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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Wolves, Game 1

They finally won the first game in a series, 108-105.
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Luka had 33 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds Jesse Johnson-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

On their sixth try under Jason Kidd, the Mavericks finally opened a playoff series with a win. It could be that the Timberwolves were a bit tired, coming off an emotional Game 7 win over the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets. Their stars, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, had an off night, shooting a combined 12 of 36 from the floor. But this is the kind of opportunity you need to grab with both hands, and the Mavericks did just that.

Maybe as important as the win, if not more so, is that the Mavericks’ star duo of Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, after a down series against OKC (at least scoring-wise), came out aggressively, attacking in waves just like we saw them do countless times in the regular season. The only difference this time was that the roles were reversed. It was Irving who came out flying, scoring 24 of his 30 points in the first half. He went at Edwards with added motivation, making him regret his enthusiastic proclamation of trying to lock down a counterpart 10 years his senior. And in the fourth quarter, Dončić took a page from Irving’s vast book of clutch takeovers, scoring 15 points, including a key bucket over Jaden McDaniels with 50 seconds remaining, and making two crucial steals in the last two minutes.

If the dominant performances of Dončić and Irving were a fresh sight in these playoffs, what happened in between, which allowed Dallas to win despite shooting only 6 of 25 from the three-point line, was not. It might have come as a surprise for the Timberwolves, who dominated the paint against two teams without real rim protection in the prior two rounds, but protecting the paint (Minnesota shot only 14 of 25 at the rim) and attacking the offensive glass (Dallas outperformed its bigger counterparts) are part of the Mavericks’ DNA. As is the no-fear approach embodied by P.J. Washington, who calmly sank a clutch corner three despite having made only one of his first seven attempts. The first moves were made in what will be a long chess match: Minnesota tried to answer the first question of the Dončić puzzle with Rudy Gobert in drop coverage, and for at least one night, it looked easier for Dončić to create separation against the longer but leaner Jaden McDaniels than it was against the Thunder’s bulky and hyper-aggressive Lu Dort. We also saw that if Dallas wants to draw two defenders to the ball and create a four-on-three advantage, it only needs to attack Towns or Naz Reid in the pick-and-roll.

But the story Wednesday night wasn’t about Xs and Os; it was about the Mavericks showing they understand what’s at stake—the opportunity to play in the NBA Finals—and playing like it. It was only a first step, but it was a promising one. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

Validation.

It’s one thing to say you want your team to be less leveraged on three-point shooting and to do that in the regular season. It’s one thing to say you’ve made your team more physical and to do that in the regular season. It is an entirely different matter to showcase these traits in the conference finals, on the road, against one of the more physically imposing teams in the league. Simply put, the Mavericks bullied the Timberwolves into submission. 

Couple that with the fact that Dallas, in Luka Dončić’s words, “would’ve been down 20 in the first half” without Kyrie Irving’s dominance, and this felt like general manager Nico Harrison’s masterpiece. The requisite caveats: it’s just one game, the Timberwolves were coming off an emotional win, the Mavs had an extra day of rest, etc. But what I felt watching Wednesday night was what we’ve all felt throughout this postseason, only to a heightened degree due to circumstance: this team exudes the identity the front office desired to create. 

Dereck Lively II was again the best big in this game. Minnesota finished a lob here and there, but otherwise Lively routinely bodied Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert at the rim and on the glass. It is truly remarkable that on a team that has Dončić and Irving, a 20-year-old rookie is right there with those two in creating get-off-your-couch-and-yell moments.

Derrick Jones Jr. made life on the offensive end laborious for Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards, whose life was already made challenging by having to chase Irving around on the other end of the floor. P.J. Washington leaned on Towns on the perimeter. Bullies. 

With a few exceptions, we’ve become accustomed over several years to watching the Mavericks play this type of game a certain way. On the toughness scale, they have usually been perceived as somewhere between woefully soft to average at best. But to steal a line from a friend, “This year is different.” They’re not as big and as long as the Timberwolves, and they don’t have a two-way demon like Edwards. But for at least one night, this version of the Mavericks didn’t care. This is the first time I’ve ever watched a Mavericks team where when the opposition gets to about 10 seconds left on the shot clock, I think, “This is going to end poorly for them.” What are you going to do? You better be able to knock down a high clip of the semi-open threes Dallas will concede, which the Timberwolves did on Wednesday. Otherwise, you’re treading in deep water.

On the other end, Dallas converted just three triples through the first three quarters. Didn’t matter. No one can guard Dončić or Irving one on one, and Irving might be the only player in the league who can consistently finish over the 7-foot-1 Gobert at the rim. Dončić has no problem hitting from the mid-range. A long, arduous series lies ahead. But make no mistake. Game 1 was validation that the DNA of these Mavericks is different and that they are not to be trifled with. —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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