June 15, 2024

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The Mavericks’ big bets are paying off as they lead Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving to the West Finals

The Mavericks’ big bets are paying off as they lead Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving to the West Finals

DALLAS – For a building that has been “loud, proud and raucous” for two decades, and for a video now airing before the final quarter – in which Kyrie Irving shouts: “Don’t be boring!” – 20,555 people watching Dallas avoid Oklahoma City fell into awed silence as P.J. Washington stepped up to the foul line with 2.5 seconds remaining Saturday night. The Mavericks were one point away from a trip to the Western Conference Finals, and Washington patiently made its first of three shots. And then, well, the American Airlines Center is famous for placing hot microphones over the rims of each basket, vibrating every bounce on Washington’s second attempt, his game-winning attempt, and amplifying a live basketball game in a theater that can truly become a stadium carrying his set, breathing.

Last February, when the Mavericks were closing in on a trade with Washington on the afternoon of the NBA trade deadline, Dallas coach Jason Kidd was actually attending a matinee performance of “&Juliet” on Broadway. His Mavericks were in New York after a game against Brooklyn before Thursday night’s matchup with the Knicks. “It was a good play for the first 30 seconds,” Kidd recalled, before exiting the production to speak with Dallas general manager Niko Harrison and the face of their franchise, Luka Doncic, about the deal.

A year earlier, Harrison had been calling Kidd about the unusual opportunity to land Irving before the 2022 trade deadline. Before taking over the Mavericks’ basketball operations, Harrison was a well-connected Nike executive who had a close relationship with Irving has been designing signature sneakers for the All-Star team for years. Kidd was leading the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back Finals appearances while Irving admired the Hall of Fame guard while growing up in nearby Elizabeth City, New Jersey. It’s rare to have an eight-time All-Star, Harrison and Kidd believe, versus one first-round pick, a pair of second basemen, plus two rotation players. But Irving’s tenure in Brooklyn, as NBA fans will quickly recall, was derailed by a myriad of injuries, personal absences, suspensions and the talented guard’s refusal to follow New York’s vaccination law in order to attend work — and thus play at Barclays Center.

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic celebrates during the second half of Game 6 of their second-round NBA playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Dallas.  (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Luka Doncic and the Mavericks are headed to the Western Conference Finals. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

“I don’t have a perfect trip,” Irving said Saturday. “So, in this environment, I wasn’t sure how we would function on the field.”

Many within the Mavericks viewed the blockbuster as a masterstroke. Some around Dallas, and some around Doncic, thought the Mavericks had stumbled upon a move that could ultimately sever Doncic’s commitment to the organization — if the duo crashed and burned like Shakespeare’s tragic duo. But Dallas never wavered. They made it to the 2022 conference finals, but fell in five games to Golden State and then lost Jalen Brunson in free agency to New York. It is much easier to be patient, throw away trading chips every transaction cycle, and then back away from conversations in the name of safety and avoiding risky risks. It’s very difficult to identify and acquire additional starters after one year, as the Mavericks did with Washington and starting center Daniel Gafford.

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After a scoreless start on Saturday, Washington hit two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Oklahoma City, then hit those free throws to give Dallas a 117-116 victory over the Thunder. Gafford has embodied the Mavericks’ most aggressive defensive identity since his trade deadline arrived and made a great block on Loguentz-Dort’s corner triple in this game. Dallas had a well-known rapprochement with Dereck Lively II in the lead-up to last June’s draft, ironically landing the bouncy center via a trade with the Thunder themselves for OKC guard Cason Wallace. Lively’s 7-foot-1 frame, 15 rebounds, and strong finishes in the paint all contributed to Dallas outscoring the Thunder by 26 points when Lively was on the floor in Game 6. “He’s got unbelievable potential,” Doncic said. “.

He’s also a Duke product, Irving, a Blue Devil teammate, mentioned to Dončić as they shared the postgame podium. All of those pieces come together for a second Conference Finals appearance in three years in the Dončic-Harrison-Kidd era, a much different team than the happy-go-lucky young team that fell to the champion Warriors. “The first year, our defense was amazing, and then our offense joined the party,” Kidd said.

