Mavericks’ key gambles pay off as Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving lead to West Finals

DALLAS — For a building that’s been “noisy, proud and loud” for two decades, now streaming video before fourth quarters — Kyrie Irving said, “Don’t be boring!” – When PJ Washington stepped to the foul line with 2.5 seconds left on Saturday night, 20,555 people left the Dallas Oklahoma City crowd in rapturous silence. A one-point deficit separated the Mavericks from a trip to the Western Conference finals, and Washington drained its first three shots. Later, the American Airlines Center famously positioned blisteringly hot microphones over the rims of each basket, which carried every ricochet of Washington’s second attempt, his game-winning attempt, amplifying the live theater playoff basketball a stadium could become its nest. breath

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

A year ago, Harrison called Kidd about the odd chance to land Irving before the 2022 trade deadline. Before assuming control of Mavericks basketball operations, Harrison was a well-connected Nike executive who worked closely with Irving over the years to develop the All-Star’s signature sneakers. Kidd was leading the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back Finals appearances, while Irving was hailing a Hall of Fame point guard while growing up in nearby Elizabeth, New Jersey. It’s rare to get an eight-time All-Star, Harrison and Kidd believed, with one first-round pick, a pair of second-rounders and two rotation players. But Irving’s tenure in Brooklyn, NBA fans will be quick to recall, was derailed by countless injuries and personal absences and suspensions and a refusal to follow New York’s vaccination rules to get the job done by the talented guard — and therefore played at the Barclays Center.

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

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

“I didn’t have a perfect trip,” Irving said Saturday. “So coming into this environment, I don’t know how we’re going to do on the court.”

Many at Mavericks saw the blockbuster as a masterstroke. Some around Dallas, some around Doncic, thought the Mavericks made a move possible that could ultimately sever Doncic’s commitment to the organization — should the pair crash and burn like Shakespeare’s own tragic duo. However, Dallas never wavered. They reached the 2022 conference finals, fell in five games to Golden State, then lost Jalen Brunson in free agency to New York. It’s all too easy to preach patience, hang trading chips on every transaction cycle, avoid conversations in the name of safety, and avoid dangerous risk. As the Mavericks did with Washington and starting center Daniel Gafford, it’s very difficult to identify and acquire two more complementary starters a year later.

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After a scoreless start on Saturday, Washington drilled two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Oklahoma City, then hit the series-clinching free throws to lead Dallas to a 117-116 win over the Thunder. Gafford has personified the Mavericks’ grittier defensive identity since arriving at the trade deadline of his own and LeQuentz flew into the corner of the dart for a remarkable block on a dribble. Dallas had a well-known connection to Derek Lively II until last June’s draft, when ironically the Thunder landed the bouncy center in this trade in exchange for OKC guard Cason Wallace. Lively’s range swarms with his 7-foot-1 frame, his 15 rebounds, his strong two-handed finishes in the paint, all as Dallas outscored the Thunder by 26 points in Game 6 when Lively was on the floor. “He has incredible energy,” Doncic said.

He’s a Duke product, a fellow Blue Devil Irving reminded Danczyk when they shared the postgame podium. All of these pieces have led to a second conference finals appearance in three years in this Dončić-Harrison-Kidd era, a very different team than the young, happy team that fell to the champion Warriors. “The first year, our defense was incredible, and then our offense came to the party,” Kidd said.

Irving opened up a different dimension to the Mavericks scoring attack. His game feels as light as the feather that often hangs in Irving’s ear when he meets the media, floating around Doncic’s lead until Irving takes the field with air and instinct. Irving has almost disappeared from entire parts of this Dallas playoff run, only to catch fire quicker than a contest. On Saturday, Irving came alive for 22 points, capped by a ridiculous side-stepping triple from the left wing that put Dallas up 110-108 with 3:02 left.

The win makes Irving an astounding 14-0 in closeout games in 13 years in the NBA. Through this lens, the only lens that matters — winning — you can see why those Irving faithful didn’t see his arrival basketball-wise. He drilled one of the greatest shots in league history to sink the mighty Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. He can hit game-winning floaters with both hands and with ease. And Irving is constantly hailed throughout the building as the unstoppable leader of Dallas, in the right house, at the right time.

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

The Mavericks asked Irving to give an impromptu speech in their celebratory locker room. He was holding back tears as his daughter clung to his waist as he thanked all his teammates for their sacrifices and their hard work. Then, “all the words of promise we give each other go a long way, man,” Irving said. He was the one who told Lively to stop running away from the clutches of Sade Holmgren, sink fouls and crunchtime free throws during a crucial Game 3 victory to go up 2-1 in the series. Irving is what many of these mavericks lean on. “His calming influence with the team. He’s never rushed. He’s always calm, he’s always positive on the bench,” Kidd said.

Perhaps his perspective has come of age, and a good, hard look in the mirror. In his first three trips to the postseason, Irving helped LeBron James make three consecutive trips to the Finals. After more than five years in Boston and Brooklyn, he didn’t return to the conference finals until Saturday night. “I took it for granted,” Irving said. He’s now 32, eight years older than Doncic — the same seniority he gave James Irving when he first joined the Cavaliers. For this Dallas couple, their partnership stands to grow as much as their common gifts. “Maturity is a big word that we both agree on,” Irving said.

They play and seem more aligned at the moment. Doncic leaned forward into his microphone before Irving had a chance to speak when they both asked what the other meant to them as a brother and a teammate. This time, he wanted to speak first. “Yeah, because you give long speeches,” Doncic quipped. In fact, the two approach these media obligations quite differently. Irving is passionate about holding the mic and unleashing poetic monologues; Dončić is traditionally curmudgeonly, stooping and grunting. On this night, Doncic was as funny and honest as we’ve seen him — in large part because he’s sitting to his left. “When [Irving] “I’ve had nothing but support for everything I’ve done,” Doncic said. “He helped me mature a lot. I felt like looking at the game in a different way.

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Two mountains loom around this magnificent corner. One is the 7-foot, three-time MVP, and reigning Denver Nuggets. The other is a stacked frontline of Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Sixth Man of the Year Nas Reed that supports an up-and-coming Anthony Edwards. Either Nikola Jokic or the Minnesota Timberwolves face the Mavericks on Sunday after their Game 7, with Dallas playing the first two games of the conference finals on the road. It was a similar task for the Mavericks to topple the top-ranked Thunder, and as a player Dirk Nowitzki helped acquire in 2011, it’s something Dallas must repeat if the franchise is going to reclaim the Kidd trophy.

They have as much chance as any team to stop. This is not the team Doncic brought this far in 2022. “Now he’s got a veteran next to him, and he’s got a bunch of players next to him,” Irving said. “It’s a different flow.” One that is more threatening than the last. Irving called the win over Oklahoma City the toughest streak of his career. The Dallas staff breathed a small sigh of relief as they enjoyed the joy of beating a dangerous Thunder team. Shai Gilles-Alexander poured in 36 points from all over the floor. While OKC doesn’t look like a worthy opponent for today’s giants of the West, contenders from across the NBA agree that the Thunder will have something to say about representing the conference in the Finals for the next decade.

Irving didn’t have that long, but Dallas has now. The Mavericks deserve an outsider’s hope that they’ll find more reinforcements to pace this roster at every turn, even right before training camp, just like how Dallas dealt Derrick Jones Jr., another postseason hero, last August. (Jones punished OKC’s soft defense against him with four 3-pointers and 22 points in Game 6). Just ask Doncic, this is just the beginning for Dallas.

“This team has been together for five months,” Doncic said. “We’re more and more capable, I think. Big-time trades, big-time adjustments and bring them on.”

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