Home Editor Picks Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving put big-game experience on display as Mavericks turn the tables on Timberwolves

Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving put big-game experience on display as Mavericks turn the tables on Timberwolves

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Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving put big-game experience on display as Mavericks turn the tables on Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS — This year’s version of the NBA’s Final Four features no recent champion. Nor does it feature a reigning or past Most Valuable Player, a statistical anomaly since the media began voting in 1981.

What it means is there’s opportunity around, and moments are waiting to be seized.

Luka Dončić has been close to an MVP and will soon break through, while Kyrie Irving has been a champion, but far enough removed to understand how finite these chances are.

That is what was on display early, and late, in the Western Conference finals opener at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Irving started off the evening by hushing a rousing Timberwolves crowd, and Dončić finished it — both with his usual (heroics) and the unusual.

The Dallas Mavericks stole Game 1 in their best-of-seven series against Minnesota Wednesday night with a 108-105 victory, winning a Game 1 for the first time in Jason Kidd’s tenure with the Mavericks as head coach.

Kidd still wants to impress upon anyone who’ll listen that his team is the underdog, but nobody’s buying it after that thievery. Both Dončić and Irving qualify as the players with the most big-game experience of anyone in the series, and it showed in spades.

Dončić dropped 15 of his game-high 33 points in the fourth, and Irving scored 24 of his 30 before halftime, preventing the Mavericks from being blown out as the Timberwolves rode the wave of emotion from their win over the Denver Nuggets.

“We would’ve been down 20 if he didn’t score so many points,” Dončić said. “Big time. I appreciate him keeping us in the game.”

They work in concert, while not falling into the dangerous “your turn, my turn” style two ball-dominant players can easily slip to. They’re learning to share the same space while not stepping on toes, and in Dončić’s case, he’s stepping forward in the moments that turn a good team into a great one — intercepting a lob pass intended for 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert with 1:09 left and the Timberwolves trailing by two.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - MAY 22: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Dallas Mavericks hugs Luka Doncic #77 after defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves 108-105 in Game One of the Western Conference Finals at Target Center on May 22, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić celebrate after winning Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The last of Dončić’s buckets in the fourth came against Jaden McDaniels, newly minted as an All-Defensive second-teamer — dropping his shoulder and stepping back for a midrange shot with 49 seconds left.

That combination of offense and defense makes this Dallas team as dangerous as any remaining.

“You didn’t see my young [days],” joked Dončić of his defensive play. “Just being active with my hands. Jaden [McDaniels] had it going the whole game, he couldn’t miss, basically, so I had to do a better job on him. And then seeing, scouting, seeing what people do. So I just read the game.”

It was McDaniels, not Anthony Edwards or Karl-Anthony Towns, who carried the Timberwolves offensively. McDaniels hit six 3-point shots, continuing his hot shooting from the end of the Denver series, and scored 24 points.

Like the Nuggets did in spots, the Mavericks made sure Edwards saw as little daylight as possible, and forced him into a couple of uncharacteristic plays.

Edwards didn’t force his game completely, but all but one of his six field goals were from behind the 3-point line, as he scored 19 points with 11 rebounds and eight assists in 40 minutes. Derrick Jones Jr. drew the assignment, but he had plenty of help behind him.

“Sometimes you hope he misses,” Kidd said. “It seemed like tonight, he [missed]. He’s able to get to the rim. He had some turnovers he normally doesn’t have. We’re just trying to send bodies. He’s gonna win some and hopefully we can win some.”

What’s more, Edwards had his hands full with Irving.

Irving’s degree of difficulty was so high on some of his shots if he played in another era he would be accused of sorcery and witchcraft. It’s become so commonplace, the angles he takes, the way he contorts his body to keep defenses in front and behind him off balance, you forget he’s not the highest jumper or even the fastest.

But everything he does is crisp, and with intention.

So when Edwards openly talked about wanting to guard Irving in the immediate aftermath of disposing the Nuggets, Irving’s antennae was piqued.

“As a peer, there’s nothing better,” Irving said. “Right after the game, he said it. Right then and there and I think the whole world was looking like, OK, you better know what you’re talking about, Ant.

“I respect that, and that no-fear mentality that he has his word is why I love him as a competitor and why I love him as a person.”

Edwards was high off the moment of putting Jamal Murray on punishment in the second half of that thrilling Game 7 road win, and while Murray is an underrated guard, Irving, from a skill standpoint, is in a different class.

Like one of his own.

And it wasn’t as if Irving took Edwards’ comments personal or hijacked the game to settle some competitive score, everything he did was necessary while his teammates got their feet underneath them.

Irving didn’t just send a limo for Edwards — who might’ve had reason to be miffed over receiving only four All-Defense votes when the ballots were revealed earlier in the day — he made sure every Timberwolf near him got to the arena on time.

Because he wore them out.

The shots weren’t easy, it wasn’t as if the best-ranked defense took him lightly; it was just that it didn’t matter. Irving is one of the best shot-makers this league has ever seen.

Ever.

And Irving is well aware, as the shine on that 2016 NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers dims with each passing playoff series, this could be a golden opportunity to hoist that trophy one more time.

“I just talked about not taking things for granted and also understanding the moment we’re in,” Irving said. “Again, I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve succeed and I’ve also failed. So I look at this moment as an opportunity to help other guys really settle in and be aware of what comes with this.”

This isn’t the same Irving from 2016, nor is it the same Dallas Mavericks squad that was in the West finals two years ago, against the experienced Golden State Warriors. That Warriors team knew it had a gift if it could only be reached, and the Mavericks had just knocked off the team many expected to reach the Finals in a stunning seventh game on the road — the Phoenix Suns.

Sound familiar?

Now it’s the Mavericks who are a bit more familiar with each other, despite the trade deadline alteration that has propelled them to this stage. The Mavericks, at least early, seem to recognize how finite these days are.

“We’re the underdogs. We just have to embrace that role and play,” Kidd said. “When you’re on the road, you gotta find a way to win. We’re gonna make adjustments, they’re gonna make adjustments. They have guys over there that have played and understand it’s not about one game, but about the series.”

Kidd, master motivator, was asked if he truly believed his team, more experienced and more urgent, is truly the underdog or if it’s coach speak.

“That’s media speak,” he said.

With that, you know this team isn’t just satisfied with this win, in this round.

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