Moments after the final buzzer sounded Thursday, with teammates still doubled over in fatigue and a sold-out Crypto.com Arena wondering what happened, LeBron James and Luka Dončić met at center court and embraced. A 58-minute, double-overtime thriller was over, but before the two stars retreated to opposite ends of a back hallway, respect needed to be paid.
And his heir.
Dallas beat the Lakers, and this one had a little of everything. Want the good? How about Christian Wood, the Mavs’ would-be second star, racking up 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in 47 minutes. Wood added five blocks, including one in the second overtime where he hopped off the floor to swat away a Russell Westbrook layup attempt.
Or Westbrook? Despite a few brain cramps—why Westbrook chose the midway mark of overtime to barrel over Dončić and pick up a wholly unnecessary flagrant foul in a tie game we’ll never know—Westbrook was solid. He had 28 points. He collected seven rebounds. He handed out five assists. He frustrated Dončić in the second half, muscling him deep onto the perimeter.
The game also had Tim Hardaway Jr. scoring 22 for the Mavs, and Kendrick Nunn and Wenyen Gabriel combining for 26 for the Lakers.
There was plenty of bad, too. The Lakers shot 39% from the floor. The Mavericks committed 19 turnovers. Dallas shot 33.3% from three, lights out compared to L.A.’s 24.4% connect rate. The Lakers shot 63% from the free throw line … 10 percentage points better than the Mavericks.
The refereeing was suspect. Neither side was happy. After watching Dončić take one too many bumps—and apparently being informed that Stan Van Gundy, calling the game for TNT, believed Dončić deserved more whistles—Mark Cuban, from behind the Dallas bench, tweeted: “Stan Van Gundy is absolutely right. Worst officiated game.” In the closing seconds of regulation, Troy Brown Jr. appeared to get fouled by Hardaway on a three-point shot. No call. When Brown was asked about the play in the locker room, James, from across the room, said “that’s a f—ing foul.”
Still—LeBron vs. Luka makes any game good. Facing traps and blitzes, double and triple teams, Dončić stuffed the stat sheet with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. He looked gassed at the end of the third quarter but still summoned the strength to knock down a game-tying three-pointer at the end of the fourth. “I’m kicking myself for that,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham. He did it again in the first overtime, banging in a 27-foot step-back.
Said Ham, “He did what Luka does.”
James doesn’t hide his admiration for Dončić. On a recent episode of The Shop, James explained why. “He can control a game,” James said. “He doesn’t even have to shoot. Literally, he’ll walk the ball up 10 straight times and get to his spot every single time, just because of his pace.” Over a career-high 53 grueling minutes Thursday, Dončić did just that.
“L was incredible,” said Mavericks coach Jason Kidd. “He was Luka.”
For Dončić, the admiration is mutual. Earlier in the week, Dončić was asked about the possibility of surpassing James, who will likely pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the all-time scoring leader this season. “If you’re saying me, there’s no way,” said Dončić. “Because I’m not playing that much.” James needed 28 shots to get his 24 points Thursday, missing all seven of his three-point attempts in a 47-minute stint. But, as always, he contributed in other ways. He yanked down a game-high 16 rebounds. He dished out nine assists. He got Nunn going early, Gabriel going late and set Brown up for a shot to win.
James and Dončić will move on. James will anxiously await the return of Anthony Davis, hoping a healthy Davis—and maybe a little help at the trade deadline—will create some stability on a Lakers team that has had “a billion different lineups.” Dončić will hope the eventual return of Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber will give Dallas enough firepower to make a late-season push.
They will meet again in February: James, perhaps the greatest player in NBA history, and Dončić, one of a handful of players on a short list of stars who could eclipse him.