MALAGA, Spain – For now, Dallas Mavericks star Luka Dončić is scheduled to play Saturday for Slovenia in a highly anticipated exhibition game against the United States.
But Dončić’s status for that game is questionable because of, yes, you guessed it, two of the most dreaded phrases for NBA fans and players today: “load management” and “back to back.”
Slovenia coach Aleksander Sekulic told The Athletic “of course” he intends to play Dončić on Saturday night against the U.S., and also before that in a friendly Friday against host-country Spain.
But then came the “ifs” and “buts,” and the best-laid plans of mice, men and basketball coaches often go astray when it comes to stars in the lineup on consecutive nights.
“It’s a good question, but (playing extended minutes) is one of the things you have to learn to do to get ready for the (FIBA World Cup),” Sekulic said. “Even though in the tournament there is always a day between games, nevertheless there is going to be motivation (to play Dončić on Friday and Saturday) for sure. But we also have to be smart with load management for Luka. Not only him but everybody else, but of course Luka is our main player.”
Sekulic said he could cut Dončić’s minutes short overall, or play him in shorter bursts in one of the two games this weekend, but left it with the ultimate caveat of “let’s see how the first game goes.”
Dončić played in 66 games for the Mavericks and nursed minor lower-leg injuries. When it came to back-to-backs, Dončić appeared seven of the 13 games in which Dallas had a contest right after another.
Also, he’s already been banged up in exhibition play with Slovenia, banging his knees against a player from Greece in a friendly last week. The Slovenians already lost an NBA player to serious injury, as Vlatko Čančar of the Nuggets tore his ACL last week and has already returned to Denver.
In the portion of Slovenia’s practice visible to the media Thursday, Dončić was participating and moving without trouble.
“We talk a lot about protecting him, limiting his minutes,” Sekulic said.
Team USA is so excited to play against Dončić — the game is at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday — that last week in Las Vegas the U.S. Select Team used Cade Cunningham as a Dončić impersonator in a scrimmage against the American national team.
Cunningham, Select Team dominate Team USA in scrimmage
USA Basketball has a back-to-back this weekend too, following up the game against Slovenia with one against Spain — which, if you’re counting, is the No. 1-ranked team in international play right now. The Americans are No. 2.
U.S. coach Steve Kerr said he intended to use the same starting five of Jalen Brunson, Anthony Edwards, Mikal Bridges, Brandon Ingram and Jaren Jackson Jr. against Slovenia, but allowed that there could be changes for the game Sunday because of the games on consecutive nights.
“Yeah, and the group coming off the bench (Tyrese Haliburton, Austin Reaves, Cam Johnson, Bobby Portis, Paolo Banchero) has also developed a lot of chemistry, but we also need to see different lineups play together because there will be foul trouble, injuries, all of that stuff.
“We want to keep blending these guys together, but most likely we’ll start that way on Saturday.”
Josh Hart, who sat the Americans’ 117-74 win over Puerto Rico on Monday because he was about to sign a contract extension with the New York Knicks, practiced in Spain on Thursday and will be on the court for the games this weekend.
Team USA is missing assistant coach Erik Spoelstra, who stayed behind in the U.S. to attend the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Dwyane Wade, who won two titles in Miami with Spoelstra as coach, is among the inductees. Spoelstra is scheduled to rejoin the Americans when they move to Abu Dhabi next week.
(Photo: Jerome Miron / USA Today)