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Basketball

The Mavericks Are in Kyrie Irving’s Hands Against Oklahoma City

This is still Luka Doncic's team. But the next two weeks are his running mate's series.
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Irving's second-half fireworks against the Clippers make it hard to doubt what he can deliver against Oklahoma City. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports Irving's second-half fireworks against the Clippers make it hard to doubt what he can deliver against Oklahoma City. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Three months ago, the Mavericks looked dead in the water. Their offense was mediocre; their defense was a liability. The fan base was restless, calling for a change in leadership. Even the tiniest developments were viewed through the lens of “Is Luka Doncic happy?” There wasn’t a lot to smile about. 

Nw, with a revamped roster that has generated a vastly different approach to the sport, the Mavericks are headed to the second round of the postseason. Trade deadline acquisitions P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford helped power the team to a 24-10 finish, featuring an offense and defense that both ranked sixth league-wide. That is a championship pedigree. 

(I’m not sure about the idea of giving the head coach a multi-year extension after a first-round win, but at the same time, it’s tough to quibble with rewarding Jason Kidd for his part in this. A team with Doncic and Kyrie Irving on the floor for virtually the entire game defending this well should not be overlooked. Kidd deserves a lot of credit for this, and I suppose job security is the ultimate credit.)

But legacies are not written in the first round. As satisfying as it was to see this team exorcise its demons of playoffs past against the Los Angeles Clippers, now it gets real. The Clippers were a busted, old team hanging on for dear luxury-tax life. The Oklahoma City Thunder, on the other hand, embody everything the Clippers aren’t. They’re young, they’re exciting, and they’re just getting started. 

The Mavericks sit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. A mix of veterans and youth. Their franchise cornerstone is only 25, although no one thinks of Doncic as a young player. Their offensive catalyst, Irving, is on his fourth team. Dallas overhauled 40 percent of its starting lineup this calendar year, and neither Washington nor Gafford came from winning situations. Simply put, this is a weird, Frankenstenian roster.

It works, though. And heading into the matchup with the favored Thunder, the Mavericks might have the two best players in the series. Certainly, you could push back on the idea that one might prefer Irving over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander considering the latter could soon be named this season’s league MVP. This could very well be recency bias. But it is tough to watch what Irving has done in the second half of these playoff games and think you’d rather have anyone else in control. He’s shooting over 50 percent in the fourth quarter this season, he’s in the top 10 of scoring in the final frame, and he has a preternatural ability to calm things down. He’s the guy you want in that moment.

This is bigger than Doncic and Irving, though. Difficult as it is to watch former Maverick Jalen Brunson blossom into an MVP candidate in a different uniform, the Mavericks’ vibes are, as Brunson himself would say, immaculate. They play hard. They play fast(er). And they play together. It is truly remarkable that this team won a series in which Doncic shot 24 percent from beyond the arc; that notion was inconceivable two years ago. And there was nothing lucky about the Mavericks’ first-round win. They sit precisely in the middle of all playoff teams through one round in “quantified shot quality impact,” a metric that gauges whether a team outperformed or underperformed its field goal attempts. The Mavs grinded for buckets and converted their chances. They dared the Clippers to do the same, and Los Angeles simply wasn’t up for it to the degree Dallas was.

The Thunder will be. Mark Daigneault just won Coach of the Year for a reason. They have an impressively creative offense and the players to execute it. If we can look at Dallas and surmise that its post-deadline performance warrants championship consideration, the Thunder can put forth the idea that they’ve been doing this all season. Sure, in the first game after Gafford and Washington were acquired, Dallas thumped OKC behind an absurd 47-point first quarter. But I wouldn’t expect anything close to that occurring in the playoffs. The Thunder are a legit outfit looking to make their first mark. This is going to be an all-out war. 

For the first time in his career, I don’t think this series comes down to what Doncic does or doesn’t do. To be sure, a sub-30 percent mark from deep is not ideal, and Dallas probably can’t survive another round of that. But to me, this is Irving’s series. The Mavericks will sink or swim based on his ability to take the pressure off of Doncic, and hell, possibly even take the lead. For all of the BS that has followed Irving throughout his career—some of it his own doing, some of it not—he is the adult in the room in this series. No one on either side has his experience. The Thunder boast a lot of talent, and they’re going to be a problem for years. But for the next two weeks, they’ll be playing against Irving, not with him.

I can’t watch him put up a 28-point second half in a closeout game and think this guy is primed to do anything other than bury the Thunder. And in turn, if we want to talk about Doncic and the big picture, nothing could do more to alleviate any lingering concerns that he might have an eye to the coast sooner rather than later. It took a bit of a circuitous route, but this team seems to have plodded its way into a setup that just works: defend like the world depends on it, and bet on one of Irving or Doncic going berserk at different junctures of the game.

The Mavericks just won a series where Doncic was not at his best. It would certainly help if he returned to his form from the spring, but given his injury situation, that’s tough to count on. This series is about Irving. This series is about the validation of general manager Nico Harrison. The Thunder might be next up. But right now, it’s still Irving’s time. And starting tonight, he’s going to remind everyone why that is the case.

Author

Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…
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