Western Conference claimed: Mavericks prove late-season run was no fluke


The Dallas Mavericks are back in the NBA Finals just weeks after fighting to avoid the play-in tournament and after beating three 50-plus win teams.

DALLAS — Perhaps the lowest point for the Dallas Mavericks during the 2023-24 season came on March 5 after three consecutive losses to Eastern Conference teams had dropped them to 34-28 and into eighth place in the Western Conference. 

Despite the in-season additions and improved play following the trade deadline, the Mavs found themselves facing an uphill battle just to avoid a date with the NBA play-in tournament, which is the fate for qualifiers who do not reach a top six seed. That would have been an improvement over the 2022-23 season when Dallas did not even make the playoffs, but would have been seen as a massive disappointment for a team that spent heavily in free agency and trade assets to build a roster around MVP candidate Luka Doncic to compete for a championship.

Back in early March, that goal seemed far away. But then everything clicked for Dallas following a 137-120 home loss to the Indianapolis Pacers that sent them as close to .500 in the standings as they had been since trade deadline acquisitions completed a mid-season roster makeover that was providing quick dividends.

From that point forward, the Mavericks were a team transformed as they went 16-4 to close out the regular season, moved up to fifth in the Western Conference, claimed the Southwest Division, finished with 50 wins on the year, and finished with the league’s stingiest defense in the season’s final few weeks to set themselves up to be a sneaky dark horse for the playoffs.

Other than their literal logo, the Mavs are dark horses no more. There’s nothing sneaky about them now. They’re just here. They’ve arrived. After laying waste to their old playoff rival Los Angeles Clippers, surviving the young and hungry top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, and winning the first three games of the Western Conference Finals against the dynamic Minnesota Timberwolves, who had felled the defending champion Denver Nuggets, a home loss in Game 4 set up an opportunity to make a final statement to their conference and the league in Game 5 as the Mavericks aimed to ascend in Minnesota.

After the first subpar outings from their star backcourt in the lone series loss, Dallas purified themselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka and came out blasting. The Minnesota faithful were warned not to give Doncic an ounce of ammunition for his perpetual motion machine fueled by pettiness. They did not listen. 

By the time the 1st quarter ended, Doncic had already dropped 20. In fact, the Conference Finals MVP scored 12 in the game’s first two and half minutes to loudly proclaim that he wasn’t interested in a Game 6 back in Dallas.

Doncic shot 63% from the field in the win on his way to 36 points. Running mate Kyrie Irving added 36 of his own on 51% shooting as he made good on a second chase to end Minnesota after having his career unblemished record in closeout games marred with the Game 4 loss. If the game had been more close, a 40 or 50 point barrage from either superstar would not have been out of the question with the way that they were shooting.

But the game was not close. That kind of outburst was not even close to needed. The Mavericks took command in the first quarter with Doncic’s 20 points outpacing Minnesota’s 19. By halftime, Dallas led by 29. The lead ballooned to nearly 40 points in the second half before Dallas coasted to a 124-103 clincher to claim their Western Conference crown.

The Timberwolves, meanwhile, left the fight that they brought to avoid elimination in Dallas and had nothing left upon returning to Minneapolis. The solace for the side that had captivated fans during these playoffs was seeing their two superstars put up 28 points each, with breakout player Anthony Edwards in particular being efficient within and outside the arc to offset Karl-Anthony Towns’ dreadful showing from deep that sunk Minnesota throughout the Conference Finals. 

Overall, the Wolves’ stars had a letdown series, with the 22-year-old Edwards perhaps showing that he’s still a few years away from the finish line, but it’s not like these guys forgot how to do their jobs. Much of the credit should go to P.J. Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. for taking them out of their comfort zones with Dallas’ much-improved stifling defense. Rudy Gobert, just named as the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, looked unplayable at times due to Doncic and Irving’s dissection.

Dallas’ total destruction of the Wolves after their best season in decades, and coming off sending the reigning champions home and giving their fans hope after sending the series back to Minnesota, was so absolute that the crowd was silenced early and only ever piped up to keep Doncic on target. By the time the awards were handed out, including the Magic Johnson trophy, the Minnesota faithful gave one last boo parade to Doncic, who couldn’t help but smile. 

With the Western Conference now in his pocket, Doncic has burst through every narrative built up against him in his young career. In this playoff run alone he vanquished the specter of his previous playoff defeats by ending the Clippers. After that, it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s Thunder sent off to Cancun, even as SGA leapfrogged Luka amongst MVP voters despite having minimal playoff experience and lesser individual accolades. 

Once SGA’s crew was tossed aside, the even younger Edwards was positioned as the league’s new heir apparent only to look ill prepared by the time Doncic and the Mavs were done with him. 

Even as the whispers and claims that Doncic’s game is poison for a team environment, he lifted his squad to the Finals. But it’s worth noting that it’s obvious that he finally has the right pieces around him. The added defense of Washington and Jones Jr., the lob threats of Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II that has become a two-headed rim-protecting monster, and the right co-star in Irving – who has fully bought in – has made this far and away the most talented Mavs team that Doncic has played alongside. He’s taken lesser rosters to the Western Conference Finals, but this is the one that got over the hump and will now play for the championship.

Luka may never be everyone’s favorite, and there are those that want to push other stars ahead of him, but he is undeniable regardless. If you don’t think his counting stats translate, Doncic is forcing the issue by dominating against every team placed in his path. Not bad for the fourth best player 25 or under in the league.

The job in Minnesota is complete, there’s no souls left to collect in the West. The Mavs are one of two teams left. Now on to the East’s best in Boston where Doncic and crew will play for the final prize. Imagine reading that just three months ago.

Do you think Luka Doncic solidified his legacy with a legendary Western Conference Finals? Share your predictions with Irvin on X (formerly Twitter) @Twittirv.

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