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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Thunder, Game 3

Dallas takes the series lead behind its best game yet.
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P.J. Washington continues to elevate the Mavericks against Oklahoma City. Kevin Jairaj-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

For three quarters, this was an unconventional game. Then, in the fourth quarter, it transformed into an unconventional war.

How does a team win one of those? With unexpected heroes stepping up. That meant P.J. Washington Jr., who led the Mavericks in scoring for the second consecutive game; Mike has a lot more about his growing legend below. Greenhorn rookies need to forget about their struggles and grow up in a hurry, as Dereck Lively II did. Along with Josh Green, the 20-year-old center changed the pace and trajectory of the game with energy and hustle as the Mavericks were falling behind in the third quarter. Even more impressively, he hit five of his eight free-throw attempts as OKC resorted to the most unusual strategy of all by intentionally fouling him down the stretch in hopes he’d miss enough for Kidd to pull him. 

Of course, wars are won by generals, not foot soldiers. Luka Dončić, banged up as ever, took a step back on offense, tallying almost as many rebounds (15) as shots (17). But he forced three key clutch turnovers along with all those boards, refusing to tap out despite the hits he kept taking in his 12-round heavyweight bout with Lu Dort. Then there was Kyrie Irving, asserting his will again in the fourth quarter, hitting several key buckets and resorting to an unconventional weapon for the final blow: a left-handed running floater similar to the one he made over Nikola Jokić to seal a win against Denver earlier in the season. This time, it was against Jalen Williams, putting the Mavericks up by five with 40 seconds to go.

OKC got dragged into the mud and was tempted into exchanging blows in man-to-man combat at the expense of the crisp and innovative 5-Out offense that had made them so unstoppable during the regular season and saw Mark Daigneault get named NBA Coach of the Year. Above all, Dort and his teammates seemed to forget that these are not the Mavericks of years past. This is a different group, a band of brothers eager to meet you in combat. This was the fifth Mavericks’ postseason game in which they allowed 101 points or fewer and the second consecutive one in which they dominated OKC on the glass. Trench warfare isn’t unconventional for this bunch. It’s how they keep winning. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

The irony of living through the most data-rich era in sports history is how little insight that data reveals about what teams most want to know. No metric is predictive of how human beings respond to changing environments; no formula a guarantor of good conduct; no decimal a proxy for who cares about the important things in the right moments. Ability still rules, of course, but soft skills are the great separators between winning players and losing ones, between the players who elevate rosters and the ones who drag them down. 

I bring this up as a reminder of how little was promised when the Mavericks parted with one of their few tradeable first-round picks plus Grant Williams to acquire Paul Jermaine Washington Jr. at this year’s deadline. Here was a player long on pedigree and longer on talent, a fit in every way for what Dallas needed—but with no certainty he would deliver it. The Mavericks had already struck out on Williams, a same-aged player fresh off playing an important role on a contending Boston team. Now they were pinning their hopes on someone mired in the mediocrity that is the Charlotte Hornets, who did not consistently channel his gifts and, at times, his focus.

There are several reasons why Saturday’s win felt like the first time all series when Dallas performed like the superior team and not merely a fortunate one. The Mavericks dominated the glass and lorded over the offensive interior. Luka Dončić kept showing grit. Kyrie Irving reasserted himself as Dallas’ crunch-time force. 

But the most important one of all—and the most encouraging for this team’s direction long after this series is over—was Washington making his most emphatic statement to date about how much he matters on a great team. He did not drill 7 of 10 from behind the arc, as he did in his magma-hot Game 2, but still he spent much of the game as Dallas’ only reliable source of offense as he drifted everywhere from the dunker spot out to the three-point line. He did that while shouldering the defensive load that became his trademark within a couple weeks of his arrival.

Dallas unequivocally does not win this game without him, just like it does not win the last game without him, which means the player spinning his wheels in Charlotte three short months ago has swung this series away from a brisk second-round exit and toward the Mavericks controlling their destiny to knock off the West’s top seed for the second time in three seasons.

Already, he has established something of an ownership stake in Dallas’ core. This is still Dončić’s team, and then Irving’s. Sooner than later, it will also be Dereck Lively’s. But it is a little bit of Washington’s now, too. He is here to stay. And because of him, the Mavericks are here to stay in this series. —Mike Piellucci

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…
Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…
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