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Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving show big game experience as Mavericks turn the tables on Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS — This year’s version of the NBA Final Four does not feature a recent champion. It also does not mention the reigning Most Valuable Player or former Most Valuable Player, a statistical anomaly since the media began voting in 1981.

What it means is that there are opportunities and there are moments waiting to be taken.

Luka Dončić was close to being an MVP and will break through soon, while Kyrie Irving has been a champion, but far enough away to understand how finite these chances are.

That’s what was on display early and late during the Western Conference finals opener at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Irving started the evening by silencing a rousing Timberwolves crowd, and Dončić finished the evening – both with his usual (heroics) and the unusual.

The Dallas Mavericks stole Game 1 in their best-of-seven series against Minnesota on Wednesday night with a 108-105 victory, winning a Game 1 with the Mavericks as head coach for the first time in Jason Kidd’s tenure.

Kidd still wants to convince anyone who will listen that his team is the underdog, but no one believes that after that steal. Both Dončić and Irving qualify as the players with the most big game experience of anyone in the series, and it showed in spades.

Dončić dropped in 15 of his game-high 33 points in the fourth, and Irving scored 24 of his 30 before halftime, keeping the Mavericks from being blown out as the Timberwolves rode the wave of emotion from their victory over the Denver Nuggets.

“We would have been 20 behind if he hadn’t scored so many points,” Dončić said. “Big time. I appreciate him keeping us in the game.”

They work together, without falling into the dangerous “your turn, my turn” style that two ball-dominant players can easily slip into. They learn to share the same space without stepping on toes, and in Dončić’s case he steps forward in the moments that turn a good team into a great team – he intercepts a lob pass intended for Rudy Gobert from 2 meters 1 with 1:09 remaining and the Timberwolves trail by two.

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MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - MAY 22: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Dallas Mavericks hugs Luka Doncic #77 after defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves 108-105 in Game One of the Western Conference Finals at Target Center on May 22, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota .  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and/or using this photo, user agrees to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić celebrate after winning Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The last of Dončić’s buckets in the fourth came against Jaden McDaniels, newly minted as an All-Defensive second-teamer – dropping his shoulder and stepping back for a midrange shot with 49 seconds left.

That combination of offense and defense makes this Dallas team as dangerous as any left.

“You haven’t seen my younger years,” Dončić joked about his defensive play. “Just being active with my hands. Jaden (McDaniels) was busy all game, he couldn’t really miss, so I had to tackle him better. And then look, explore, see what people do. So I just read the game.”

It was McDaniels, not Anthony Edwards or Karl-Anthony Towns, who carried the Timberwolves offensively. McDaniels hit six three-point shots, continuing his hot shooting from the end of the Denver series, scoring 24 points.

Like the Nuggets in spots, the Mavericks made sure Edwards saw as little daylight as possible and forced him into a few uncharacteristic plays.

Edwards didn’t push his game completely, but all but one of his six field goals came from behind the three-point line as he scored 19 points with 11 rebounds and eight assists in 40 minutes. Derrick Jones Jr. pulled the assignment, but he had plenty of help behind him.

“Sometimes you hope he misses,” Kidd said. “It seemed like tonight, he (missed). He can get to the edge. He had some turnovers that he normally doesn’t have. We’re just trying to send bodies. He’s going to win something and hopefully we can win something too.”

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Plus, Edwards had his hands full with Irving.

Irving’s difficulty level was so high on some of his shots that if he played in a different era, he would be accused of sorcery and witchcraft. It’s become so common, the angles he takes, the way he twists his body to keep the defense in front and behind him off balance, you forget he’s not the highest jumper or even the fastest.

But everything he does is clear and with intention.

So when Edwards openly talked about wanting to guard Irving in the immediate aftermath of the Nuggets’ dismissal, Irving’s antennae were pricked.

“As a colleague, there is nothing better,” Irving said. “Right after the game he said it. At that moment and I think the whole world looked like this: OK, you better know what you’re talking about, Ant.

“I respect that, and the no-fear mentality that he keeps his word is why I love him as a competitor and why I love him as a person.”

Edwards was high when he punished Jamal Murray in the second half of that thrilling Game 7 road win, and while Murray is an underrated guard, Irving, from a skill standpoint, is in a different league.

As one of his own.

And it wasn’t that Irving took Edwards’ comments personally or hijacked the game to settle a competitive score; everything he did was necessary while his teammates were under it.

Not only did Irving send a limousine to Edwards — who may have had reason to be upset about receiving just four All-Defense votes when the ballots were revealed earlier in the day — he made sure every Timberwolf near him entered the arena reached on time.

Because he wore them out.

The shots weren’t easy, it wasn’t that the best-placed defense took it lightly; it just didn’t matter. Irving is one of the best shot makers this league has ever seen.

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And Irving is well aware that as the luster of the 2016 NBA Championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers diminishes with each passing playoff series, this could be a golden opportunity to lift that trophy one more time .

“I was just talking about not taking things for granted and also understanding the moment we’re in,” Irving said. “Again, I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve had success, but I’ve also failed. So I see this moment as an opportunity to help other guys really settle down and become aware of what comes with this.

This is not the same Irving from 2016, nor is it the same Dallas Mavericks team that was in the West finals two years ago against the veteran Golden State Warriors. That Warriors team knew it had a gift if it could only be achieved, and the Mavericks had just eliminated the team many had expected to reach the Finals in a stunning seventh game on the road: the Phoenix Suns.

Sounds familiar?

Now it’s the Mavericks who know each other a little better, despite the trade deadline change that propelled them to this stage. The Mavericks seem to realize, at least early on, how finite these days are.

“We are the underdogs. We just have to embrace that role and play it,” Kidd said. “When you’re on the road, you have to find a way to win. We’re going to make adjustments, they’re going to make adjustments. They have guys there who have played and understand that it’s not about one game, it’s about the series.”

Kidd, the master motivator, was asked if he really believed that his team, which is more experienced and urgent, is really the underdog, or if it is the coach.

“That’s media language,” he said.

This tells you that this team is not just satisfied with this victory, in this round.

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