Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving Tandem Instrumental in Deep Playoff Run

After staying patient and building the supporting the cast, the Dallas Mavericks have achieved a deep playoff run with the Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving tandem.
May 11, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) celebrates with Dallas
May 11, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) celebrates with Dallas / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS — When the Dallas Mavericks traded for Kyrie Irving from the Brooklyn Nets in February of 2023, the goal was to find the superstar complement for Luka Doncic capable of formulating a necessary one-two punch to go deep in the playoffs and ultimately contend for a championship. After achieving a 117-116 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Saturday's Game 6, the Mavericks are one step closer to their title aspirations by reaching the Western Conference Finals.

Reflecting on their partnership, Doncic said, “Big-time, man. When he came, [he’s been] nothing but supportive of everything I did, everything we did. He helped me mature a lot and realize to see the game in a different way.” He continued, “And, obviously, on the court it’s amazing to play with a guy like him. Just go out there and enjoy. The leader he’s been for us, not just for me, but for us, has been amazing. Always positive energy.”

May 11, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) celebrates with Dallas
May 11, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) celebrates with Dallas / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Plenty of vocal doubters when the Mavericks formed the Doncic-Irving duo, including ESPN doling out a "D" grade for the trade. "D?" Doncic asked in response to a question on ESPN's initial grade. Irving followed up by joking, saying, "From starting the All-Star Game to being a s*** player."

"Honestly, I don’t particularly care. We enjoy playing with each other," said Doncic, who recorded an efficient 29-point triple-double in the Game 6 victory. "We enjoy playing with this team. So, we don’t really care what other people have to say."

The early months of the Doncic-Irving partnership last season were rocky, culminating in Dallas choosing to tank to retain a draft pick with a 5-11 record in 16 games the two played, with injuries to both superstars being a factor, too. They struggled to defend, rebound, and execute in the clutch as a team. Regardless, there was the belief that with patience, the two would establish a natural synergy as the foundation, with the unified understanding that roster changes would be needed around them. This move resulted in retaining the 10th overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, ultimately resulting in a trade down that brought in rookie standout center Dereck Lively II, who racked up 12 points, 15 rebounds, and three assists in Game 6 while playing 30 minutes. Irving remained committed to Dallas by signing a three-year, $120 million shortly after free agency opened this summer.

"It was amazing to see. [Him having] +26 in a playoff game is insane, and he’s been doing
this being a rookie," Doncic said of Lively. "He has unbelievable potential. I’m just glad the Mavs drafted him.”

After not being involved in any element of postseason play last season, the two used a complete training camp, a 12-day international trip spanning Abu Dhabi and Madrid, and a complete regular season to build chemistry together. Doncic finished third in MVP voting, averaging 33.9 points, 9.8 assists, and 9.2 rebounds. Meanwhile, Irving overcame a few multi-game injury absences to average 25.6 points, 5.2 assists, and 5.0 rebounds with shooting splits just a shade under a 50-40-90 campaign. Both players were instrumental in guiding the Mavericks to a 50-win season. Dallas went 35-16 in 51 games when both players shared the floor. With Doncic and Irving, the Mavericks produced a 120.3 offensive rating and a 109.8 defensive rating, resulting in a 10.5 net rating in 1,297 minutes played. By going 23-9 in clutch games this season after going 26-29 last season.

There was clearer comfort with Doncic and Irving operating together offensively with time. Even subtle details like the familiarity of when to initiate the offense within a game or how to approach late-game situations were all part of the acclimation process for Doncic and Irving that required time. Doncic committed to playing faster by having conditioning focused on it instead of having a playing weight predicted on playing more in the post. With more throw-ahead passes and transition pushes Dallas went from being one of the slowest teams last season to being ranked in the top 10 in pace.

Additionally, in the half-court, Doncic worked more on his catch-and-shoot jump shot before the season began to execute better when playing off the ball. His time representing a Slovenian national team that was light on forward after Vlatko Cancar's ACL injury resulted in Doncic spending more time on the wing at the FIBA World Cup, further assisting that acclimation process that only benefited him when returning to the Mavericks. He's since been moved around more in the half-court, between playing out of Zoom action, Wide action, and being on the elbow in Horns, while continuing to expand on the two-man game with Irving when the situation calls for it.

The Mavericks had a hot start to their regular season campaign before injuries took a toll on their momentum, resulting in a 26-23 record with the trade deadline looming. After getting aggressive to trade for P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford, Dallas went from being an undersized group that Doncic often described as not being the aggressor and having only Lively as a rim protector and Derrick Jones Jr. as a pesky on-ball defender, to establishing a hard-nosed defensive squad, finishing 24-9 and securing the fifth seed in the Western Conference. They defeated the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, mirroring their sequence of wins and losses against Oklahoma City.

