Analysis: Doncic, Jokic lead the way; crazy MVP race looms

Luka Doncic had 60 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists on Tuesday, a stat line never before seen in NBA history. Nikola Jokic had 41 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists on Sunday, a stat line managed only two other times.

Two great games without a dunk.

The two best players in the NBA right now — and likely the frontrunners in the current MVP race — don’t have the strength and power of LeBron James, or the acrobatic creativity of Michael Jordan, or the ability of Wilt Chamberlain. Come and beat anyone who dares to stand near his path. They don’t shoot and dribble like Stephen Curry, slide from one end of the court to the other like Giannis Antetokounmpo, or score with ease like Kevin Durant.

Doncic and Jokic do it differently. They dominate by letting the game go at their pace. They do what they want and almost always make the smartest move. Beat them, they shoot mid-range or 3-pointers. Hit them and they’ll use their dozer ability to create enough space for a move or a proper pass.

“He’s special,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said of Doncic’s latest masterpiece. “The history of the game is written by the players and then written again… Luka did something that had never been done before. It was difficult.”

Forget about numbers for now. Consider how Doncic sent Tuesday’s game to overtime. The Mavericks trailed by nine with 27 seconds left in regulation. According to SportRadar, in the past 26 years — since game-by-play records of games began to be tracked digitally — no team has outscored its opponent by nine points in the final 27 seconds of the fourth quarter.

The Mavericks did it, and Luka made a miracle finish. Trailing by three with 4.2 seconds left in regulation and the free throw line, Doncic made his first free throw and deliberately missed the second. The Knicks failed two attempts to control the rebound, and Doncic jumped up for the ball and followed suit with a 10-footer. It went in, the game went to overtime, and history was made.

“I guess I got a little bit lucky,” Doncic said.

Being ready to take advantage of opportunities is how players create their own luck. That’s how the 60 points and 21 rebounds and 10 assists happened — it wasn’t luck. Jokic also didn’t go 41-15-15 in a Christmas win over Phoenix.

The MVP award is hard to win, and it’s even harder to win it twice. Jokic will find out how difficult it is to win this award for three consecutive years. Doc Rivers has said multiple times that a player like Jordan or James would have gotten more MVPs if it wasn’t for voter fatigue and people getting tired of the same guy winning every year. He’s right that Jokic may have to deal with some of those issues when the ballots are mailed out next April.

But he clearly earned serious consideration. Apparently, the same goes for Doncic. The same goes for Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, whose monster season so far includes a 59-point, 11-rebound, eight-assist, seven-block game in November. So did Jayson Tatum, who made Boston look very much like a team poised to win its 18th NBA title.

Ridiculous numbers all over the place. Scoring is up again in the league. Entering Wednesday, 51 players were averaging 20 or more points per game. More than half of them won’t be in the All-Star Game because there are only 24 spots in that game.

On average, someone scores 40 points every night in an NBA game these days. There have been 70 such games so far this season. The entire 2021-22 regular season has 119; this season, the league has 168 games this year. The big night never seemed so easy.

And Doncic and Jokic make it look easier than anyone else.

Each of them already has seven triple-doubles; none has more than three. Doncic is averaging 33.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.8 assists; no one has finished a season with such high averages in all three categories since assists began being tracked. Jokic averaged 25.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.5 assists on Wednesday; only Oscar Robertson finished the year with those averages.

The season isn’t even half over yet. The fun is just beginning. Others are in the game, and others may still be playing, but Doncic and Jokic have put the league on notice that this year’s MVP race could be an eternal one.

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Tim Reynolds is the national basketball writer for The Associated Press.Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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