Four games between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers isn't enough. The NBA needs more. A playoff series' worth. Immediately.
As in, this season.
LeBron James and Luka Doncic made as much clear Friday night during the Lakers' 119-110 overtime victory. They exchanged superstar stat lines, tallying a triple-double apiece. They splashed step-back threes. They went at one another. They carried their teams in crunch time.
And when it was all over, they hugged, a legend embracing the up-and-comer who idolizes him, but also as two peers:
"You're a bad motherf--ker," a 34-year-old James, no doubt trying to score cool points with the kids, can be heard saying. It sounds like he really means it.
This was not just another game, not just another throwaway moment. The season is young, yet this clash of talent feels anything but.
Of course, that's what it is. Doncic is a 20-year-old sophomore. There has not been time for him to groom a head-to-head rivalry with James. They still aren't rivals. They're at different stages of their careers. Doncic is at the beginning, and LeBron is, well, not at the beginning.
Somehow, though, they're not quite as far away from each other as their resumes suggest. Time separates them. Their stardom? Not so much. They're closer to equal footing than not.
Doncic has not seized the torch from James. Other players are in line. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been tabbed as the NBA's next singular overlord and might already have the throne. Kawhi Leonard has forced his way into the discussion. James himself refuses to vacate the best-player-alive throne quietly, if at all.
Whatever. That's not what this is about—not the primary takeaway from Friday night.
The real point is more of a reminder: Doncic isn't coming. He's here, now, a full-fledged superstar.
He finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists on 10-of-23 shooting (4-of-9 from three) against the Lakers. His inexperience still seeps through (six turnovers), but he's already one of the league's seven-best passers, a viable crunch-time crutch and an impossibly polished shot-maker:
On Friday night, he couldn't prevent the Mavericks from blowing their fourth-quarter lead. But they were in a position to win at all because of him. Kristaps Porzingis faded in the second half, and it barely registered until overtime, when Dallas collectively began to crack and crumble.
This game doesn't even get that far if Doncic never takes a blow to the back of the head that drew blood late in the fourth quarter. He didn't look right after that, but he still went on to set up Dorian Finney-Smith with a corner three that would have sealed the deal if not for Maxi Kleber's bizarre decision to collapse on a James drive with the Lakers down three at the end of regulation. That teed up a Danny Green three:
And yes, in case you're wondering, Doncic's injury was no joke:
Playing through pain is not a mark of his rise. It's a bonus anecdote. His game is atypical enough without turning to the ethereal.
Doncic is now averaging 26.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game on 58.2 true shooting. Never mind how this compares to past sophomores. It doesn't. Twenty-four-year-old Oscar Robertson is the only player in recorded history to maintain these benchmarks for an entire season.
Perhaps Doncic's numbers fall off this torrid pace. He has a lot of season left to navigate. And yet, how can he regress to the mean when this is already on par with his normal? Entering Friday night, his per-minute production was right in line with that from his rookie year.
That he has room to grow is genuinely terrifying. He could keep getting to the foul line more often. He could hit threes at a higher clip for the entire season. He could expand his post game.
Not that Doncic needs to do anything of those things. For the purpose of matching up with the league's top stars, he doesn't. He's already doing that. He's one of them.
Which brings us to the other point of Friday night: James isn't declining, not by design or otherwise. The Lakers may run through Anthony Davis now, but the Lakers are his show.
James put up 39 points, 12 rebounds and 16 assists on 13-of-23 shooting (4-of-9 from three) in the win over Dallas. To say he carried Los Angeles is not a stretch, just overwhelmingly accurate:
Someone playing out their age-35 season has no business being this important to what is, for now, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. And yet, defying logic is James' default.
His entire season thus far is a crash course in flipping off Father Time. It has flown somewhat under the radar, but he's averaging 26.4 points on 60.9 true shooting while dishing out what would be a career-high—and league-leading—10.8 assists.
James' prime will not intersect with Doncic's peak. It doesn't need to. Nor does Doncic have to be at the apex of his heyday to tussle with James. This matchup is fun now, in a meaningful way, just as they are:
Another three go-arounds isn't enough to get our fix either. We should be thankful to have Dec. 1, Dec. 29 and Jan. 10 in the books. It still isn't enough.
Scheduled rest could eat into one or two of those matchups. Even if it doesn't, mid-winter meetings aren't the playoffs.
Postseason head-to-heads hit different. Higher stakes are always better. They're more memorable. The NBA needs a LeBron-Luka sparring now, when they're both superstars at or near the top of their games.
With the Lakers seemingly a playoff lock, the burden of possibility falls to the Mavericks. Many pegged them as a postseason team entering training camp. Others wondered if they were there yet.
That question of whether they're ready remains. They might be. They could be.
King of the corner 3 from the Houston Rockets, P.J. Tucker, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the James Harden Russell Westbrook partnership, the Chris Paul trade, the Golden State Warriors, winning Championships, and the importance of the All-Defensive Team.