their own version of a Green Monster wall behind the basket at Slovenia’s bench and spilled over into Slovenia’s designated sections.

“It felt like we were playing in Lithuania,” Dragic said.

Doncic and Slovenia knew what to expect.

In July 2021, Slovenia played its Olympic qualifying tournament matches in Knaus, Lithuania, and faced the home team in the final — winner to Tokyo, loser out.

Lithuania had never missed an Olympic berth, and Slovenia had never earned one, but Doncic reversed history — and quelled the raucous all-Lithuania crowd — with a 31-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist triple-double to spark Slovenia’s Cinderella run through the Games.

Fourteen months later, Doncic’s poise and production appeared just the same.

“They had a better idea of how to cover Luka,” Slovenia coach Aleksander Sekulic said. “They were switching a lot, but Luka always finds a way.”

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