Luka Doncic Makes History Even When His NBA Season Is Long Over
Though the Dallas Mavericks exited the NBA Playoffs on June 6, that hasn’t stopped Luka Dončić from making more history on the court. That continued on July 4 when Dončić posted a triple-double to pace Slovenia to a 96–85 victory over Lithuania in one of the four Olympic Qualifying tournaments.
Slovenia joins Italy, the Czech Republic, and Germany as the last four teams for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Going to the Olympics is even more significant for two of those teams than it might be for the others.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Luka Dončić has made history for the Slovenian national team.
Luka Dončić teamed up with another NBA star to bring Slovenia a historic win in 2017
Before 2017, Slovenia’s men’s national team had never medaled at EuroBasket, FIBA’s European championship tournament. The Slovenians had only made the medal round once, losing the bronze-medal game in 2009. Since gaining independence during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia has played in the FIBA World Cup three times, never finishing higher than seventh.
But the country had a young star on the rise, and they unleashed him on the rest of Europe at the 2017 EuroBasket. Luka Dončić had established himself as a rising star for Real Madrid, a power from Spain’s ACB league. The 18-year-old teamed with the veteran international performer and NBA star Goran Dragić as the group stage tipped off.
Slovenia tore through their group in Helsinki, Finland, posting a perfect 5–0 record to advance to the round of 16. From there, Slovenia blew out Ukraine before knocking off Latvia in a 103–97 thriller.
In the semifinals, Slovenia pulled off an upset that reverberated around Europe. Defending EuroBasket champion Spain was heavily favored to win the matchup in Istanbul, Turkey. Instead, Dončić went for 11 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists in 36 minutes, and Slovenia blew out the Spaniards 92–72. Slovenia completed its first EuroBasket title with a 93–85 victory over Serbia in the final.
As for the Olympics? That was a wild dream for Luka Dončić and Slovenia. At least it used to be.
Slovenia had to get into the Tokyo Olympics the hard way
During qualifying for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Slovenia did not have Luka Dončić available, and it showed. Slovenia went 3–9 in group play and didn’t get out of the European zone qualifying tournament. So an automatic berth to the Olympics was off the table.
Playing in the qualifying tournament in Kaunas, Lithuania, the Slovenians stormed through the group stage. They blasted Angola 118–68 and Poland 112–77 to breeze into the knockout stage. A 98–70 victory over Venezuela in the semifinals set up a meeting with the tournament hosts for the coveted berth in the Olympics.
It is Slovenia’s first-ever appearance in the Olympics. They will play in Group C with Argentina, Japan, and Spain. It’s worth noting Argentina and Spain played for the championship at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, with Spain the defending world champions. The U.S. enters as three-time defending Olympic gold-medalists.
But Slovenia wasn’t the only nation with a huge breakthrough victory on July 4.
The Czech Republic is another first-timer in the Olympics
Much like Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic emerged from the fall of former Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s. Their record at EuroBasket made the Slovenians look like a dynasty. The Czechs reached EuroBasket just five times since beginning play as a national team in 1993. Their best finish was a seventh-place spot in 2015. They were 20th at the 2017 EuroBasket.
But they landed a bid in the qualifying tournament for the Olympics with a strong showing at the FIBA World Cup in 2019.
The Czechs finished second in Group B at the Victoria, Canada, qualifying tournament. They followed up an 87–70 loss to Turkey in their opener with an 80–79 nail biter that eliminated Uruguay. In the semifinals, the Czech Republic surrendered a six-point lead to host Canada in the final 22 seconds and needed to regroup for overtime. Tomas Satoransky of the Chicago Bulls won it with a jumper with a second remaining, 103–101.
The Czechs finished their first-ever trip to the Olympics with a 97–72 pummeling of Greece in the final. The Czech Republic is in Group A in Tokyo with Iran, France, and the U.S. Group B includes two qualifiers, Germany and Italy, along with Australia and Nigeria.
But Slovenia’s qualifying means there will be another star to watch at the Olympics. Luka Dončić gets a chance on a worldwide stage.
Statistics courtesy of FIBA.