2024 NBA playoffs: Mavericks' treacherous path to NBA Finals is culmination of brilliant partnership

MINNEAPOLIS — You don’t become a champion in this NBA by playing it safe. You accept risk and if your culture is what you think it is, it can pay off.

Or it can help build a culture.

The Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves were in two different places when they threw pessimism to the wind and embraced the unknown.

Dallas took on Kyrie Irving when he was considered radioactive by basketball standards, and the Timberwolves paid a king’s ransom of draft picks in acquiring Rudy Gobert months prior.

Luka Dončić advances to the round where he can wear the crown that has sat on different heads the last six years after his individual greatness forced the organization’s hand in getting him a suitable running mate.

The NBA Finals await the Dallas Mavericks for the third time in franchise history, and they’ll meet the Boston Celtics on Thursday night in Boston, by virtue of a 124-103 Game 5 win at Target Center.

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic celebrates after the team's win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals in the NBA basketball playoffs Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Minneapolis. The Mavericks won 124-103, taking the series 4-1 and moving on to the NBA Finals. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić celebrates with the Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP award after Game 5 on Thursday night. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Dončić was awarded the Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP award for his overall performance, but it was his fiery start to the evening that was so very reminiscent of the last time the Mavericks made a deep playoff run, when they wiped out the favored Phoenix Suns in a shocking seventh game blowout in the second round in 2022.

In that one, Dončić scored 42 and taunted everybody in Phoenix. On this night, he removed little doubt of bringing the Timberwolves back to Dallas for a pressure-packed Game 6 by dropping 20 vicious points in the first quarter — outscoring the opposition by himself in the stanza.

“He was definitely Luka magic on his own,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “He set the tone. Game 7 in Phoenix, it was very close to that. He took the crowd out the game right off the bat. And he let his teammates know that we got to take it up a notch and he joined the party. But he said he sent the invites out, and they all came.”

He would’ve sent invites to the crowd — the fans who were powerless to stop him but desperate to taunt him — because it only fueled his fire more. He could hear every heckle, every complaint about his whining to the refs — because for the early moments the raucous crowd was silenced with each moon shot.

“It’s a good feeling, I can’t lie. It’s us against them,” said Dončić, who finished with 36 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. “That gets me going. Everybody knows that.”

The game wasn’t truly in doubt beyond the first few minutes, the Timberwolves having their relative inexperience exposed at this new altitude. By the time Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards (28 points each) found their footing, the crowd was anxious, the pair's legs were weary and the lead was growing to almost 40 in the third quarter.

As Towns and Edwards sat at the podium explaining their feelings, the sound echoed down the hall through the walls of the Mavericks’ celebration — a joyous scene in the locker room, many coming from the young pieces Dončić and Irving have been surrounded with, as Dončić calls himself and the 32-year old Irving “old heads.”

It’s in stark contrast to two weeks ago, when the Timberwolves were celebrating, very loudly, to the ears of Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

Perhaps it’s poetic, perhaps it’s just basketball.

It’s another series the Mavericks have closed out on the road, the third consecutive series this postseason in which they didn’t have home-court advantage. The last time that happened in the Western Conference was when the 1995 Houston Rockets won the second of back-to-back titles with Hakeem Olajuwon as headliner, with the second edition adding Clyde Drexler as a co-star.

Those Rockets beat two 60-win teams and two that won 57 or more on the way to the title. This Mavericks team has beaten three of the top four teams in the West, all who won at least 51 games, with the Timberwolves and Thunder winning 56 and 57, respectively.

The upcoming Celtics have a league-best 64 wins and a 12-2 playoff record.

“It’s not easy. It’s a very hard road,” Dončić said. “Very hard. But we’re here. Obviously we’re not done, but today we all deserve this.”

And although Jalen Brunson had emerged in that last Mavs postseason run, he wasn’t destined to emerge as the perfect complement to Dončić like Irving has become, nor was this roster ready for true prime time.

Irving matched Dončić with 36 — 34 coming after the first quarter. The proof of concept for these two was stamped and the doubters quieted, at least temporarily until the next test is presented.

It’s a fully formed roster, one worthy of June’s attention, as she will have a different suitor for the sixth straight year.

It was hard to tell how good this team was, if Kidd could indeed meld this group together, if Dončić’s ball-dominant style could produce real results. Forgive Kidd if he threw a couple of sharp barbs in celebration — he’s earned this moment, and he knew what was said about the Mavericks' ambitious gambit.

“But those two worked at it. It just didn't happen overnight,” Kidd said of Dončić and Irving. “And that's a beautiful thing.

“And so, it's all right to be wrong. We're not always right. But it's a beautiful combination. Those two play off of each other. And you can see that they care. They care about one another.”

Unlike the Celtics, though, they’ll enter the Finals fortified by the fire from their path. Every round, the opponent had true championship dreams, if not expectations. The Los Angeles Clippers were perhaps too old, too broken. The Oklahoma City Thunder, too green. These Timberwolves aren’t as inexperienced as they seem, but there are still playoff lessons to be learned.

Lessons the Mavericks learned two years ago, when the Golden State Warriors sensed a title was attainable and performed with appropriate urgency.

The Mavericks exercised urgency with their roster, believing an opportunity was within reach. Good wasn’t just good enough, and even strategically tanking two games toward the end of last year to miss the play-in, and thus keeping their draft pick, netted Dereck Lively II — the biggest piece of their defense.

It wasn’t just the Irving acquisition, one that was panned as desperate and lacked organizational direction. Snagging PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford, two role players languishing with losing teams and losing cultures, was the most impactful at the trade deadline.

“We truly believe we have the pieces. Sometimes you take a step back to view what you have,” Kidd said.

That’s where the Timberwolves are, the team that has to step back and look at its reflection even through the emotional exhaustion and disappointment.

It’s been said before and bears repeating: The Timberwolves will be back. There’s no shame in getting this far and not advancing to the NBA Finals.

They smothered the Phoenix Suns and took out the champion Nuggets on their home floor in an impressive comeback and had many believing this year’s run was just beginning.

It could be, but there’s no guarantee.

They wouldn’t be here without the Gobert acquisition, just as the Mavericks wouldn’t be moving on without Irving and his wondrous finishes, his understated leadership and ability to play next to Dončić.

As the night closed, Kidd huddled with new team governor Patrick Dumont, Irving hugged his stepmom, Shetellia Riley Irving, and Dončić carried his Magic Johnson trophy like a sack of potatoes.

It’s onto Boston, onto the next challenge — fortified by fire, forged by a risky proposition that doesn’t feel so risky after all.