Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving Embrace Being Ready to 'Empty Their Clip'

Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving make a dynamic duo for the Dallas Mavericks as they gear up for their NBA playoff debut against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Dec 6, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) celebrates with Dallas
Dec 6, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) celebrates with Dallas / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — On Sunday, the Dallas Mavericks will face the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. This will mark the postseason debut of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving as a backcourt.

With a team defense that's found a significant stride, the Mavericks have formulated a configuration that's led to an 18-9 record since the NBA All-Star break, including a 16-2 stretch to clinch a top-five seed that involved the league's best defensive rating.

Dec 6, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) celebrates with Dallas
Dec 6, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) celebrates with Dallas / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Mavericks turned it up to achieve a 50-win season while emphatically answering any remaining questions from observers who may not have regularly observed Doncic and Irving operate next to each other throughout the season. There was a high degree of confidence in the pairing since the start despite going 5-11 with both superstars last season. In the 1,297 minutes they shared the floor this season, Dallas has outscored opponents by an impressive 10.5 points per 100 possessions while posting a 36-16 record in 51 games.

“I knew it since the beginning,” Doncic said. “It’s Kyrie Irving. Everybody knows how he can play basketball. I knew since the beginning.”

Since the origin of the backcourt partnership between Doncic and Irving, it has been well understood that a sufficient supporting cast was needed, particularly one capable of defending at a high level. The Mavs now have multiple rim protectors in Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II while having the option to deploy wing defenders like Derrick Jones Jr., P.J. Washington, and Dante Exum. Additionally, Maxi Kleber, as a switching option in small-ball lineups, Dallas has formulated an impactful group.

Doncic finished the season well-positioned to earn a fifth consecutive All-NBA First-Team nod, averaging 33.9 points, 9.8 assists, and 9.2 rebounds in 70 games. The results were not achieved at Irving's expense, given his backcourt partner averaged 25.6 points, 5.2 assists, and 5.0 rebounds. There is a clear synergy after going through training camp, experiencing a 12-day international preseason trip with stops in Abu Dhabi in Madrid, and having an entire regular season at their disposal.

"It's a mutual respect there. When it was his time to take over games when it was my time to take over games, we allowed each other to do that," Irving said. "We also had to have some mother f'r moments to challenge each other.

"I can look to Luka and be like, 'Hey man, come on, turn this up a little bit,' or he can be like, 'Come on, Kai.' He'll say it in his language," Irving explained. 

Irving has an extensive history of thriving next to some of the NBA's best players, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, along with plenty of others. Irving's ability to create advantages off the dribble in isolation, attack off the catch, and be a versatile threat in any screening action while being a willing screener himself—all while even having a post arsenal—combine to make him an electrifying talent on or off the ball.

“For him to be able to be able to play with stars in this league – you could put him with the four best players in the world and you’re going to leave there talking about him,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “That’s just how his game translates.

“You put him with four MVPs, he’s going to be the guy that everyone’s going to continue to talk about because his game is that good. For him, the season’s been incredible. And as we go forward, we’re going to need his leadership, his experience, and (knowing) what it means to be a champion.”

Between having a next-level perspective of the game and holding themselves to a high standard, Irving credited those attributes for his superstar pairings leading to success, including his current tandem formed with Doncic.

“It’s been both,” Irving said. “I played with a lot of high-level thinkers, a lot of high-level players and a lot of players that push pressure on themselves to succeed.

“That can sometimes help or hinder certain partnerships. I’ve learned how to be more mature in my approach to people’s emotions," Irving explained. "Win, lose, or draw, I’m still going to love you. And that matters when you say that to somebody. Go out and do your best and win, lose or draw, we’re brothers.”

The next challenge the Mavericks will face involves a first-round playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers. Doncic has already encountered the Clippers' superstar tandem of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the postseason in two previous seasons, both resulting in elimination. What are the greatest differences Doncic sees with this roster compared to year's past? Doncic had a simple explanation, "We have Kai."

