Luka Doncic knew immediately what the Houston Rockets were doing on the last play Sunday night.
They did the right thing, defensively.
And Doncic, while it may not be the popular choice, did the right thing, too, even though the Mavericks wound up losing 94-93 to the Rockets at American Airlines Center.
Doncic, who missed another triple double by one assist, had the ball in his hand with the clock ticking down and the Mavericks trailing by a point. With inside of 5 seconds remaining, he got double-teamed by James Harden, who helped out P.J. Tucker with the trap. Then Clint Capela was creeping in range for more defensive help.
“Yeah, it was obvious,” Doncic said. “I think it was Capela and P.J. and Harden. There was three. I had to pass the ball. It would have been a really bad shot if I’d taken that shot.”
And so, he passed to the right wing, where Jalen Brunson was waiting. Brunson was having a very good night offensively, but this shot that could have won the game was tipped by Chris Paul, preserving the Rockets’ eighth consecutive win and sending the Mavericks to their fifth loss in a row and 10th in their last 11 games.
“Yeah, obviously you want somebody else to take the shot,” Tucker said of getting the ball out of Doncic’s hands on the final play. “Chris made a good play. You don’t want it to come down to that, but we did a good job finishing it off.”
Indeed, the Rockets had to heave a sigh of relief when they got out with the victory. After leading by 12 at the start of the fourth quarter and by 94-89 after Tucker’s 3-pointer with 1:29 to play, the Rockets still had to sweat out the final possessions.
But they were not going to let Doncic beat them even though coach Mike D’Antoni said it wasn’t necessarily the game plan to trap Doncic in that situation.
“I’m sure glad they did,” D’Antoni said when asked about getting the ball away from Doncic at winning time. “I don’t know that there was any strategy involved. But I think it’s normal. And Luka, we know how good he is. And P.J., again, defensively is just a bear out there.”
And the Mavericks did some damage of their own at the defensive end. This was only the second time since Christmas that the Rockets have scored under 100 points. They came in with a 2-8 record when scoring under 100, but eight of those sub-100 games came when they were getting off to an 11-14 start.”
Like everybody else this season, the Rockets came away impressed with Doncic, regardless of the final play.
“He’s the motor of their team,” Tucker said. “He attacks a lot. He looks to get everybody going. I wanted to be physical with him, make it tough and make him have to play one-on-one against me and have everybody stay home and make him take tough shots.”
Added Harden: “He’s great, not only because he has the ability to score, but he is a great passer as well. He does a lot of things to impact the game. With this being his first year, he’s got a long way to go, but he’s definitely on a great start.”
Doncic, meanwhile, said he has pattered at least some parts of his game after Harden.
“I studied lots of things, the step-backs and the way he jumps and stops,” Doncic said. “The moment you reach, he’s going to get two free throws. I watched a lot of videos on that.”
That said, he has no regrets about the final play. And the Rockets also said they felt like Doncic did the right thing, regardless of how it turned out.
“I read him and sort of knew he was going to throw it to Jalen,” Paul said. “And Jalen didn’t have any time to do anything else. If he pump-faked it, I’d have been in trouble, but then he might not have gotten the shot off in time.”
It was still better than letting Doncic get free.
“Absolutely,” Paul said. “Why let the best player beat you?”