Tuesday, June 25, 2024 Jun 25, 2024
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What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Wolves, Game 3

It's just a 3-0 series lead. That's all. Nothing to get too worked up about.
Daniel Gafford dunked so hard in the fourth quarter that he gave Charles Barkley a head injury, leading Chuck to mistakenly call him PJ in a post-game interview. 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

We’ve reached a point where these Dallas Mavericks can no longer surprise us. 

As shocking as the results are—the Mavericks walking over all these great Western Conference teams, including the 51-win Los Angeles Clippers, the 57-win Oklahoma City Thunder, and now taking a 3-0 lead on the 56-win Minnesota Timberwolves—the latest wins are no longer surprising. 

This team, which had to grit out every win early in these playoffs, took another step, looking confident and ready to knock on the door of the NBA Finals. And why shouldn’t they? 

You can be confident when Luka Dončić is back to his dominant playoff form from previous years—averaging 32 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds, and 2 steals on 45 percent shooting from three over the last five games.

You can be confident when your opponent can’t figure out which of your star duo will hit harder. Both Dončić and Kyrie Irving scored 33 points on 20 shots last night, outpacing the Timberwolves 21 to 20 by themselves in the fourth quarter, which included some unbelievable shot-making from both when it mattered the most. Dončić and Irving seem to have reached perfect synergy, knowing when to strike and when to trust the other to finish the job. Whether they are the most talented backcourt in NBA history is up for debate, but as their head coach says, it’s pretty cool to watch.

You can be confident when you know that this team will figure out the opponent’s defense and grow more comfortable with each game. As in the previous two matchups, the Mavericks’ offensive efficiency has increased the deeper they get into the series. Last night, the Mavericks needed to be at their best offensively because their trademark paint defense took a big hit when their 20-year-old anchor, Dereck Lively II, had to leave the game in the second quarter with a neck sprain. The team’s ability to shift styles mid-game, returning to the all-offense approach of old, and winning even when out-rebounded and dominated at the rim (the Timberwolves shot 20 of 26 at the rim) is further proof of how confident this team looks. In the end, the they got the stops they needed. Daniel Gafford came alive with two huge blocks in the last five minutes and sealed the game with a dunk on a lob from Dončić, converting an and-one over Rudy Gobert. 

The job isn’t done yet, but the Mavericks don’t look like a team that could be the first in the NBA history to blow a 3-0 lead.  If they can close out this series on Tuesday or Thursday, they’ll get more than a full week of rest, as the NBA Finals don’t start until June 6. This would give Dončić plenty of time to rest and take care of his numerous ailing body parts, allow Lively to nurse his neck sprain, and maybe even enable Maxi Kleber to return from his right shoulder injury. Imagine this team fully healthy and even more confident. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

I still can’t believe Kyrie Irving plays for this team. For all of the questions and controversy that surrounded him when the Mavericks acquired him at the deadline last season, I’m not sure I can come up with a player that more perfectly fit what this team needed. Obviously, we have the benefit of hindsight when making that assessment. If we’re talking about what last night felt like, it felt like another night where Irving’s imprint loomed large.

This team will figure you out, and they will remain calm while doing it. That’s a testament not only to Irving, but to head coach Jason Kidd, who has been nothing short of masterful in these playoffs. From a mindset standpoint, Irving feels like an extension of Kidd, calming Luka Dončić down when needed and assisting him in diagnosing the myriad of defenses an opponent will show you over the course of a series. And to be sure, Minnesota has tried everything. 

This is not to take away from Dončić’s ability to untangle a coverage on his own, but when you have Irving alongside him, the basketball IQ of this backcourt is off the charts. We have reached a point where I feel confident in the Mavericks’ defense to sniff out and smother the oppositions stars late in a game; I feel similarly confident that their star duo will have the answers to the test offensively in crunch time. 

Championship teams have to win in different ways. They need minutes and contributions from those you don’t expect to contribute (hello, Brian Cardinal). Dereck Lively II’s injury changed this game, and the Mavericks adapted. It helped that Rudy Gobert was in foul trouble, a direct result of not only Dončić and Irving but also Jaden Hardy being ultra aggressive.

And if the paint is closed off? Dallas has two of the best tough shot makers in NBA history. Dončić and Irving both outperformed their expected field goal percentage by twenty percent last night. The word “unguardable” gets thrown around a lot. This is the true definition of that term. The stepback Irving hit to put Dallas up 111-105 and essentially end the game was defended well, but ultimately, there was nothing Karl-Anthony Towns could do about it.

I don’t care what Kidd or the number next to their name or even Vegas says, the Mavericks are not the underdogs in this series. They haven’t been true underdogs in any of these series. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that since the deadline, this is an elite team, full stop. They not only have stars, their role players can step out of their comfort zone when needed. With Lively out, Daniel Gafford played a bigger role in Game 3 and looked comfortable. Derrick Jones Jr. hit three early triples to help in building the lead. Hardy is growing more sure of himself. An experienced veteran, Dwight Powell has to be one of the more reliable “break glass in case of emergency” bench bigs in the league. 

But the NBA playoffs come down to the best players in the biggest moments. This is redundant and maybe reductive, but the two best players in this series play for the Mavericks. Anthony Edwards will almost certainly get there. But Dončić and Irving are there now. Combine that with a swarming and stifling defense and role players stepping up, and this is the pedigree of an NBA champion. —Jake Kemp


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…