HOUSTON — For one of the few times since his rookie season began four months ago, Luka Doncic looked tired Monday night — and sounded even more so.
One night after overcoming a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Portland at home, Doncic and Mavericks sputtered for stretches during Monday night’s 120-104 loss to Houston at Toyota Center.
Of course, the opponent had a lot to do with that — the Rockets (33-23) and James Harden, continuing his otherworldly season though he needed to score 11 points in the final 2:32 to reach 31 points and increase his streak of 30-plus-point games to 30.
Doncic didn’t come right out and say that he’s nearing the proverbial NBA rookie wall, with just one game remaining until the All-Star break, but here’s how he responded to a question about whether the season is wearing on him:
“It’s a little bit,” he said. “It’s different from in Europe, a tough season. I had a long season last year, so, yeah, it’s getting a little bit tougher.”
The EuroLeague season is 70 games, but it’s spread out, with teams playing twice a week and rarely back-to-back, except during the playoffs or in FIBA tournaments.
And this was no ordinary back-to-back. Doncic played the entire fourth quarter, scoring 13 points in the period and 28 points overall, in the comeback win over Portland.
Doncic outscored Harden 10-3 in Monday’s first quarter, and 14-11 through two periods, but the 19-year-old Slovenian scored only seven second-half points and two in the fourth quarter.
“I mean, it’s back-to-back, they’re always hard,” Doncic said. “But not always do you have a comeback [the previous night], so it was just that [much] harder.”
The Rockets, particularly P.J. Tucker, played more physically against Doncic as the game progressed, just the latest Dallas opponents to do so.
“They’ve done it before, so I’m cool with it,” said Doncic, who again struggled from the free throw line, finishing 5 of 9. “I knew it was going to happen.”
This was billed a matchup of the NBA’s King of the Step-back 3-pointer, Harden, and the precocious Prince of the Step-back, Doncic.
Except perhaps the Mavericks and Rockets have seen their step-back juggernauts take and make so many of them this season that they have learned a few things about how to defend those shots.
Harden made only six of his 17 3-point attempts Monday, while Doncic went 2 for 9.
The NBA is full of players who in recent years have mastered step-back jumpers — including Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard — but no one in the league has made more step-back 3-pointers than Harden this season, with rookie Doncic running second.
“The signature shot is always the defining trait of a player,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “Harden and Luka both have the step-back shot and the one you think of most. There’s a similarity there. … Harden’s been around a lot longer and in no way am I saying they are the same player or anything like that. But there is some similarity, for sure.”
Here’s where they are dissimilar: Doncic is averaging 20.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists as a 19-year-old. Harden broke into the NBA at age 20 with Oklahoma City and in his first two seasons averaged 9.9 points and 12.2 points.
Harden didn’t average more than 20 points until his fourth season, when he jumped from 16.8 points in Season 3 to 25.9 points the following season.
Doncic has improved month to month this season, averaging 22.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.4 assists in 14 January games and 25.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in four February games — until he hit Monday’s soft wall.
While Harden heated up late, Doncic couldn’t, nor did he get much help from teammates. The only other Mavericks starters in double figures were Dorian Finney-Smith (13 points) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (10 points, on 3-of-11 shooting).
“He’s incredible and he has the skillset for the new NBA,” Nowitzki said of Harden. “He’s tough to guard one-on-one and he’s got the step-back.”
As Carlisle said of Harden, “He’s playing a different game than the rest of us are playing. It’s really an amazing phenomenon to watch.”
Coming off an MVP season in which he averaged 30.4 points, 8.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds, Harden somehow has taken his game to an even higher plateau.
His 36.6-point average is so far ahead of that of the NBA’s second-leading scorer, New Orleans center Anthony Davis (29.0), that he’s all but mathematically uncatchable.
Carlisle pointed out that entering Monday’s game, Harden was averaging 40 points in the Rockets’ last five victories, and 41 points in their most recent five defeats.
“The level of consistency is crazy,” Carlisle said.
Jackson shines: Getting his first extended minutes since he was acquired from Sacramento last week, Justin Jackson scored nine points in 11 minutes Monday.
“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball,” 6-foot-8 Jackson said. “I’ve been playing it for my whole life. The offense we play is pretty free and open, and it’s kind of up to us to play within that. I’m just trying to go out there and play.”
Mejri Wednesday? The Mavericks on Sunday re-signed center Salah Mejri, but on Monday, for the second straight game, he was not with the team.
Carlisle said the hope is that 7-foot Mejri will rejoin the Mavericks in time for Wednesday’s home game against Miami, Dallas’ last game before the All-Star break.
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