Sunday, June 16, 2024

Mavericks vs. Timberwolves: Motivated Kyrie Irving showcases the kind of leader he’s become in Dallas

Whoever coined the phrase “reputations die hard” doesn’t know what to do with Kyrie Irving right now. Eighteen months ago this guy was considered toxic. Teams did not want to be near him. Except the Mavericks, who traded for him last February and have since, seemingly against all odds, watched him magically morph into one of the most mature, rock-solid veteran leaders in the league. 

Oh by the way, he still borders on something of a godly basketball talent, too. 

Irving showcased the kind of player he’s become on Wednesday with 30 points, 24 of which came in the first half in which Dallas couldn’t get much of anything else going, as the Mavericks stole Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Timberwolves, 108-105, in Minnesota. 

Luka Doncic, who has spoken of Irving with the highest of reverence from the moment they were paired up, called Irving’s first-half performance “big time,” saying the Mavericks “probably would’ve been down by 20 at halftime” without him. 

“Everybody looks up to him,” Doncic said of Irving. “We know what kind of player he is. But off the court he’s just been amazing to us. Just helping us out, talking to us, keeping us positive. I’m really glad he’s on our team.”

Players have always adored Irving, mostly because he can do things with a basketball that leave even the most gifted athletes on the planet awestruck. But this level leadership, the quiet words of encouragement, the mentorship — this is different. 

For Irving, it was a conscious decision that he says began to form last summer when Dallas failed to make the playoffs. 

“You get motivation from failure. You get inspired,” Irving said in a postgame appearance on the TNT set. “I was watching at the playoffs [at] home, and I was taking little notes on some of the greatest leaders in our league. We’ve got guys that are really the backbone of their team and do the little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet for their teams to win. 

“So for me, this year I really focused on doing the little things,” Irving continued. “If my points came they came, but I wanted to make sure we felt good as a team after every single game. We got to be honest with each other. We had a lot of long meetings with [coach Jason] Kidd. Sometimes it felt like therapy. Getting males to talk in a competitive sport can be hard sometimes, so I felt like we have a good jelling group. We went through a crucial trade in the middle of the season where we got P.J. [Washington] and Gaff [Daniel Gafford]. Once I saw we had a chance, I said, ‘I’m not going take this for granted.'”

Now here the Mavericks are, three wins from the Finals, seven wins from an NBA championship, which would be Irving’s second after he helped lift the 2016 Cavaliers to one of the most memorable titles in history with one of the biggest shots in history to sink the 73-win Warriors in Game 7.

That’s the experience that Irving brings to a Dallas team that doesn’t have another champion on its roster. Derrick Jones Jr. is the only other guy who’s been to the Finals. Washington had never made the playoffs until this season. Gafford made the first round once in 2021 with the Wizards. Dereck Lively II is a rookie. It stood to reason that these guys might need some time to settle into the conference finals spotlight. 

“I knew tonight that a few guys on our team haven’t been in a conference finals, so I knew that nerves were going to get into them a little bit,” Irving said. “For me personally, I know that [me] getting going offensive, I know it settles our guys. When they see the ball going in for me, it opens up opportunities for them.”

You have to be a special breed of superstar to simply decide when you’re going to score and when you’re going to take a step back and facilitate against NBA defenses. Irving is one of the few players in the world who has the ability to play completely on his terms. Against OKC, he scaled back his scoring, averaging a pedestrian 15 points while ratcheting up his playmaking and defense. 

He knows he can’t do that in this series. OKC is a great defensive team, but Minnesota is another level. Doncic can’t be expected to break them down alone, not when he’s going to deal with multiple bodies throwing every last kind of coverage at him over what will probably be six or seven games. Washington made just two of his eight 3-pointers in Game 1, which was bound to happen. He wasn’t going to keep shooting like prime Ray Allen forever. 

“I know in this series, to get Luka enough breaks, I got to stay aggressive the whole time,” Irving said. 

He did that in Game 1, making 11 of his 14 first-half shots before Doncic took over late with 15 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter. For Dallas, it’s quite the luxury to have two of the greatest scorers in history able to play my-turn-your-turn in each half, and indeed, in terms of the mental and physical breaks that Doncic gets as a result, you can’t put a value on Irving’s ability, and willingness, to slide so seamlessly between first- and second-fiddle. 

With 63 combined points in Game 1, Doncic and Irving are the second duo in history to each score 30-plus points in their first conference finals game together. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant were the first to do it in 2017. The Warriors won a championship that season. The Mavericks are now seven wins from doing the same. 

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