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Three things to Know: Luka Doncic is a cheat code, outduels LeBron in win

Kurt Helin reveals his NBA mid-season award frontrunners for Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Sixth Man of the Year.

LOS ANGELES — Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Luka Doncic is a cheat code, outduels LeBron in win

This could have been ugly. For much of the first half Thursday night, Luka Doncic was moving the ball, his teammates were knocking down 3s or finishing lobs, and a Lakers team dealing with “a billion different lineups” — as LeBron James put it — looked lost and overwhelmed. One wouldn’t have blamed TNT viewers if they asked for an “NCIS: New Orleans” rerun over more of this game.

However, we’ve got to give the Lakers credit — despite it being the dreaded first game back after a long road trip, they didn’t roll over. Darvin Ham has this team hustling, trying, and in stretches they look like a dangerous team — stretches where LeBron defies father time and his teammates hit 3-pointers.

The Lakers had a 29-4 stretch where they took the lead in the fourth because they doubled Doncic every chance they got and dared any other Maverick to beat them. Jason Kidd doesn’t trust his bench, so the Dallas core looked exhausted, and the Lakers had a three-point lead with 11.8 seconds left.

But the Mavericks have Luka Doncic.

It was a stunning play on a couple of levels, because with the game on the line the Lakers went away from their plan of doubling Luka and making him give up the ball, nor did they foul while up 3.

“Yeah I was a little bit surprised, I don’t know why they didn’t,” Doncic said of not getting doubled in that spot. “I thought they were gonna foul, honestly. But I tried to get it before they fouled me.”

Overtime. When Wenyen Gabriel made some plays for the Lakers and LeBron hit some free throws, it looked like the Lakers would get the gritty win after all… and then Luka magic. Again.

In the second OT, the Mavericks made the plays and earned the win.

The Lakers did everything they could not to let Doncic beat them and he still finished with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. He looked every bit the MVP.

“With the double teams he was getting guys open shots, you know he was doing everything… we didn’t make timely shots there,” Jason Kidd said of why the game got extended.

This game — which had some questionable officiating all game, hurting both teams — ended up summing up both teams well.

LeBron James is doing everything he can — 24 points and 16 rebounds, but on 9-of-28 shooting — and when he gets enough help the Lakers go on runs. Russell Westbrook had one of his best games of the season with 28 points and going 3-of-6 from beyond the arc. But the Lakers can’t sustain their runs because of the lack of shooting (10-of-41 from 3, 24.4% as a team) and depth issues with Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves and others out.

The Mavericks are dangerous when guys other than Doncic hit shots and make plays, but they don’t do that consistently. It can feel erratic.

But the Mavericks have Doncic, and with his greatness right now sometimes that is all you need.

2) Damian Lillard puts up a 50-spot, Blazers come apart late, fall to Cavs

Having lost four in a row and 8-of-10, Portland was in a slump, and they were falling out of even the play-in picture in the West.

Damian Lillard tried to change that on his own Thursday night — he put up 50.

It was enough to have the Trail Blazers in the lead most of the night — never by a lot, usually single digits, but ahead — until the final minutes, when Portland didn’t execute well and the Cavaliers did.

Donovan Mitchell scored 26, Jarrett Allen dunked his way to 24, and Darius Garland added 20. Cleveland’s usually stout defense wasn’t for the first 43 minutes or so, but good teams find a way to win when they are not at their best, and the Cavaliers got that win Thursday, showing some grit.

But that may not have been the best highlight of the night…

3) Ricky Rubio makes return to court for Cavaliers

Ricky Rubio was arguably playing the best basketball of his career back in 2021 — averaging 13.1 points and 6.6 assists a game — when, in a Dec. 28 game that year, he drove to the basket against the Pelicans and tore his left ACL.

Rubio had not stepped on an NBA court since. Until Thursday night.

He has stayed active as a veteran leader for a young Cleveland team, but they could use his playmaking off the bench. Put him, Larry Nance Jr. and Kevin Love in off that Cavaliers bench and you have solid veterans who can make a few plays and make the Cleveland bench a threat.

Rubio finished with nine points on 3-of-5 shooting, plus an assist in a little more than 10 minutes of playing time. But it was just good to see him back on the court.