In 2007, LeBron James led his underdog Cleveland Cavaliers into Detroit for a crucial Game 5 against the former champion Pistons. Despite their underdog status, the Cavaliers had managed to tie the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece, but with a road win still necessary to steal the series, Cleveland needed its 22-year-old superstar to play the game of his life to help carry them past the heavily favored Pistons. He delivered. The numbers are now etched into NBA legend: 48 points, 29 of Cleveland’s last 30 and a stunning double-overtime victory that helped propel Cleveland into the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
On that night, James claimed the title of best player in the NBA. He hasn’t relinquished it since, though with his Los Angeles Lakers on the brink of elimination against the Phoenix Suns, his throne is more precarious than ever. Yes, James is nursing a high-ankle sprain, but his scoring average (22.2 ppg) against the Suns is downright pedestrian. There is no shame in a bit of slippage. LeBron is 36. Father time is undefeated. In this case, he’s also not being particularly subtle.
On Tuesday, the basketball world expected a vintage performance from James to carry the Lakers without Anthony Davis. Something like what he did against Detroit would have been necessary considering Phoenix’s 30-point victory. James has as little supporting talent as he did in Cleveland, but unlike his younger years, he no longer appears capable of slaying a contender by himself. But only a day after that disappointment, a younger superstar did just that.
Luka Doncic grew up idolizing LeBron. At 22 years old, he is the same age James was when he delivered his masterpiece against the Pistons. And on Wednesday, in the Dallas Mavericks’ 105-100 Game 5 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, he had a game that was eerily reminiscent of the one that put the 2007 Cavaliers on the path to the Finals. The similarities are almost impossible to ignore.
- James scored 48 points, pulled in nine rebounds and dished out seven assists. That’s a combined total of 64. Doncic scored 42 points Wednesday, pulled in eight rebounds and dished out 14 assists. That’s a combined total of 64.
- LeBron’s teammates scored just 61 points. Luka’s scored 63.
- James scored 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points. Doncic either scored or assisted on 31 of Dallas’ 37 total field goals.
- Both games were played on the road. Both came in Game 5. James toppled a former champion that had knocked him out a year earlier. Doncic outdueled a former Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard that knocked him out a year earlier.
It was the sort of performance that no other player in basketball, save perhaps a healthy James, could have had, but perhaps more importantly, it was the sort of performance that no other player in basketball would ever need to have. Leonard has Paul George. James has Davis. Kevin Durant has James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Giannis Antetokounmpo has Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. Even Stephen Curry can let Draymond Green play point guard for a few possessions here and there.
Yet Doncic scored only three fewer points than the rest of his startling lineup combined, and most of their points were assisted by Doncic himself. Only one other Maverick even reached double-figures, and that was Tim Hardaway Jr., a cap throw-in from the Kristaps Porzingis blockbuster. The player Dallas acquired to be for Doncic what George is for Leonard and Davis is for James attempted only six shots in this game.
But it didn’t matter because Doncic, like James before him, is essentially teammate-proof. I mean, what more could the defense do on a play like this? Doncic is essentially trapped in a diamond of four Clipper defenders on this floater.
Even James didn’t boast the breadth of scoring options Doncic has at this age. Luka beat the Clippers with stepback 3’s. He beat them with floaters. He beat them with bank shots. He beat them with spin moves and turnaround jumpers. They tried every imaginable defense against him and they all failed. Just as the dominant Pistons once knelt at the altar of King James, a Clippers team built around two of the best perimeter defenders of this era had no answer for this third-year pro that hasn’t even won a playoff series yet.
In 2019, Doncic was, amazingly, a sneaker free agent. James took notice and hatched a plan: He wanted to launch his own brand within Nike, much like Jordan Brand, and sign Luka as his first endorser. “That’s how much I believed in him,” James said at the time. It was a fitting endorsement from a legend to his likely successor. For a decade and a half, James held dominion over the NBA. Just as his reign is nearing its end, his chosen heir has stepped up and staked a claim to the throne for himself.
James didn’t win the championship in 2007. Doncic won’t this season, even if he completes this upset of the Clippers. LeBron didn’t have the supporting talent at the time and neither does Luka now, and the rest of the NBA should be extremely grateful for that, because none of his competitors can lift his teammates the way that he just did. He is playing at a level in the postseason that only James has matched, and when the king truly is ready to step down, it would be nearly impossible to imagine anyone other than Doncic claiming his crown.