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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Wolves, Game 2

The Mavs won 109-108 and now return to Dallas with a two-game lead.
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Luka and Lively were pretty pumped after Luka drained a three over Gobert. Brad Rempel-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

I thought to myself, as Game 2 went to halftime, the Timberwolves up 12, “Mavs by two.” You might think I’m lying, but I swear to you that’s the first thing that popped into my head as soon as the buzzer sounded. Because Minnesota hadn’t knocked out Dallas. They should have. They needed to, already down 1-0.

They did knock them down, briefly, going up 18 at one point in the second quarter. Only Luka Dončić and Dereck Lively II were at all locked in, and it felt as though the Mavs were even a short T-Wolves run away from buckling like a belt. Game 2 was going the way I thought (and probably a lot of people thought) how Game 1 would go, how the previous two Games 1s had gone.

But this one never tipped over into inevitability. It got close. Maybe another Naz Reid three would have done the job, nudged the lead over 20, sent the home crowd into that euphoric place where it feels like the visitors are playing on a court the size of a freight elevator. The Mavs gave them every opportunity to put them away, going intensely cold, missing something like eight or nine in a row, finally breaking the streak with a lob to Lively. Then another Lively dunk on a sick look-away pass from Dončić—life!—and a Dončić layup in transition and, hey, OK. Twelve points—no hill for a climber.

So: “Mavs by two.” Which was wrong, but only just. I thought that (and probably a lot of people thought that) because that’s who these Mavs are. Who they have been since P.J. Washington Jr. and Daniel Gafford joined the team, and all through these playoffs. They are resilient. They play enough defense—more than enough—to give their offense enough time to get cooking. They have two stars who rarely go full games without showing why they’re stars.

On this night, Kyrie Irving was largely absent until the fourth quarter. Then he hit his first three (of the series), the first of four in the frame, on his way to 15 points in the final period. (And it would have been more if he didn’t somehow miss three free throws. “Sorry, Dad,” he joked in his postgame interview.) Dončić, on the other hand, was steady all game on his way to a 32-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound triple-double. But Irving’s heroics put Dončić in position to cash the game-winning three over Rudy Gobert, after making the just-crowned Defensive Player of the Year flail and spin around like a dad learning a TikTok dance.

“I can’t move fast, but I can move faster than him,” he told the Inside the NBA crew afterward.

Now the Mavs come back to Dallas up 2-0, though only by a total of four points. It’s enough to be confident but not cocky. —Zac Crain

What It Felt Like

Pure joy. Well, maybe not pure because there was some cathartic sports rage mixed in with that joy. You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Luka turning into a basketball werewolf after he drained that three over Gobert and then shouted, “Grrrr! Get that weak-ass crêpe out of my face, you surrender monkey! Rawlrrr!! Show that in slow motion forever!” It was beautiful. —Tim Rogers

What Was Also Seen, With Additional Eyeballs

For the second consecutive series, the Mavericks, talent aside, are a more composed, poised, veteran team than their opponent. And for the second straight series, they erased a massive second-half deficit and walked away with a win. Dallas was pummeled by Minnesota’s No. 1 ranked defense for a significant portion of this contest. The Timberwolves coaching staff adjusted how they opted to defend the pick and roll, specifically when Luke Dončić was the operator. To make matters worse, Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards tapped into his normal degree of offensive aggression early, finishing with 21 drives, 11 more than he had in Game 1. Sixth Man Of The Year Naz Reid was seven of eight from deep, until the final shot of the game, killing every Mavericks run with ease.

And it didn’t matter. The Mavericks continued to embody the mindset of their head coach, stayed calm and stayed the course, and executed flawlessly on both ends of the floor in the second half. Really, though, the shift started just before half time. The Timberwolves shot 47 percent from three in the first half and had frustrated Dončić into a five-for-14 shooting effort. Down 18, Dallas turned defense into offense on three straight possessions over the course of two minutes. Three straight stops from Dallas turned into three straight buckets (two dunks and a layup), all within six seconds of regaining possession of the ball. Suddenly, the lead was cut to 12 headed to half.

That was the second-most consequential sequence of the game. The top spot goes to, of course, the final 30 seconds of the contest. The final two possessions are a perfect distillation of this matchup. Up two with a chance to likely end the game, Dallas forced an Edwards turnover. Mavericks big Dereck Lively II got switched onto Edwards late in the possession, and was perfectly fine guarding the opposition’s star guard at the foul line. He smothered him, and Edwards threw the ball out of bounds.

On the other end, it wasn’t exactly the same situation, but Dallas desired to get Minnesota’s big, Rudy Gobert, switched onto their star, Dončić. And we know what happened. But as you watch that play a thousand times (probably for the next 20 years), watch Lively. For all the talk of “The Timberwolves should’ve doubled” (and yes, somehow, some way, they should’ve), Lively does an incredible job of contorting his screen in a way that makes it impossible for Jaden McDaniels to help. That is a veteran level of basketball IQ that might be overlooked amidst all of the other impressive traits Lively is exhibiting.

Simply put, Edwards is not currently in Dončić’ area code; I don’t care what this list or that list says. And Lively and Daniel Gafford have matched the Timberwolves’ vaunted front line of Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. Dallas’ bigs held Minnesota to just eight of 19 shooting in the second half.

The Timberwolves can blitz the pick-and-roll if they want, and they had some success with that. But Lively will likely make the right play out of that. Somehow, at 20 years old, Lively plays with a level of locked-in instincts his counterparts don’t. And if they blitz it with Kyrie Irving, he just goes around it. If Dallas can shoot an average clip from three, Minnesota runs out of options quickly.

Edwards and Towns are a combined 21/69 (30.4 percent) in this series. Dončić and Irving are 41/88 (46.6 percent). Against the No. 1 defense in the NBA. The guys who have been here are showing the guys who haven’t what this takes. —Jake Kemp

Authors

Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…
Tim Rogers

Tim Rogers

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Tim is the editor of D Magazine, where he has worked since 2001. He won a National Magazine Award in…
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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