For years, scientists wondered whether Luka Doncic would still be good at basketball if he were moved to central Florida and placed inside a bubble. There was no ethical way to test this hypothesis, however, and so the question remained a mystery. Until now.
On Saturday, the Dallas Mavericks star had one of the best performances of the NBA’s restart, tallying an absurd 36-point, 14-rebound, 19-assist triple-double in a 136–132 overtime win over the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks. Doncic capped his masterpiece and sealed the win with an audacious between-the-legs pocket pass to Maxi Kleber with a minute remaining in the extra period.
Mind you, that’s Giannis Antetokounmpo guarding Doncic after the pick and roll, the reigning MVP whose wingspan has to be measured in longitudinal degrees. It’s nigh impossible to thread a pass by him under normal circumstances, let alone one that’s on the bounce, in the lane, and with your off hand.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Doncic told reporters after the game. “I just did it. I didn’t think about it. I saw it, and I didn’t think about it before right in the moment.”
It was a stunning moment of improvisation, though many astute observers (read: Houston Rockets fans on Twitter) were quick to point out that James Harden has been doing versions of the move for years.
One of Harden’s more recent forays into the between-the-legs pass came on July 31, during a 153–149 overtime bubble-ball win against the Mavericks.
It’s objectively cool that there are multiple people on this planet who have the ability to perform such impressive feats of dexterity, but the overlapping assists sparked a minor debate: Are Harden’s the gold standard, or did Luka do it better?
Those in Harden’s camp argue that, as the move’s originator, he deserves more praise (and perhaps a footnoted citation whenever anyone else attempts the pass). Visual records confirm that he’s done it as far back as 2017.
Doncic’s boosters, meanwhile, point out that he made the pass with his nondominant hand and when the stakes were highest—during crunch time of a close game. (The Mavericks were leading by two points at the time.) That he’s 21 years old only makes it more impressive: Someone that young should be filming charming TikToks in his parents’ dining room, not embarrassing the NBA’s best defense.
Harden and Doncic have similar playing styles, so it makes sense that they’d have this particular card up their sleeves. They are both ball-dominant offensive savants who can shoot 3-pointers off the dribble and are constant threats to drive. Because defenses are naturally drawn to them, they frequently have opportunities to fire off nifty pocket passes after pick and rolls. Don’t sweat it if you can’t decide whose version(s) you prefer; they are bound to produce plenty more examples for your consideration. Personally, I give the edge to Harden for quantity, but I’d like to see Luka try and fix that discrepancy before his time in the bubble is up.
And besides, Harden and Doncic are still chasing former Portland Trail Blazers wing Rudy Fernández, who perfected this type of pass back in 2015, with Real Madrid.
Respect your elders, especially when those elders include La Liga legend Rudy Fernández.