Irving, known as "Mr. Fourth Quarter," is a proven performer when the stakes are high. Doncic appreciates how Irving is always on a mission when he takes the court, intent on making big plays and being a leader both on and off the floor.

“He’s always on a mission, right?,” Doncic said. “He’s been playing amazing. On the court, off the court, he’s helping a lot of guys. He’s talking to us. So he’s been a great addition. I’m really happy we have him.”

The ability to rise to the occasion is a sentiment that can be shared about Doncic from Irving's perspective. Doncic has averaged 32.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 7.9 assists in 28 games in the playoffs, placing him behind only Michael Jordan for postseason scoring average. Irving sees a "championship pedigree" in Doncic as necessary to be a leader guiding a team to a title.

"We really raise our level in big games going against some of the greatest players in our league," Irving said. "We want to be challenged by the best and I think that's the championship pedigree you need."

When drawing insight from a past partnership with James, Irving emphasized the mutual respect that exists where they each know where they want the ball and the timing of how to approach attacking the defense, particularly when to take over. Irving feels his current partnership with Doncic benefits from this same phenomenon.

“We just had a fluidity of where we were going to be on the court and we knew where we wanted the ball,” Irving said of playing with James. “There was a mutual respect there. When it was his time to take over games or it was my time to take over games, we allowed each other to do that.

“You never saw us get in each other’s face, but we did challenge ourselves and everyone else on the team to be better,” Irving explained. “That’s what enabled us to be successful in 2016 and me and Luka are doing the same thing here. When you have somebody who can be challenged, just getting somebody going on a positive note goes a long way."

Irving compared his partnership with Doncic to that of somebody he'd embrace being in the foxhole with since he can trust his superstar teammate isn't afraid to "empty their clip" in tough moments.

“When the going gets tough, you know you have somebody in the foxhole with you that’s ready to shoot all their ammo out," Irving said. "We need people like that’s not afraid to empty their clip.”

From an X's and O's perspective, there has been a further enhancement in how Doncic and Irving operate. Doncic has fully embraced playing faster by maintaining a high degree of physical conditioning and harnessing his passing ability by making throw-ahead passes to maximize the added athleticism in the supporting cast. Dallas went from ranking 29th in pace to seventh this season, while increasing their average of fast break points per game by 4.8.

There are enhancements in the half-court that have been made with Doncic and Irving. The Slovenian superstar spent the NBA offseason refining his catch-and-shoot jumper while already being a dynamic off-the-catch attacker, making him a much improved spot-up threat to play within the flow, or making him more impactful in handoffs and off-ball screening actions like pindowns.

The Mavericks have continued to leverage the gravity of Doncic and Irving in the half-court as a counter to any given defensive scheme. When a half winds down and Dallas wants to force a switch, turning to the two-man game has proven to be a reliable threat. The offense has succeeded in moving its superstars around in the half-court, whether by deploying expanding usage of a Zoom action, positioning one of them on the elbow in a Horns set, using a double-drag screening action with a superstar as a screener, posting up Doncic to draw a double team with Irving one pass away or running Stack pick-and-roll, all of these approaches making the defense make challenging determinations quickly.

Irving is highly motivated to excel in this year's postseason. He views his performance in the past six seasons as falling short of his ultimate objectives. With the Mavericks' squad this year, he sees a critical opportunity to alter that trajectory.

“It took a long time to get here,” Irving said. “I know what it feels like to fail for the last six years and not reach our team goals or individual goals. So I use that energy to get me prepared for what’s coming and dig deep into that will inside to lead some of these guys and also let them lead me because I’m going to need a lot of help, too.”

The Mavericks will face a Clippers squad facing uncertaintiy regarding Kawhi Leonard's injury status. He's questionable with right knee inflammation but has yet to participate in contact portions of practice in addition to missing the final eight games of the regular season. The formula of Doncic and Irving being backed up by a strong defense will have a strong chance to test their potential.


Published
Grant Afseth

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.