How Luka Dončić’s creativity dominated James Harden, Clippers in Mavericks’ win

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What Luka Dončić does when he plays the LA Clippers is what Mentos does to Diet Coke. It’s a chemical reaction, one that’s quite possibly dictated by scientific principles, which causes Dončić to eviscerate the team he faced in his first two playoff series.

It doesn’t matter that only six Dallas Mavericks players remain from those postseason clashes, or that the Clippers (3-5) are in the midst of an in-season renovation after trading for James Harden three games ago.

In Friday’s matchup, a decisive 144-126 victory for Dallas (7-2), Dončić smothered his old foes with 44 points on 17-of-21 shooting in just 31 minutes. The zen-scoring state he entered late in the first half and early in the third quarter must have been one of his career’s finest. Whatever shots he wanted — unusually long pull-up 2s, improvised turnarounds, late shot clock 3s — made his home arena echo.

Luka Dončić tonight:

🔥 44 PTS (17-21 FG)
🔥 6 REB
🔥 6 AST pic.twitter.com/3pxfsa7rET

— NBA TV (@NBATV) November 11, 2023

But Dončić’s postseason battles against the Clippers are an old narrative, one with minimal comparative use when the rosters have seen so much change (not to mention that Dallas has been to a conference finals more recently than LA). What’s more interesting is his long-running juxtaposition with Harden, an oft-cited stylistic comparison who has returned to Dončić’s conference, even if Harden’s career has entered its twilight, making him more of a problem than a system. And what’s interesting about that is how Dončić, when at his best like he was on Friday, fundamentally differs from Harden.

It almost feels like punching down to compare this current version of Harden, with all his egotistical glory of the past that his on-court play rarely vindicates, to Dončić’s ascendency. But there was a time not long ago when the comparison was more apt. It started with each player’s beloved stepback 3 and progressed to both players’ heliocentrism, which pushed the boundaries with which one player could singularly dictate an entire offense. Like the Harden-led Houston Rockets, Dallas has built rosters with rim-running centers and spot-up shooters who can defend, something that mitigates each player’s defensive weaknesses.

But it’s more than just play style or roster construction. We learned years ago that Dončić’s unique athleticism almost perfectly mirrors Harden’s. It’s in both players’ stop-start deceleration, the ability to eschew first-step quickness for second and third steps that happens when defenders are still reacting to the first or second ones. At Harden’s peak, one where he pushed what might be basketball history’s most unstoppable team to a seventh game that was lost on 3-point variance, he was quicker than Dončić. Peak Harden had better full seasons as a 3-point shooter, won an MVP and was the league’s most dominant offensive player. Dončić hasn’t quite done that yet.

When watching old Harden highlights, though, there’s a sameness to what you see like he was processing this sport through ones and zeroes. He perfected his half-dozen preferred shots and another dozen favored passes, and for that, he deserves his laurels within basketball history. The blow-by finger roll, the Euro step in the lane, the stepback 3, the push floater disguised as an alley-oop, the laser-beam crosscourt pass, the casual pocket pass to the roller. Type “James Harden” and any number over 50 into YouTube’s search bar, and the resulting videos of Harden scoring explosion will likely feature every one of those. Perfection is still perfection even if it has limits.

What makes Dončić different is that those same search queries, for a player similar in many ways to that old Harden, turn up something new that Dončić has invented for any single game he’s played. Dončić is the artistic expression of the Harden stereotype, someone who took his computer-modeled approach and filled it with creativity. The obvious example from Friday would be Dončić’s attempted through-the-legs dribble which somehow turned into a layup.

Paul George poked the ball away from him, so maybe Dončić’s inherent basketball magnetism can be credited for turning it into two points, maybe not. But it was another play, a simpler one, that stood out as the most recent example in the I’ve-never-seen-Dončić-do-that-exact-thing-before genre. It started very familiarly, a Dončić jump stop near the rim while he looked for outlets or step-throughs, before turning into this:

Dončić does have a beloved post turnaround from that exact area, and he’s been known to shoot Dirk Nowitzki’s one-footer on occasion. But has he ever just shot over another defender — Harden in this instance — because he’s too unbalanced to continue pivoting and too nonplussed to be bothered by a smaller player’s contest? It’s hardly Dončić’s best highlight from Friday’s explosion, and it wasn’t the only moment that felt creatively new. But it’s one that stood out nevertheless.

Dončić’s dissimilarities from the most like-for-like comparison of his past were displayed in other ways during Friday’s victory, ones which probably matter more to the actual team than some media fascination about stylistic aesthetics. Dončić’s willing partnership with another ball-dominant star, Kyrie Irving, looked better than ever against the Clippers. His increasing comfortability with catch-and-shoot 3s, a long-running discussion point for Harden, has opened up Dallas’ offense in other ways. And Dončić’s once again turning waylaid role players like Derrick Jones Jr. into scheme-based stars.

But with Dallas moving to an eye-catching 7-2 record, it’s clear that these old conversations about Dončić — involving Harden or his past battles with the Clippers — are increasingly fading away. Dončić himself is the story, and there’s no need for any more comparisons or callbacks for what he does.

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(Photo of James Harden and Luka Dončić: Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)

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