In hard-fought win, Mavericks show their resiliency to go up 2-1 vs. Thunder

DALLAS — They ran in lockstep, two 7-foot-1 string beans, tasked with uplifting respective MVP candidates in the second round of the playoffs during their first professional seasons. But when Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City’s starting center, pivoted into his defensive stance at the top of the key, he saw Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault motioning for Holmgren to wrangle his counterpart, Mavericks big Dereck Lively II, before Luka Dončić or Kyrie Irving could initiate any formal offense.

So Holmgren reached with his interminable arms, scurrying along the baseline, while Lively’s curly hair flowed behind him like a roadrunner outracing a coyote — like two enormous children in the schoolyard, instead of on hardwood underneath the watchful eyes of 20,325, including a courtside Patrick Mahomes. Lively, to his credit, evaded Holmgren’s clutches. “He was playing tag for a little bit,” said Mavericks forward P.J. Washington, who finished with another team-high of 27 points.

Lively would get tangled eventually, and he missed three of his first four attempts on OKC’s intentional fouls. Dallas head coach Jason Kidd removed the Duke product from his lineup shortly thereafter. Veteran shooter Tim Hardaway Jr. entered in his place, leaving the 6-foot-7 Washington as the Mavericks’ largest player on the court. For a minute, it seemed as though Dallas was riding a smaller lineup without either of its traditional centers on the floor, something the Mavericks haven’t deployed with Maxi Kleber sidelined by a shoulder injury.

Yet Lively’s rest was short-lived. “I wanted him just to catch his breath,” Kidd said. Irving then encouraged Lively to stop flailing around the floor once he did return. “Take it as a compliment,” Irving said.

“You don’t need to go run around and play hide-and-seek,” added Kidd.

Lively calmly drained his next four attempts at the line — sinking 5-of-8 to punish OKC’s strategy. The free throws allowed Dallas to set their defense, where the Mavericks forced several turnovers following Lively’s trips to the charity stripe. Irving went on a back-to-back-back scoring spree, and the Mavericks went up 2-1 on the Thunder, thanks to a 105-101 hard fought victory over the visitors.

This Game 3 was far more physical than those touch fouls that dared Lively to not blink. These night-after-night matchups of the playoffs pit the same defensive assignments against the same offensive stylists, and with each passing battle, their familiarity only increasing, the tug-of-war starts to feature a lot more scratches and bruises. “What you’re seeing out there,” Irving said, “we’re definitely feeling it.” Irving came up grimacing on one possession and shook out his right hand. Thunder guard Jalen Williams was writhing in pain at the end of the third quarter, grabbing at his hot pink sneaker and an ailing left ankle. Dončić remains the gimpiest of them all, nursing a nagging right knee sprain.

When asked where exactly he’s feeling the brunt of three games being guarded by Luguentz Dort, Dončić responded simply: “Everything.” Oklahoma City’s bulldog perimeter pest has shadowed the ailing Dončić on every inch of the court. “Guys try to get into his head,” said Washington. Dort bumps Dončić every opportunity he sees he can get away with, and even those where he still gets whistled. He used up five fouls in each of the first two contests, before earning a sixth plus an ejection in this one. Dort is such a pest, such a brute, that Mahomes told the ESPN broadcast he could suit up in the NFL. So when Dončić slammed to the deck after what resulted in a jump ball off a defensive rebound with 1:28 to play, of course it was Dort whose own hustle toward the rock leveled Dončić like a boulder. “I was straight on my back,” Dončić said. “I mean, right now, that’s the least of my problems.”

Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic is enduring some very physical defense against the Thunder in this series while nursing a sore right knee. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic is enduring some very physical defense against the Thunder in this series while nursing a sore right knee. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

His knee is still the biggest obstacle of all. There was Dončić sprawled on the floor again with 12 seconds remaining, having landing on that troublesome joint after trying to sneak through a pair of trapping Thunder players. “Obviously nobody touched me,” Dončić said, cracking a smile. He was not nearly as jovial whenever he made his case to crew chief John Goble, or whenever he made his case to referee Billy Kennedy, just like he’s always making his case during stoppages of play or during the lulls or someone’s free throws. For great lengths of this series, it has seemed like Dončić is more focused on drawing fouls on Dort, just to send him to the sidelines, as opposed to simply attacking the burly man before him. He was just 1-of-4 from distance, scoring 22 points on a much clunkier performance than his OKC foil, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose array of mid-range jumpers were as smooth as any package any player can produce on this stage.

Dallas, though, now has Washington at its disposal — not to mention Irving’s ability to cook any recipe at any moment. For the second-straight game, the Mavericks emphasized finding their key trade deadline acquisition in the post. Washington cashed another five triples after tying a career-high with seven in Game 2. When he’s not spotting up in the corners, always ready for a screaming Dončić pass, Washington is able to put the ball on the floor and attack the smaller Josh Giddey, and the rest of OKC’s lineup not named Holmgren. After 4 1/2 seasons in Charlotte, never advancing beyond the play-in tournament, Washington has affirmed this Dallas front offices’ belief he was worth a top-two protected first-round pick, and affirmed his own belief he could perform on this stage. “I’ve been waiting to get here my whole career,” Washington said, “so I’m enjoying each and every second of it.”

Their next clash comes Monday, with added time to recuperate, as Dončić noted, thanks to this game’s matinee tip. Irving said recovering at this time of year takes sacrificing time away from his wife and kids. And yet, there is a championship at stake. The other Western Conference matchup features another heavyweight 2-1 matchup. The Mavericks recognize they have achieved nothing at this stage of their postseason, yet they’ve inched tantalizingly close to what currently bills as a wide open chance to reach the Finals. “Of course we can,” Dončić said. “You have to believe.”