The NBA post-season exploded into action earlier this week, giving us the first glimpse into what the league would look like coming into October. Players are moving around teams in what seems like the most intense game of musical chairs ever as the media and fans are already looking into the crystal ball, trying to determine the outcome of next season.
If we can learn anything from the 2018/2019 NBA season, it’s that predictions and expectations mean nothing. When Cousins signed with the Warriors in 2018, Las Vegas had the Warriors as favourites to win the finals at minus 200. There are a few moments that stood out to me during the 2018/19 season that no one could have possibly seen coming.
Luka Dončić has so much swagger it’s stunning. Teams in the NBA are usually reluctant when it comes to European Unicorns, but the Mavericks struck gold with the plucky young Slovene.
Not that people weren’t aware of Dončić and his accomplishments in the Euroleague, which include being the youngest player ever to earn the MVP with Real Madrid. However, despite Luka’s extensive credentials, he was picked third overall by Atlanta behind the much more physically dominant Ayton and Bagley III, and then traded promptly for fifth overall pick Trae Young.
The Suns had no interest in drafting Dončić, even Ayton knew that he would be picked first by the Suns after working out with them. While the big man struggled to adjust to the league, Luka seemed to fit right in.
Luka’s debut in a Mavericks uniform was against the Beijing Ducks in a preseason game. The Mavericks dominated easily with Luka at the helm, resulting in a lopsided 116 – 63 victory for Dallas. Despite being a preseason game, Dončić’s performance foreshadowed his success in the regular season. Halfway through the second quarter, Luka drives into the paint, dribbling through two defenders before fading away into a jump shot over another, banking the ball into the net. This is a move that would become a signature of his in the NBA.
Dončić’s passing game would develop further throughout the season as he played with veteran centre Deandre Jordan, his vision and skills seeming to improve as you watched him. Dončić had three 10+ assist games in a two week span in January, more than doubling his total since the beginning of the season. In fact, everything Luka did just seemed to increase in volume over time.
Another valuable quality that Luka possesses is his fearlessness. Luka is not afraid to take big shots, it actually seems like he prefers them. Luka’s three point attempt output was huge, chucking up more than 7 of them per game. This may not jump off the page to this era’s basketball viewer, but just watching the types of shots he takes is just jaw dropping, even more so when he makes them.
Luka’s determination to chuck up fully guarded threes or stepping back to fire a shot 30 feet away would give even the most progressive coach an aneurysm. His short memory does pay off, Dallas has won all 3 games in which Luka attempted 11 threes, and when they do go in it is exhilarating. During a late December game in 2018, Dončić rained down 10 long range bombs against the Pelicans, of which 70% were on target.
Dončić’s moment of the season came in the final seconds of Mavericks at Trailblazers, two days before Christmas 2018. With 0.6 seconds left on the clock and Dallas down by three, it was obvious that the ball was going to Luka, but what was not obvious was what happened next. Jalen Brunson inbounded the ball to Luka, guarded by the long-limbed Harkless. Luka ran to the corner, catches the ball, and in one motion, shoots over Mo Harkless while jumping out of bounds. The shot falls, and no one can believe what they just saw. They were looking at the future Rookie of the Year, showing them what it means to play basketball without fear of failure.
A few weeks into the start of the 2018/19 season, D’Antoni’s experiment looked like it was over before it produced results. The Rockets had an underwhelming 11 – 14 wins to start the season, and these games weren’t close either. New Orleans, Utah, Portland, the Clippers, even the flailing Lebron-less Cavs put up 117 points against the Rockets to beat them by 9.
The Rockets just couldn’t buy a bucket. The starters weren’t shooting the three that bad, PJ Tucker was shooting at .406% in October, and .433% the next month, while James Harden’s best shooting percentage of 2018/19 came between October and December. We get the full story when we look to the bench; Eric Gordon had some terrible nights beyond the arc, 2-9 in their loss against the Pelicans in their first game of the season, and later that month against the Jazz made only 1 of his 12 attempts from three.
Many expected Carmelo Anthony to be consistently bad, he barely ever scored more than one three pointer per game before being booted. Veteran long range Houston weapon Gerald Green also struggled to make an impact.
But something happened.
In the second week of December, after Houston lost to the Dallas Mavericks a second time, something suddenly snapped. James Harden scored 29 points in the Rocket’s win against Portland on December 11, heralding an 11-1 winning streak. No one suspected that this was also the beginning of a historical event, that which hasn’t happened for almost 60 years.
The very next game, James Harden scored 50 points in a win against the Lakers and did not look back. Weeks passed, and James Harden could not be slowed down. He dropped 47 on Utah, 58 in Brooklyn and then, later that month, 61 against the New York Knicks. It wasn’t that Harden’s accuracy increased, it was the volume. In 18 games out of that 32 game streak, James Harden attempted more than 15 shots from deep. Before that, there were only three games where he came close to that output.
February rolled in and it seemed that James Harden was beginning to lose momentum. After an average start of the month, Harden’s body finally caught up with him and he sat during the Rocket’s 118 – 112 win over the Warriors. The very next game, Harden missed all 10 of his shots from deep and the points streak finally came to an end, after a blistering 32 games.
It is easy in today’s game to visualise how this could happen, but at the time it seemed like an insane fever dream that was never going to end. Every game, it seemed like Harden was shooting more and more, further and further away and with even more people guarding him.
There were many standout games for Harden during this streak, the Christmas Day clash with Oklahoma, the OT buzzer beater against Golden State after being down 17, but one of the most impressive performances by Harden was on January 11 against Cleveland.
You might as well make history while you’re making history, right? Harden recorded a 40 point triple double after 29 minutes of play, being the first player in the NBA to ever do so. His vision that evening was astounding. The ball seemed to move at his will as he threaded passes between multiple defenders, setting up the likes of Clint Capela and even Danuel House Jr. for posterizing dunks.
The Rockets season ended in disappointment, as they were eliminated from the playoffs yet again by the Golden State Warriors. However, with the dynasty crumbling and the shape of many NBA teams changing dramatically, it’s almost certain that Harden and the Rockets will continue to make history.