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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Wolves, Game 5

We're going to Finals. THE FINALS.
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Immaculate vibes Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us. That’s what we’re here to talk about.

What We Saw

All we could do was chuckle in awe.

Stan Van Gundy on the TNT broadcast. Snoop Dogg sitting courtside in the Target Center. My every friend and I trading texts from 5,500 miles away in Slovenia.

After Luka Dončić calmly sank a pull-up three, with Rudy Gobert backpedaling and Kyle Anderson in his rearview mirror, for his 20th point just over 10 minutes into the first quarter, we all knew the Timberwolves were cooked. We had seen this movie before, when Dončić dominated the Phoenix Suns in Game 7 of the 2022 Western Conference semifinals, killing any hope for a close game before halftime. The lights were even brighter Thursday night, with an NBA Finals appearance within reach, but with all due respect to the 2022 Mavericks and Jalen Brunson, Dončić looked even more confident with a better sidekick and team around him.

It was only fitting for the Mavericks to punch their ticket to the Finals the way they steamrolled through the NBA after their midseason reshuffle: with Dončić and Kyrie Irving delivering knockout punches in waves and by everyone playing suffocating defense. Irving matched Dončić’s 36 points, and both looked like players peaking at the perfect time, knowing there are four more games to be won to reach the ultimate goal.

But with a full week before Game 1, there will be plenty of time to think about the Celtics and the NBA Finals. Instead let’s savor the moment and reflect on the remarkable journey these Mavericks have been on. This win was the perfect redemption for a team that faced doubts at every stage of its assembly, with skepticism arising about each of its key pieces.

During the regular season, writers and analytics experts questioned Dončić’s impact on winning, even as he averaged almost 34/10/9 and made the NBA rethink the rules after scoring 73 points against the Hawks in January. The Ringer ranked him as the fourth-best player age 25 or under and called his running mate Irving a chaos agent. ESPN graded the P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford trades a D and a C-minus. Add career backup and end-of-bench filler Derrick Jones Jr. and 20-year-old rookie Dereck Lively II playing significant roles, and Jason Kidd, who was often doubted and never considered among the best NBA coaches by most analysts. The defense was questioned at every point during the run through the Western Conference playoffs, as the Mavs eliminated 51- and 57- and 56-win teams without having to go to a seventh game.

This team held strong against every possible challenge, thanks to the full buy-in from everyone—from the two stars all the way down to 34-year-old Markieff Morris, who rarely played but was a key voice in the locker room. Now, on the biggest stage, everyone will see this is a team that should not be underestimated. Those who still do will do so at their own peril. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

It was only a matter of time.

A team with Luka Dončić at the helm was always going to make the NBA Finals. The only question was which team he would lead to that destination. He’s the best basketball player on the planet. In other sports, that might not mean certain success. In the NBA, it does. There is not a scenario in which Dončić doesn’t contend for a championship every season, save for an injury-riddle tank job.

He is the alpha. Game 5 was over before it started. The Mavericks have not lost consecutive games in this postseason, and Dončić was not about to let it happen Thursday night. It is curious to me that the oddsmakers didn’t recognize how different this team was after the trade deadline. But simply put, this is an elite team. For all of the talk about whether Dončić and his style of play “contributes to winning,” it is fair to question how to build a team around him. On paper, adding another quicksand slasher like Kyrie Irving to play next to him seemed like it would be trouble. It hasn’t been. Dončić and Irving have played the best defense of their careers this season, and the front office stacked the roster with dynamic defenders.

I would say I can’t believe it, because I’ve watched this team play a certain brand of ball for 25 years. But for the last three months, it is clear: this is a collection of people who are a problem. Dončić and Irving play an offensive style that will upset you. It doesn’t make sense. The shots they make are often well-defended. And then their teammates will hassle you to a degree that makes this not fun.

It isn’t an enjoyable experience to play the Mavericks right now. They have two killers. They have a scheme and a roster to harangue you into bad shots. They are the perfect mix of commanders and troops.

The best player in the world wears a Mavs uniform. What are you going to do about that? Scheme around it? Double him? Blitz him? He’s going to pass the ball to Kyrie F—ing Irving. Dallas has somehow paired the two most basketball-obsessed individuals on the planet on the same roster. This has led them to the NBA Finals. Skill and fit will be a constant question over the next two weeks. Commitment will not. —Jake Kemp

Authors

Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…
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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