Home Sports The Mavericks’ major gambles pay off as Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving lead charge to West finals

The Mavericks’ major gambles pay off as Luka Dončić, Kyrie Irving lead charge to West finals

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

DALLAS – For a building that has been “loud, proud and loud” for two decades, for the video now airing before the fourth quarter, of Kyrie Irving yelling, “Don’t be boring!” – The crowd of 20,555 watching Dallas stave off Oklahoma City fell into an eerie silence as PJ Washington stepped to the foul line with 2.5 seconds left Saturday night. A one-point deficit separated the Mavericks from a trip to the Western Conference finals, and Washington stoically made its first of three shots. And then, well, the American Airlines Center places hot microphones above the rims of each basket, making every rebound of Washington’s second attempt, its attempt to win the game, resonate, amplifying the live theater that playoff basketball can become when a stadium holds its collective meeting. breath.

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

A year earlier, Harrison was calling Kidd about the atypical 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 worked closely with Irving for years creating the perennial All-Star’s signature sneakers. And Kidd was simply leading the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back Finals appearances, while Irving admired the Hall of Fame point guard while he was growing up in nearby Elizabeth, New Jersey. It’s rare to acquire an eight-time All-Star, Harrison and Kidd believed, for a first-round pick, a couple of seconds, plus two rotation players. But NBA fans will quickly recall that Irving’s tenure in Brooklyn was derailed by countless personal injuries, absences and suspensions and the talented guard’s refusal to follow New York’s vaccine ordinance in order to attend work and, therefore, Therefore, play at the Barclays Center.

Luka Dončić and the Mavericks are headed to the Western Conference finals. (AP Photo/Tony Gutiérrez)

“I don’t have a perfect trip,” Irving said Saturday. “Coming into this environment, I wasn’t sure how we were going to function on the court.”

Many within the Mavericks saw the box office success as a masterstroke. Some around Dallas, some around Dončić, thought the Mavericks risked making a move that could eventually break Dončić’s commitment to the organization, if the pair crashed and burned like Shakespeare’s own tragic duet. Dallas, however, never wavered. They had reached the 2022 conference finals, only to fall in five games to Golden State and then lose Jalen Brunson in free agency to New York. It is much easier to preach patience, hanging trading chips at every transaction cycle, only to default on conversations in the name of security and avoiding dangerous risks. It’s much harder to identify and acquire two more complementary starters a year later, as the Mavericks did with Washington and starting center Daniel Gafford.

After a scoreless start on Saturday, Washington hit two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Oklahoma City, then hit those series-clinching free throws to give Dallas a 117-116 victory over the Thunder. Gafford has embodied the Mavericks’ grittier defensive identity since the trade deadline and threw down a notable block on Luguentz Dort’s corner 3-pointer in this one. Dallas harbored a known affinity for Dereck Lively II prior to last June’s draft, ironically landing the bouncy center via a trade with those same Thunder in exchange for OKC guard Cason Wallace. The surface Lively swarmed with her 7-foot-1 frame, her 15 rebounds, her strong two-handed finishes in the paint all contributed to Dallas outscoring the Thunder by 26 points when Lively was on the court in Game 6. “It has incredible potential,” said Dončić.

He’s also a Duke product, as Irving, a Blue Devil teammate, reminded Dončić as they shared the postgame podium. All of these pieces have come together in a second conference finals appearance in three years in this Dončić-Harrison-Kidd era, a very different team from the young, happy-to-be-here team that fell to the champion Warriors. “The first year, our defense was incredible,” Kidd said, “and then our offense joined the party.”

Irving has unlocked a different dimension to the Mavericks’ scoring attack. His game feels as light as the feather that often hangs from Irving’s ear when he meets with the media, floating around Dončić’s lead until Irving enters the fray thanks to a gust of wind and intuition. Irving has nearly disappeared from entire halves of this Dallas playoff run, only to turn on faster than a game. On Saturday, Irving came alive with 22 points, punctuated by a ridiculous 3-pointer from the left wing that put Dallas up 110-108 with 3:02 left.

The victory moved Irving to an astonishing 14-0 in finals games during his 13 years in the NBA. Through this lens, the only lens that matters (winning), you can see why those Irving believers never saw his arrival as anything other than basketball brilliance. He made one of the biggest shots in league history to sink those mighty Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. He can hit winning floaters with either hand and with ease. And, in the right home, at the right time, Irving is consistently praised throughout the building as Dallas’ unbridled leader.

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

It was Irving who the Mavericks implored to give an impromptu speech in their celebratory locker room. He was holding back a torrent of tears, with his daughter strapped to his hip, as he thanked all of his teammates for their sacrifices and his hard work. And then: “All the words of affirmation we give each other are a big help, man,” Irving said. He was the one, remember, during a critical Game 3 win that went up 2-1 in this series, who told Lively to stop running away from Chet Holmgren’s control, draw the foul, and make the free throws in the crucial moment. . Irving is who many of these Mavericks lean on. “His calming influence with the team. He is never in a hurry. He’s always calm, he’s always positive on the bench,” Kidd said.

Maybe your perspective has come with age and a good, hard look in the mirror. In his first three trips to the postseason, Irving helped LeBron James reach the Finals three consecutive times. During five years in Boston and Brooklyn, he never returned to the final stage of this conference until Saturday night. “I took it for granted,” Irving said. He is now 32 years old, eight years older than Dončić, the same seniority that James offered Irving when they first teamed up with the Cavaliers. For this Dallas duo, their partnership seems to be based on both growth and their common gifts. “One important word we can both agree on is maturity,” Irving said.

They play and seem very aligned at the moment. When both were asked what the other means to them as a brother and teammate, Dončić leaned into the microphone before Irving had a chance to speak. This time he wanted to speak first. “Yes, because you give long speeches,” Dončić joked. In fact, these two approach these media obligations very differently. Irving likes to grab the microphone and deliver poetic monologues; Dončić is traditionally short, hunched over and growling nonetheless. Tonight, Dončić was as jovial and sincere as we’ve ever seen him, in large part because of the man sitting to the left of him. “When (Irving) came, he just supported me in everything I did,” Dončić said. “It helped me a lot to mature. “I realized I could see the game in a different way.”

Two mountains loom over this exciting corner. One is a 7-foot three-time MVP and current Denver Nuggets. The other, a big front line of Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Sixth Man of the Year Naz Reid supporting the ascendant Anthony Edwards. Whether it’s Nikola Jokić or the Minnesota Timberwolves the Mavericks will face after Game 7 on Sunday, Dallas will play its first two games of the conference finals on the road. That was the same task for the Mavericks to overcome the top-seeded Thunder, and it’s one Dallas needs to repeat if the franchise wants to recapture the trophy that Kidd, as a player, helped Dirk Nowitzki win in 2011.

They have as real a chance as any team left standing. This is not the brave group Dončić brought here in 2022. “Now he has a veteran on his side, some veterans on his side,” Irving said. “It’s a different race.” One that would also be much more daunting than the last. Irving himself called this victory against Oklahoma City the most difficult series of his career. The Dallas staff breathed a sigh of relief and experienced elation at surviving such a dangerous Thunder team. Shai Gilegous-Alexander scored a masterful 36 points from all over the court. OKC did not leave the impression of being a worthy opponent of today’s Western giants, and rival personnel throughout the NBA recognized that these Thunder will have a say in who this conference represents in the Finals for the next decade.

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

“This group has been together for about five months,” Dončić said. “I think we are capable of doing more and more. Just big changes, big adjustments and just…keep doing them.”

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