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Basketball

On Kyrie Irving, and Possibilities

The 31-year-old has spent a year in Dallas, and he's been every bit as dazzling as expected. That's enough to make you keep dreaming big about the Mavericks, even during the team's rockiest stretches.
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Irving has delivered plenty of excitement since arriving in Dallas. Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports

Of all the records Luka Doncic has set during his time with the Mavericks—the achievements, the firsts and onlys, the not since Oscar Robertson or Wilt Chamberlain or whoever stats—there is one feat that he has not pulled off, but Kyrie Irving has. Only 20 times in NBA history have two teammates both scored more than 40 points in the same regular season game. Irving, in less than a full season with the Mavs, has done it twice. Once with Doncic, back in March, just before the season went to hell, and once with Tim Hardaway Jr. on January 15 against the New Orleans Pelicans. (Irving, of course, also famously did this in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals.)

Does this mean Irving is a better teammate than Doncic? Not really. But it could mean, and I would argue it does, that Irving is better at getting in where he fits in, at making a meal out of whatever happens to be in the fridge. And that is not meant to imply Doncic is not adaptable. It’s more that, yes, Irving can take over a quarter or a half or a full game, but he doesn’t have to do that to put up numbers. He’s hitting pullups and putbacks and backdoor layups, getting out on the break, running give-and-gos, and suddenly you realize he has 28 points. When Doncic goes for 40, it usually feels like he’s following a treasure map, the destination long in sight. When Irving does it, sometimes it can feel like he’s out on the beach with a metal detector. 

They see the game the same way but play it at different speeds and from different angles. Doncic will toss up an oddball (but usually rehearsed) shot, maybe a little further from the basket, when he gets the bump he wants from his defender and has the court sense to get a shot up and the muscle to make it. He can be a bully, so by the time he gets to the rim, there’s no one left to stand in his way. There is an inevitability to his impossibilities.

Irving’s forays to the hoop will get him close, too, but he might be facing away from it or under it or with the ball on the wrong side of his body. It’s like Denzel Washington landing the plane at the beginning of Flight: Wait, he’s going to invert it??? Irving will wriggle through space that isn’t there to take a shot from an angle that doesn’t exist. The truth is, there are two magicians on the team, capable of big and small feats of wonder: Davids Copperfield and Blaine.

To be clear, the Mavs need both—both approaches and both players. Irving’s recent six-game absence, if not the entire season, has proven that. The team can win if Doncic or Irving is out, but it requires the remaining star to have a very good game (at minimum) and strong performances from the supporting cast. The team can win if their role players do not step up, but that requires both Doncic and Irving to play and play very well.     

For the most part, we still don’t know exactly what the Mavericks will be this year, because Jason Kidd’s stated ideal starting lineup from earlier—Dereck Lively II, Derrick Jones Jr., and Dante Exum, along with their two stars—has barely played together. Because of injury but also because Kidd wasn’t giving Exum minutes at the beginning of the season. That’s before taking into account long absences by rotation players Josh Green and Maxi Kleber. Now deadline acquisitions P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford are in the mix, leading to what will be a reshaping of Dallas’ rotation.

The bright side, to me, is that there have been glimmers of what this team can do if it can just make the playoffs, and a lot of that has to do with Irving. Doncic is a playoff veteran at this point, and he’s been playing in big games since he was too young to drive. But he has only had one extended postseason run in the NBA. Irving has been to the biggest stage plenty of times, and thrived there. He has another gear that he has only exhibited in Dallas a little bit, such as a three-game stretch in January that Doncic missed due to injury and Irving averaged 39.7 points and 7.7 assists on 49.4 percent shooting from the field and 42.4 percent from three. He was all over the place during that run, even turning into a pest on defense. You can see what he might do in a seven-game series.

The Mavs have to get there first, and in some semblance of health. Given how the season has played out so far, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. But watching Irving do his thing, the ball hovering behind his hand in a float dribble before he splits two defenders, twists around two others, and lays it high off the backboard over the outstretched arms of the last one, it’s difficult not to start asking “What if?”

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Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…

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