All eyes on him, LeBron James gripped the ball with 23 seconds left in overtime, his Los Angeles Lakers up one against the Oklahoma City Thunder. For about 12 seconds, he sized up his defender at the high post, like he has done a million times before. Going for the dagger, he launched a fadeaway as the shot clock ran out. All air.
The clip of that seemingly harmless and uneventful regular season play went viral, not because of the airball, but because of the defender who influenced it. Lu Dort, Thunder’s undrafted, 21-year-old secret weapon, threw everything he had at that one defensive play: the laser-focused eye contact to track the King’s movement, the E. Honda hundred hand slap to distract, and the menacing footwork to suffocate. Watch the clip on mute and you can still almost hear Dort’s defense grunting, haunting, and trying.
Lu Dort's defense on LeBron was incredible 👀 pic.twitter.com/jExLIUsoSn— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 11, 2021
Dort’s effort on that single play again put him on the mainstream, OKC’s best-kept secret once again exposed for everyone to see. But that wasn’t the first time Lu Dort and LeBron James were mentioned in the same breath. Go back to the 2020 playoff bubble, you’ll find the same Lu Dort who, out of nowhere, scored 30 points in Game 7 against the Houston Rockets. The player he surpassed with the most points scored in a Game 7 by a player 21 and younger? LeBron James.
At 6’4”, Dort shouldn’t be guarding the LeBrons of the NBA, yet there he was. He’s shaped in the same mold as Tony Allen (first team all defense!) but with better offense. He’s got the Chicago Ron Artest vibes minus the risk. Numbers don’t lie. In Artest’s rookie year, he averaged 12 points, four rebounds, and three assists per game. Dort’s first playoff series averages were eerily close: 13 points, four rebounds, and an assist per game.
Dort’s offense is often overlooked, reduced to mere fine print on his calling card that says DEFENSE in bold letters. And for good reason. That 30-point, 6-of-12 from 3 Game 7 was considered, at least for the time being, an outlier (he shot 26 percent from 3 in that Rockets series). What Dort did on a consistent basis was get stops versus James Harden—or die trying.
It wouldn’t be accurate to call Dort a “Harden stopper” or praise him for reducing Harden into a bearded version of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in that Ben Stiller movie. Harden did get buckets and top-scored in five of the seven games in that first round series. But when it was Dort defending him, it was obvious that it did have some effect on Harden’s decision-making, like a supervillain making the superhero sweat. In Game 2, Harden scored only nine points and was 1-of-7 when it was Dort in front of him.
Dort strapping up Harden 🔒 pic.twitter.com/Q0LB5aiBJV— ESPN (@espn) August 23, 2020
That’s the thing with Dort’s supervillain brand of defense: he always stays in front of you. He might not get a block or a steal, but he’s not going away either. Even a crafty dribbler like Harden couldn’t shake him off with a combination of crossovers that would mess up a Playstation analog stick. At one point during the Houston-OKC series, data revealed that Harden only shot 15 percent when handcuffed by Dort.
Coming out of Harden’s step-back show alive only made Dort stronger. He now ranks fifth in the league’s list of elite defenders, based on NBA.com’s most recent Defensive Player of the Year tracker. Here’s the list: Rudy Gobert, Ben Simmons, Myles Turner, Anthony Davis. Like a solid rock, Dort sits quietly on that first team all defense list as the shortest and youngest, but definitely not the weakest.
Dort’s interpretation of lockdown D can’t be described as pesky nor hounding. Calling him a defensive pitbull that’s merely acting on instinct would be a disservice. When he’s locked in like he was in guarding the reigning Finals MVP, there’s discipline. If you catch clips of him gatecrashing your favorite player’s highlight reel, there’s motivation.
This is only his second year, Lu Dort—undrafted, hungry, trying— is just getting warmed up. All eyes should be on him.