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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Thunder, Game 6

These Dallas Mavericks have surged their way into the Western Conference Finals.
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Luka Doncic and the Mavericks are back in the conference finals for the second time in three years. Kevin Jairaj, USA Today Sports. Luka Doncic and the Mavericks are back in the conference finals for the second time in three years. 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

One of the best things in sports is watching a group of individuals come together and become a team. After the Dallas Mavericks beat the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder to advance to the Western Conference Finals, the only thought I was left with after an emotional night was: “Man, what a team!”

This was supposed to take time. 

Four of the Mavericks’ top six playoff rotation players were elsewhere last year. Two arrived in February. This was P.J. Washington’s and Derrick Jones Jr.’s first meaningful playoff run, and Dereck Lively II was not expected to dominate playoff games as a 20-year-old rookie. Yet last night, this team looked like a group that had been through countless battles together.

For that matter, this was supposed to be the Luka and Kyrie show.

As soon as Kyrie Irving arrived in Dallas, the question was whether the Mavericks had enough around their superstar duo. Throughout this series, we were calling for Doncic and Kyrie to do more, to be more assertive. There was no way the Mavericks could beat the high-octane OKC offense with Doncic averaging 24 points and Irving 14 points. Right? The Thunder definitely thought so, as they kept doubling the Mavs’ playmakers at almost every opportunity. Doncic’s and Irving’s trust was tested in every game of this matchup. 

To their credit, they never doubted their teammates, sometimes almost to a fault. The role players stepped up, game after game, none more than in the series finale. They proved they are a big part of the best, most well-rounded Mavericks team since the 2011 title run. 

Lively erased all Mavericks’ early misses by crashing the offensive boards, and buoyed the offense late by scoring 8 points in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with an impressive 12-point, 15-rebound double-double. Jones Jr. scored 22 points, including a huge, clutch fadeaway over Chet Holmgren with 1:15 left in the game. Then there is Washington. In foul trouble all night, he hadn’t made a shot and didn’t score a point until just over five minutes left in the game. If one player embodies the no-fear DNA of this Mavericks team, it is the Frisco Lone Star High School product. Washington didn’t falter. Instead, he played with the confidence of someone with a 30-point game under his belt. He grabbed a key rebound, sank two clutch threes, and calmly made the game-sealing free throws with two seconds left. He then missed the last one on purpose to prevent OKC from having any chance of success with a last-second Hail Mary play. Oh, and Jason Kidd made another great adjustment, throwing OKC off balance with a zone defense that was key to the Mavericks’ comeback after trailing by 16 at the half.

Make no mistake: Doncic and Irving weren’t just bystanders in this game. Doncic recorded a 29-point triple-double on only 15 field goal attempts, and Irving again stepped up when needed, scoring 18 of his 22 points in the second half. But it was their commitment to defense and to making the right plays that keep standing out throughout the playoffs. Or rather, blending in with the rest. That’s what you call a team. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

It feels so familiar. It feels so foreign.

Two seasons ago, the Mavericks were exactly here: in the NBA’s final four after knocking off the top seed in the Western Conference. This outcome is nothing novel for this city, or its franchise, or that franchise’s best player.

But Dallas does not enter the conference finals the same as it was in 2022. This is evident in the personnel; with Maxi Kleber unavailable due to injury, Luka Doncic and Josh Green are the only active players on both rosters, and the latter was seldom seen in that first run. It is even more obvious how these teams play basketball. 

The Mavericks of two years ago were plucky far more than powerful, a collection of oddballs and overachievers—and, yes, a transcendent superstar—stretching one style of play to its absolute limit. Aesthetically, they could be a tough watch, especially when the threes weren’t falling. The beauty came from understanding that however far Dallas went, that outfit wrung every ounce of potential out of its limited means. Up until the moment Jalen Brunson skipped town, there was no wondering what might have been.

But these Mavericks? Wind back that third quarter and watch how they stampeded through arguably the most exciting roster in basketball, the way emerged from the American Airlines Center tunnel in apparent agreement they would simply stop playing sloppy basketball and get down to the business of snapping Oklahoma City’s resolve. And watch how helpless the Thunder—that constellation of glittery young prospects, that army of white walkers—were to turn back this Dallas surge. The party line after the game concerned Oklahoma City being a young group unprepared for the moment. That ignores the fact that other than Kyrie Irving, these Mavericks are hardly older—for instance, Doncic is seven months younger than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander while Dereck Lively is two years Chet Holmgren’s junior—and barely more playoff-tested.

No, the Mavericks did not beat this Thunder team through years or wisdom. They won because already, a handful of months after this roster took shape at the trade deadline, they have stumbled on a terrifying alchemy of offensive pizzaz, defensive ruthlessness, and seemingly endless athleticism.

So what happens when P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford have a full offseason to integrate with Doncic, the way Irving did last summer prior to the lead duo’s synergy ratcheting up a few hundred degrees? And what happens when Lively, perhaps the most exciting young defensive big this side of Victor Wembanyama, really figures out what he’s doing? For that matter, what if Dallas packages their two movable first-rounders and a few young pieces to import another huge piece? Or if Jason Kidd, who has now piloted the Mavericks to more conference finals than any head coach in franchise history, finds more than six players he can comfortably lean on?

The point is, this team isn’t close to maxed out. Not by a long shot.

That’s why there’s no reason to presume Dallas’ season is, either. The next opponent will be more difficult than the last: the Mavs will square off against the only team bigger than them in Minnesota, or the only player in the conference definitively better than Doncic in Denver’s Nikola Jokic. But they are talented and tough and together and too damn bouncy to keep below the rim. They will not go quietly. And when this series is over, whatever the outcome may be, know that more is coming. That’s an unfamiliar thought in the Doncic era. It’s an alluring one, too. —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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