Much can – and will – be said regarding both Luka Dončić and Trae Young throughout their respective careers. But for Dončić and the rest of the Dallas Mavericks, defense comes first in Thursday’s season opener against the Atlanta Hawks.

Dončić and Young, linked through a draft-day trade, possess enough draw to be this generation’s Magic Johnson and Larry Bird equivalent. Yet, on Tuesday, Dallas’ superstar chose not to stake his claim in the building narrative between the two. Instead, he elected to enumerate on the defensive side of the ball and what that means to the Mavericks heading into Thursday’s game.

“It’s not just me,” Dončić said. “We got to be better defensively than last year. That is our goal.”

Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd echoed Dončić’s beliefs.

“When you hear Luka, one of our better players, talk about defense, that has been our message,” Kidd said. “It’s something that we need.”

Defense comes first. That was heard loud and clear.

A budding Dallas vs. Atlanta rivalry? 

However, in the coming days, Dončić’s willingness to defend will be on full display against the point guard he was traded for on draft night four seasons ago. Though he tries to downplay the significance of the storyline, there is no denying the pressure that is mounting on Dončić’s shoulders to carry this Mavericks team further than many intend.

It would be remiss to think that Atlanta making the Eastern Conference Finals, while Dallas floundered a 2-0 series lead to the Los Angeles Clippers, didn’t bother Dončić at least a little. He is human at the end of the day, right?

That doesn’t mean Atlanta’s success spurred forth anger from Dončić. But he’s had to have read, heard and seen the debates regarding who is better between him and Young, right?

The once unanimous answer of Dončić being the better player isn’t so unanimous after the 2021 NBA playoffs. That bothers Dallas’ star point guard, right?

Well, not necessarily. Somehow to Dončić, regardless of the history and the public opinion implications, Thursday is just another game. One out of 82. Or as Kidd put it, it’s just Mavericks versus the Hawks.

“He [Young] has to play everybody,” Dončić said. “They [Hawks] had an amazing run last year. Trae is an amazing player. We have to play great to beat them.”

Still, that isn’t how ‘rivalries’ should work. When the Lakers played the Boston Celtics in the 80s, it wasn’t just another game. Every time the Chicago Bulls played the Detriot Piston in the early 90s, it wasn’t just another Friday night. When Michael Jordan hung a double-nickel on the New York Knicks, it wasn’t just another game.

There were emotions, and they were raw. The teams hated each other and loved to hate each other. The games weren’t just one out of 82. And to say that they were was to admit basketball blasphemy.

Dallas remains focused on the big picture

Yet, to players and coaches in Dallas, Thursday is just the beginning of a season-long marathon. And that marathon will likely end with both teams coming up short of playing in the NBA Finals. Somehow, there is no meaningful history between the two franchises since 2018. Young is in Atlanta and Dončić is in Dallas. Though traded for one another, the limited emotions and lack of meaningful games holds this brewing rivalry short of its full bloom.

However, it can’t be denied – regardless of what Dončić may say – Thursday is more than just another game. It’s a chance for Dallas to measure itself against a franchise that came two wins away from the NBA Finals last season. If not for the rivalry storyline – that Dončić downplays – this season’s opener is for the Mavericks’ wills and wants to compete amongst the NBA’s elite.

And that starts, admittedly, with great team defense.

“It’s the Hawks against the Mavs,” Kidd said. “At the end, it’s about the Mavs and Hawks. Trae had an incredible season, and I look for him to have another one. They are a young and exciting team [Atlanta], and they are well-coached. I don’t look at it as Trae against Luka, but it’s Mavs against the Hawks.”

Related Mavericks reading:

“The key to Dallas’ on-court success is actually found off the court.” 

“Dallas Mavericks roster cuts and what they mean ahead of the start of the regular season.”

“What winning big in the preseason tells us about these Dallas Mavericks.” 

Feature image via Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports.