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

DALLAS — For a building that has been “loud, proud and boisterous” for two decades, for the video now being released ahead of the fourth quarter — of Kyrie Irving shouting, “Don’t be boring!” » – the 20,555 spectators watching Dallas fend off Oklahoma City fell into eerie silence as PJ Washington drove to the foul line with 2.5 seconds remaining Saturday night. A one-point deficit separated the Mavericks from a trip to the Western Conference finals, and a stoic Washington drained its first of three shots. And then, well, the American Airlines Center positions hot microphones above the edges of each basket, which ricochet every ricochet of Washington’s second attempt, its game-winning attempt, amplifying the live playoff theater that the basketball can really become while a stadium holds its collective. breath.

In February, as the Mavericks neared a trade to Washington on the afternoon of the NBA trade deadline, Dallas head coach Jason Kidd was actually attending a Broadway matinee from “& 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 production to talk about the deal with Dallas general manager Nico Harrison and the face of their franchise, Luka Dončić.

A year earlier, Harrison was calling Kidd about the atypical opportunity to land Irving before the 2022 trade deadline. Before taking control of the Mavericks’ basketball operations, Harrison was a well-established Nike executive. connected who had been closely linked to Irving for years by creating the eternal All-Star’s iconic 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 growing up in nearby Elizabeth, New Jersey. It’s rare to acquire an eight-time All-Star, Harrison and Kidd thought, for a first-round pick, some seconds and two rotation players. But Irving’s tenure in Brooklyn, NBA fans will quickly recall, was derailed by a myriad of injuries, personal absences and suspensions and the talented guard’s refusal to follow the order of vaccination of New York to get to work – and therefore play at the Barclays Center.

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

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

“I don’t have a perfect background,” Irving said Saturday. “So coming into this environment, I didn’t know how we were going to train on the field.”

Many within the Mavericks considered the blockbuster a masterstroke. Some around Dallas, others around Dončić, believed the Mavericks had attempted a move that could eventually break Dončić’s commitment to the organization — should the duo crash and burn like Shakespeare’s tragic duo. Dallas, however, never wavered. They had reached the 2022 conference finals, only to lose in five games to Golden State, then lose Jalen Brunson in free agency to New York. It’s much easier to preach patience, tossing tokens through each transaction cycle, only to renege on conversations in the name of security and avoiding perilous risks. It’s much more difficult 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 Saturday, Washington made two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Oklahoma City, then made those game-clinching free throws to give Dallas a 117-116 victory over the Thunder. Gafford personified the Mavericks’ bravest defensive identity since his own trade deadline and delivered a remarkable block on Luguentz Dort’s corner triple in this one. Dallas had a well-known affinity for Derek Lively II before last June’s draft, ironically landing the rebounding center via a trade with those same Thunder in exchange for OKC guard Cason Wallace. The floor Lively swarms 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 floor in Game 6 . has incredible potential,” Dončić said.

He’s also a Duke product, as Irving, a fellow Blue Devil, reminded Dončić as they shared the postgame podium. All those plays turned into a second conference finals appearance in three years in this Dončić-Harrison-Kidd era, a much different team than the young, happy-to-be-here one that fell to the champion Warriors. “The first year our defense was amazing,” Kidd said, “and then our offense joined in the fun.”

Irving unlocked a different dimension for the Mavericks’ scoring attack. His game seems as light as the feather that often dangles from Irving’s ear when he meets the media, fluttering around Dončić’s lead until Irving enters the fray on a gust of wind and his intuition. Irving almost disappeared from entire halves of this Dallas playoff series, only to catch fire faster than a game. On Saturday, Irving came alive for 22 points, punctuated by a ridiculous triple from the left wing that put Dallas up 110-108 with 3:02 to play.

The win propelled Irving to an incredible 14-0 in closing games during his 13 years in the NBA. Through that lens, the only goal that matters – winning – you can understand why Irving’s supporters never saw his arrival as anything other than 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 either hand and with ease. And, in the right house, at the right time, Irving is consistently lauded throughout the building as Dallas’ unbridled leader.

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

It was Irving who the Mavericks begged to give an impromptu speech in their celebratory locker room. He held back a stream of tears, his daughter pressed against his hip, as he thanked all his teammates for their sacrifices and hard work. And then, “All the words of affirmation we give ourselves go a long way, man,” Irving said. It was he, remember, in a critical Game 3 win that made this series 2-1, who told Lively to stop running from Chet Holmgren’s grasp, take the blame and to sink free throws at the crucial moment. Irving is the one so many of these Mavericks rely on. “His calming influence on the team. He is never in a hurry. He’s always calm and positive on the bench,” Kidd said.

Maybe his perspective has come with age and a good look in the mirror. In his first three trips to the playoffs, Irving helped lead LeBron James to three straight trips to the Finals. During five years in Boston and Brooklyn, he didn’t return to that final conference stage until Saturday night. “I took it for granted,” Irving said. He’s 32 now, eight years older than Dončić – the same seniority that James offered Irving on their first team with the Cavaliers. For this Dallas duo, their partnership seems to be as much about growth as it is about their shared gifts. “A big word we both agree on is maturity,” Irving said.

They are playing and seem so aligned right now. When asked what each other meant to them as brothers and teammates, Dončić leaned toward his microphone before Irving had a chance to speak. This time he wanted to speak first. “Yes, because you give long speeches,” Dončić teased. Indeed, these two approach these media obligations in very different ways. Irving likes to take the microphone and deliver poetic monologues; Dončić is traditionally brief, hunched over, grunting through it all. That night, Dončić was as jovial and candid as we’ve ever seen him – thanks in large part to the man sitting to his left. “When (Irving) came in, I was just supportive of everything I did,” Dončić said. “He helped me mature a lot. I realized that I had to look at the game in a different way.

Two mountains loom around this exciting corner. One is a 7-foot three-time MVP and the reigning Denver Nuggets. The other, an oversized 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 that the Mavericks will face on Sunday after their Game 7, Dallas will play its first two games of the conference finals on the road. It was the same task for the Mavericks to defeat the top-seeded Thunder, and it’s a task Dallas must repeat if the franchise wants to reclaim the trophy that Kidd, as a player, helped Dirk Nowitzki secure in 2011.

They have as real a chance as any team still standing. This is not the gritty group that Dončić has brought so far in 2022. “Now he has a veteran on his side, a couple of veterans on his side,” Irving said. “It’s a different race.” A situation which would also be much more intimidating than the previous one. Irving himself called this victory against Oklahoma City the most difficult series of his career. The Dallas staff sighed with relief as much as they felt the euphoria of surviving such a dangerous Thunder team. Shai Gilegous-Alexander scored a masterful 36 points from all over the court. OKC left no impression of being a worthy opponent for today’s Western giants, with rival NBA personnel recognizing 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 yet, but Dallas has it now. The Mavericks deserve outside confidence: They’ll find additional reinforcements to keep this roster fresh at all times, even if it’s right before training camp, like how Dallas picked up another playoff hero, Derrick Jones Jr., last August. (Jones punished OKC’s sluggish defense against him with four 3-pointers and 22 points in Game 6). Ask Doncic, and that’s just the beginning for Dallas.

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

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