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

DALLAS — For a building that’s been “rowdy, proud and loud” for two decades, for the video that now streams before fourth quarters — of Kyrie Irving yelling, “Don’t be boring!” — the 20,555 watching Dallas stave off Oklahoma City fell into a chilling silence as P.J. Washington stepped 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 Washington, stoically, drained his first of three shots. And then, well, American Airlines Center famously positions blistering hot microphones above the rims of each basket, which boomed each ricochet of Washington’s second attempt, his game-winning attempt, amplifying the live theater playoff basketball can truly become as a stadium holds its collective breath.

Back in February, when the Mavericks were nearing a trade for Washington the afternoon of the NBA’s 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 that Thursday night’s clash with the Knicks. “It was a good play for the first 30 seconds,” Kidd recalled, before he slipped out of the production to talk with Dallas general manager Nico Harrison and their franchise face, Luka Dončić, about the deal.

A year earlier, Harrison was phoning Kidd about the atypical opportunity to land Irving before the 2022 trade deadline. Before assuming control of the Mavericks’ basketball operations, Harrison was a well-connected Nike executive who’d knotted closely with Irving through years creating the perennial All-Star’s signature sneakers. And Kidd was merely steering the New Jersey Nets to consecutive 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 believed, for one first-round pick, a pair of seconds, plus two rotation players. But Irving’s Brooklyn tenure, NBA fans will quickly recall, derailed due to myriad injuries and personal absences and suspensions and the gifted guard’s refusal to follow New York’s vaccination ordinance in order to attend work — and therefore play at Barclays Center.

“I don’t have a perfect journey,” Irving said Saturday. “So coming into this environment, I was unsure how we were going to work out on the court.”

Many within the Mavericks viewed the blockbuster as a masterstroke. Some around Dallas, some around Dončić, thought the Mavericks chanced a move that could eventually sever Dončić’s commitment to the organization — if the pairing crashed and burned like Shakespeare’s own tragic duo. Dallas, though, never hesitated. They’d 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’s far easier to preach patience, to dangle trade chips each transaction cycle, only to renege on conversations in the name of safety and avoiding perilous risk. It’s far harder to identify and acquire two more complementary starters one year later, as the Mavericks did with Washington and starting center Daniel Gafford.

After a scoreless start Saturday, Washington drilled 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 personified the Mavericks' grittier defensive identity since his own trade deadline arrival and flung for a remarkable block on Luguentz Dort's corner triple in this one. Dallas harbored a well-known affinity for Dereck Lively II leading up to last June's draft, ironically landing the bouncy center by way of a trade with these very Thunder in exchange for OKC guard Cason Wallace. The surface area Lively swarms with his 7-foot-1 frame, his 15 rebounds, his 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. "He has unbelievable potential," Dončić said.

He’s also a Duke product, as Irving, a fellow Blue Devil, reminded Dončić while they shared the postgame podium. All these pieces have rounded 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-heres 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 for the Mavericks’ scoring attack. His game feels as light as the feather often dangling from Irving’s ear as he meets with the media, floating around Dončić’s lead until Irving enters the fray by a gust of wind and intuition. Irving has almost disappeared from entire halves of this Dallas playoff run, only to catch fire quicker than a match. On Saturday, Irving came alive for 22 points, punctuated by a ridiculous side-stepping triple from the left wing that put Dallas up 110-108 with 3:02 to play.

The win moved Irving to an astounding 14-0 in closeout games over 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 but basketball brilliance. He drilled one of the biggest shots in league history to sink those 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 home, at the right time, Irving is consistently praised 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 whom the Mavericks locker room implored to give an impromptu speech in their celebratory locker room. He was holding back a rush of tears, his daughter pinned to his hip, while he thanked all his teammates for their sacrifices and their hard work. And then, “All the words of affirmation that we’re giving each other go a long way, man,” Irving said. He was the one, remember, during a critical Game 3 win to go up 2-1 in this series, who told Lively to stop fleeing Chet Holmgren’s grasp, take the foul and sink crunchtime free throws. Irving is the one so many of these Mavericks lean on. “His calming influence with the team. He’s never in a hurry. He’s always calm, he’s always positive on the bench,” Kidd said.

Maybe his perspective has come with age, and a good, hard look in the mirror. His first three trips to the postseason, Irving helped LeBron James make three consecutive trips to the Finals. Over five years in Boston and Brooklyn, he never made it back to this conference finals stage until Saturday night. “I took it for granted,” Irving said. He’s 32 now, eight years older than Dončić — the same seniority James offered Irving when they first teamed with the Cavaliers. For this Dallas duo, their partnership has seemed to stand on growth as much as their common gifts. “A big word that we both can agree on is maturity,” Irving said.

They play, and seem, so aligned in this moment. When they’re both asked what the other means to them as a brother and a teammate, Dončić leaned forward into his microphone before Irving had a chance to speak. This time, he wanted to talk first. “Yeah, because you give the long speeches,” Dončić teased. Indeed, these two approach these media obligations quite differently. Irving is keen on grabbing the mic and unwinding poetic monologues; Dončić traditionally brief, hunched over, grunting through it all. This night, Dončić was as jovial and candid as we may have ever seen him — in large part due to the man sitting to his left. “When [Irving] came, nothing but supportive of everything I did,” Dončić said. “He helped me mature a lot. I realized to see 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, a supersized frontline of Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Sixth Man of the Year Naz Reid that supports the ascending Anthony Edwards. Whether it’s Nikola Jokić or the Minnesota Timberwolves the Mavericks will face after their 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 is going to reclaim the trophy Kidd, as a player, helped Dirk Nowitzki procure in 2011.

They have as real of a chance as any team left standing. This is not the plucky group Dončić brought to this stage in 2022. “Now he has a veteran next to him, a few veterans next to him,” Irving said. “It’s a different run.” One that would be far more daunting than the last as well. Irving himself called this win against Oklahoma City the hardest series of his career. Dallas staffers sighed some relief as much as they experienced euphoria at outlasting such a dangerous Thunder team. Shai Gilegous-Alexander poured in a masterful 36 points from all over the floor. OKC left no impression short of being a worthy adversary to the West’s giants of today, with rival personnel across the NBA acknowledging these Thunder are going to have something to say about who represents this conference in the Finals for the next decade.

Irving does not have that long, but Dallas has now. The Mavericks deserve an outside confidence they’ll find further reinforcements to keep this roster up to speed at every turn, even if it’s right before training camp, like how Dallas scooped another postseason hero, Derrick Jones Jr., this past August. (Jones punished OKC’s soft defense against him with four 3-pointers and 22 points in Game 6). Ask Dončić, and this is only Dallas’ beginning.

“This group has been together for like five months,” Dončić said. “We’re capable of more and more, I think. Just big-time trades, big-time adjustments, and just … keep bringing them.”

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