Irving has opened up a different dimension to the Mavericks’ scoring attack. His game seems as light as the feather that often dangles from Irving’s ear when he meets with the media, floating around Doncic’s lead until Irving enters the fray on a gust of wind and intuition. Irving was almost gone for both halves of the playoff game in Dallas, but he caught fire quicker than the game. On Saturday, Irving came alive, scoring 22 points, including a ridiculous three-pointer from the left wing, which gave Dallas a 110-108 lead with 3:02 left in the game.

The win moved Irving to an impressive 14-0 in shutout games over his 13 years in the NBA. Through this lens, the only lens that matters — winning — you can see why Irving’s faithful didn’t see his arrival as mere basketball brilliance. He made one of the biggest shots in league history to sink these mighty Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. He can hit game-winning floaters with both hands and with ease. And in the right house at the right time, Irving is consistently praised throughout the building as Dallas’ runaway leader.

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“Mentally, spiritually and emotionally, they’ve embraced me with open arms,” Irving said of the Mavericks.

It was Irving who the Mavericks called upon to deliver an impromptu speech in the celebratory locker room. He was holding back tears, his daughter pinned on his hip, as he thanked all his teammates for their sacrifices and hard work. Afterward, Irving said, “All the words of affirmation we give each other go a long way, man.” Remember, he was the one who told Lively to stop escaping Chet Holmgren’s clutches during the clinching Game 3 win to take a 2-1 lead in the series, and to make the free throws at the deciding moment. Irving is the guy a lot of these Mavericks rely on. “His calming influence with the team. He’s never in a rush. He’s always calm, and he’s always positive on the bench,” Kidd said.

Maybe his point came with age and a good, hard look in the mirror. His first three trips to the postseason, Irving has helped LeBron James make three straight trips to the Finals. Over his five years in Boston and Brooklyn, he had never been able to return to the conference finals stage until Saturday night. “I took it for granted,” Irving said. He’s now 32, eight years older than Doncic, which is the same seniority James gave Irving when he first teamed up with the Cavaliers. For this duo from Dallas, it seems their partnership is based as much on growth as it is on their combined talents. “The big word we can agree on is maturity,” Irving said.

They are playing, and they seem to be very in tune at the moment. When both were asked what the other meant to them as a brother and teammate, Dončić leaned forward in front of his microphone before Irving had a chance to speak. This time he wanted to speak first. “Yes, because you give long speeches,” Doncic joked. In fact, these two approach these media obligations very differently. Irving is eager to grab the microphone and break down poetic monologues. Traditionally, Dončić was short, hunched over, and grunting through it all. On this night, Dončić was as cheerful and forthright as we’ve ever seen him before – largely due to the man sitting to his left. “when [Irving] “I came in, nothing but support for everything I did,” Doncic said. “It helped me mature a lot. I realized I could see the game in a different way.”

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Two mountains loom around this dramatic corner. One is a 7-footer, three-time MVP, and reigning Denver Nuggets player. The other, an oversized front line of Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Sixth Man of the Year Naz Reid backing up the rookie Anthony Edwards. Whether Nikola Jokic or the Minnesota Timberwolves face the Mavericks after Game 7 on Sunday, Dallas will play its first two conference finals games on the road. It was the same task the Mavericks undertook to beat the top-seeded Thunder, and it’s a task Dallas will need to repeat if the franchise is to reclaim the Cup that Kidd, as a player, helped Dirk Nowitzki capture in 2011.

They have as real a chance as any team left standing. This is not the gritty group that Doncic has gotten this far with in 2022. “Now he has a veteran next to him, a few veterans next to him,” Irving said. “It’s a different tour.” One that would be much more difficult than the last one as well. Irving himself described this win over Oklahoma City as the toughest series of his career. The Dallas staff breathed some relief as much as they felt euphoria after holding off against a dangerous Thunder team. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 36 points from all over the floor. OKC made no impression of being a worthy opponent for the Giants of the West today, with rival individuals across the NBA acknowledging that these Thunder will have something to say about who represents this conference in the Finals for the next decade.

Irving doesn’t have that much time left, but Dallas does now. The Mavericks deserve outside confidence that they will find more reinforcements to keep this roster up to speed at every turn, even if it’s right before training camp, like when Dallas landed another postseason champion, Derrick Jones Jr., last August. (Jones punished OKC’s soft defense against him with four 3-pointers and 22 points in Game 6.) Ask Dončić, and that’s just the beginning for Dallas.

“This group has been together for about five months,” Doncic said. I believe we can achieve much more. Just the big deals, the big adjustments, and just…keep delivering.