2024 NBA Finals: Mavericks need Dereck Lively II to resume not looking like a rookie

BOSTON — Dereck Lively II sat down behind the podium Saturday afternoon, the blue NBA Finals backdrop behind him, with a smile as bright as the two chains glimmering around his neck. “How’s everybody doing today?” Dallas’ 20-year-old rookie asked in front of a semicircle of television cameras and assembled media, some 40 hours after five fouls severely limited Lively’s production in the Mavericks’ Game 1 loss to Boston.

There was no hint of frustration across Lively’s brow following the generally loose energy emanating throughout Dallas’ early practice despite a 107-89 defeat that saw the Mavericks trail by as many as 29 points. “I’m doing well,” Lively said. “Another day, another dollar.”

Lively’s two-way success this postseason has been a critical factor in Dallas’ run to this championship series, often leaving Luka Dončić shaking his head in amazement at the Duke product’s effectiveness so early in his career. Lively stood tall in the paint against all of Minnesota’s length in the Western Conference finals and was 16-of-16 from the field in the series. He scrunched into a stance and shuffled his feet against Oklahoma City’s stable of ball-handlers, while also sinking key free throws in Game 3 when the Thunder resorted to intentionally fouling the first-year big man.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 06: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics shoots the ball against Dereck Lively II #2 of the Dallas Mavericks during the third quarter in Game One of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 06, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Dereck Lively II defends Jayson Tatum of the Celtics during the third quarter of Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 6, 2024, in Boston. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Against Boston, Lively was a non-factor, a minus-15 in just 18 minutes — largely thanks to four whistles against him in the third quarter. He tallied just two points, five rebounds, a steal and an assist. “But he stayed poised,” said Daniel Gafford, Dallas’ starting center. “There’s a lot of guys that get into foul trouble, especially at a stage like this, I feel, that would get in their own head, they'll get aggravated, frustrated, it pulls them away from the game. But D stayed with it. And that’s something that shows maturity on his side for just being a young guy.”

After each contest throughout this postseason, the Mavericks’ pair of rim-runners have sat down with assistant coach Sean Sweeney to further analyze the film from each outing. They planned to regroup just after this afternoon’s media availability. Sweeney, according to Lively, has been integral in helping the rookie understand the nuanced rotations the NBA features compared to college.

“Our footwork, our placing, knowing where our positioning is on the defensive side,” Lively said. “No matter if it’s us sending ’em down, us being low, not being late on coverages, and calling out coverages early so that they can’t just get easy pick-and-pop threes.”

When Lively returned to the Mavericks’ locker room Thursday night, his phone had already been pinged by former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler. Reminders to keep his head down, to stick to the grind. “Text messages,” Lively said. “I suck at phone calls.” Chandler, once the tremendous paint presence who anchored Dallas’ last championship in 2011, has been part of the franchise in some capacity throughout his retirement, a common theme among former players during Mark Cuban’s tenure owning the organization. Before home games, you’ll see Chandler, a bright orange hat flipped backwards, leaning his own massive frame against Lively in the paint.

While the Mavericks spend the weekend in Boston, Chandler has still offered counsel to his pupil from afar. “All he’s telling me to do is the little things, no matter if that’s hitting them on the box-out or being able to talk to my teammates on the backside,” Lively said. “Just doing the little things so that everybody is connected on the court, so we’re not leaving anybody behind.”

“I’m not worried about him at all,” Mavericks forward P.J. Washington said of Lively. “He’s gonna find his rhythm.”

This is not an unfamiliar position for Dallas, which dropped to 1-6 in postseason Game 1s during Jason Kidd’s tenure as head coach. The Mavericks missed the playoffs last season in a clear-cut effort to slide down the standings and retain their first-round pick that produced Lively in a draft night trade with OKC. And he has proven more than capable of responding to each brush with adversity throughout this first season with Dallas.

“It’s been a lot of fail, learn, fail, get a little bit better,” Lively said. “We’re not gonna get better at all if we don’t learn from our mistakes.”