“This group has been together for like five months. We’re capable of more and more, I think," Doncic said. "Just big-time trades, big-time adjustments, and just … keep bringing them.”

Dallas had established a resilient team that hadn't lost consecutive games involving Doncic and Irving since early March before the team went on a 16-2 run in an 18-game span with the NBA's best defense before clinching a top-five seed, allowing them to rest key players for the final two games of the regular season. This group won a Game 5 on the road in consecutive series to take control before advancing to the next challenge. Whether it's Doncic's toughness to battle through an array of injuries or Irving's maturation into a highly unselfish superstar willing to sacrifice shot attempts, both superstars have done their part, including embracing the defensive side of the ball by closing out on shooters, guarding tough assignments, and standing their ground when the opposing team tries to hunt them.

“I think we just stick together. We always talk on the bench, stay together [and have] positive energy," Doncic said. "Today, it was a pure example of it.”

The Mavericks reaching the Western Conference Finals marks Irving’s deepest playoff push since his time with LeBron James in Cleveland seven years ago. Irving and James reached three straight NBA Finals together, winning once before Irving was traded to Boston. The Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals in his first season, but he was sidelined with a knee injury. Kevin Durant's toe being on the 3-point line prevent what would have been a game-winner in Game 7 of the Nets' 2021 semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks would have prevented their eventual season-ending overtime loss.

Irving values having Doncic by his side in the playoffs for the first time. “I think this guy has pushed me to continue to work on my game, continue to develop as a young leader,” Irving said. “A big word we can both agree on is maturity. Coming into Dallas, I was dealing with a lot mentally, spiritually [and] emotionally. They embraced me with open arms.”

“I don’t have a perfect journey, so coming into this environment I wasn’t sure how we were going to work out on the court,” Irving continued. “But, off the court, I knew eventually that I would get him to open up. This guy’s a big teddy bear at times off the court. [He’s] a big competitor. I’ll say [he is] a teddy bear that likes to compete.”

Irving further elaborated, “At times, I just have to sit back and marvel at his talent and his ability to get outside his comfort zone. I enjoy watching him be a father. I enjoy watching him develop as a person first, and then the basketball stuff will take care of it. We all know how skilled he is, we all know his numbers and stuff like that, but I want to be a teammate and brother next to him that helps him grow like a man and helps him achieve the things that he wants to achieve. I know he feels the same way.”

“The mission is still the same for us, and when we step on that court, we enjoy competing with each other,” Irving concluded.

In the series against the Thunder, Irving’s performance was not solely about scoring. His defensive efforts and leadership stood out, garnering praise from many throughout. As Irving mentioned he would when needed after the Mavericks' Game 5 victory, he scored 22 points while taking 23 shots in Game 6, including hitting two crucial 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, helping Dallas rally back from a 17-point deficit. His defensive contributions were crucial, with Kidd praising it as the best defense he’s seen from Irving in any postseason. The success when both players are on the court is evident, resulting in a 119.2 offensive rating, a 108.0 defensive rating, and an 11.2 net rating in 12 games.

“When you look at his series, yes, he didn’t have the offensive explosion,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd noted. “He was the glue in this series. He kept everybody together. He kept everybody positive. Yes, it was the hardest thing. But it only gets harder. And that’s what makes it fun for the great ones.”

For his first deep playoff run two years ago, Doncic didn’t have a superstar teammate with Irving’s playoff experience. The success when both players are on the court is evident, resulting in a 119.2 offensive rating, a 108.0 defensive rating, and an 11.2 net rating in 12 games. Now, the Mavericks face another series without home-court advantage. In 2022, Dallas stunned Phoenix in Game 7 before falling to Golden State. This time, with Irving’s addition, the Mavericks are hopeful as they prepare to face the winner of the Denver-Minnesota series starting Wednesday night.

After their second playoff series victory, Doncic looked content sitting next to Irving, eager for the next challenge ahead.

READ MORE: Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving React To ESPN's Grade For Irving Trade Following Game 6

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Grant Afseth


Grant Afseth is a Dallas Mavericks reporter for MavericksGameday.com and an NBA reporter for NBA Analysis Network. He previously covered the Indiana Pacers and NBA for CNHI's Kokomo Tribune and various NBA teams for USA TODAY Sports Media Group. Follow him on Twitter (@grantafseth), Facebook (@grantgafseth), and YouTube (@grantafseth). You can reach Grant at grantafseth35@gmail.com.