Talented 21-year-old Slovenian star Luka Doncic powers the Dallas Mavericks against LeBron James and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in Friday’s feature matchup of five NBA Christmas contests.
Both players were contenders for the NBA Most Valuable Player award last season and figure to be back in the hunt again in the 2020-21 campaign.
“It’s exciting,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “It’s a big game playing the champs and when Luka and LBJ match up it’s always something special.”
James, who turns 36 on Wednesday, has been the face of the NBA for more than a decade, reaching 10 NBA Finals, winning four titles and taking four season MVP awards.
But Doncic has drawn rave reviews since being taken with the third overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
He was the 2019 NBA Rookie of the Year and become a versatile playmaker who averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists last season — a signal he could be the face of the NBA a decade from now.
“It’s a long way to go to be one of the faces of the league,” Doncic said.
“But we’re playing the champions. It’s going to be something special. I always wanted to play on Christmas Day.”
Friday’s lineup also includes second-year star Zion Williamson and New Orleans at Miami, Golden State at Milwaukee, Brooklyn at Boston and the Los Angeles Clippers at Denver.
The NBA announced on Thursday there were two Covid-19 positives from among 558 players tested since December 16.
The move came a day after Houston Rockets coronavirus issues contributed to postponing their opener against Oklahoma City.
In the Lakers’ opener on Tuesday, James had 20 points and a team-high eight rebounds while Anthony Davis scored 35 points in the 114-113 loss to the Clippers.
Doncic scored 32 points on Wednesday but the Mavs fell 106-102 at Phoenix, the European star going 0-for-6 from 3-point range and dismissing ankle sprain fears while kicking himself for poor shot selection, missing his first six of the game.
“That was my bad,” he said. “I’ve got to stop taking these very bad shots. It’s not good for me. It’s not good for the team. I’ve got to change it.”
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle wasn’t too concerned.
“He’s still getting his game legs under him,” Carlisle said. “That will get there. He understands the game as well as any 21-year-old I’ve ever been around. He’ll make the adjustments that are necessary.”
Carlisle’s Christmas Eve plans included examining the Lakers and sorting out what chances the Mavs need to make in their trip to LA for their first Christmas contest since 2011.
“We’re going to have to do a study on the Lakers, figure out what the best matchups and coverages are going to be for us defensively,” he said.
“That’s the world champs. We’re obviously going to have to play a high-level game.”
LeBron could pass Kobe
James ranks third on the league’s Christmas career scoring list with 361 points, needing only 17 to pass Oscar Robertson for second on the list and just 35 to overtake the late Kobe Bryant for the all-team lead.
James has nine wins in 14 Christmas appearances, one shy of the all-time win mark set by his former Miami teammate Dwyane Wade, who went 10-3 in holiday contests.
It’s the 22nd year in a row the Lakers will play on Christmas.
Nine NBA All-Stars will take the court Friday and that doesn’t include Williamson or injury-hit Brooklyn stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
New Orleans had 24 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists from Brandon Ingram in an opening win over Toronto but the Pelicans face a reigning Eastern Conference championship side in Miami, which has an NBA-best 10-2 Christmas record and seven wins in a row on the holiday.
Two-time reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee faces two-time MVP Stephen Curry and the Warriors. The Bucks host a Christmas game for the first time since 1968.
Durant, back after an 18-month layoff from an Achilles tendon injury, and Irving will lead the Nets against Boston.
The Clippers, powered by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, face a Denver side that ousted them from last season’s playoffs.