2024 NBA Finals

Dereck Lively, Mavericks' role players settling in and stepping up on Finals stage

After initially appearing overwhelmed against Boston, Dereck Lively II and Dallas' supporting cast finding their Finals footing.

Dereck Lively II has shown growth throughout the NBA Finals for the Mavericks.

BOSTON — Fifty-one weeks ago, Dereck Lively II was a teenager full of dreams and anxiety, his future on the brink of being shaped. The 2023 NBA Draft was a week away.  

“My heart was pumping because I didn’t know what was going to happen. And now I’m playing in the NBA Finals,” the Dallas Mavericks’ 20-year-old rookie center said Sunday.  

“Now it’s just trying to just learn as much as I can, enjoy the moment and then just bring the energy and just make it lively in Boston.”  

“Lively?” Good one. What matters most for the Mavericks is that Lively and a half-dozen teammates have been activated not quite too late in hopes of further nudging the NBA Finals presented by YouTube TV in Dallas’ direction.  

It’s 3-1 now, and Boston is still comfortably in front heading into Monday’s Game 5 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC). But Dallas’ 122-84 blowout victory Friday kept its postseason alive, forced the Celtics to go home for more than just a parade and has the Mavs within one more W of making things uncomfortable for the presumptive champs.

In Game 4, Dallas becomes more than Big 2

As needed, guards Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving led Dallas in Game 4, combining for 50 points — more than Boston’s starting five (44) — in about 59 minutes.  

But help came from all precincts, with Lively, Daniel Gafford, P.J. Washington, Maxi Kleber and Derrick Jones Jr. contributing to better defense in general and at the rim particularly. Backup guard Dante Exum was sharp and even warehoused wing Tim Hardaway Jr. made the most of the game’s garbage time with five 3-pointers for 15 points in the fourth quarter.  

Mavericks coach Jason Kidd had agreed with, and kind of rooted for, the “cliché” that role players perform better at home in the playoffs. But given his roster’s limited experience playing through May into June, Kidd on Sunday suggested something else was at work

“Sometimes, when you do play an opponent over and over,” Kidd said, “you get used to the tendencies and you start to capitalize on that on both ends, defensively and offensively. Hopefully our group has seen enough of Boston to understand what they are good at, and hopefully we can take that away [in Game 5].”  

So which is it, home cooking or learning curve?

Lively, Gafford rediscover inside edge

Rookie Dereck Lively II explains why the Mavs must play 'desperate' in Game 5.

The 7-foot-1 Lively could provide the answer. He was an All-Rookie Second Team honoree this season but in Games 1 and 2 in Boston, he scored four points with 12 rebounds and played fewer than 20 minutes each night. In the two games at American Airlines Center, Lively had a pair of double-doubles worth 22 points and 25 rebounds.  

“Even before [Game 4], Coach Kidd said, ‘I hope you packed your bags because we are going to Boston,’” Lively said. “Just having that mentality of doing whatever it takes. We’ve definitely been changing our ID from playing free to playing desperate.” 

Lively helped puncture the Celtics defense, keying a dominant 60-26 advantage in points-in-the-paint. Dallas controlled the boards too, 52-31, and used a 13-4 edge in offensive boards to score 14 more second-chance points than Boston. The Mavs got corner 3-pointers and lob dunks, essentials of their attack that had been absent early in the series.  

Gafford, a play-alike to Lively in the best of times, had been making mistakes — in timing more than schemes — until Friday, when he caught fire in the third quarter. He scored the Mavs’ first six points after halftime, including a lob from Doncic, and swatted a Jayson Tatum 3-pointer, all in less than two minutes.  

“I felt like we got a lot more comfortable, wasn’t worried about the mistakes or anything like that,” Gafford said. “Maybe I was worried about mine at the beginning but … just seeing how guys were playing and just the energy and the effort that was given out there on the floor, it would have been a big slap to the face to those guys if I would have never came out and did the same thing.”

Defense dialed up

Defensively, Dallas’ supporting cast talked more, worked in sync with the backcourt stars, and, in particular, made an energized Doncic less vulnerable.  

“Whatever it takes. That’s the mindset,” Kleber said. “It’s not going to be perfect … But I think we have great guys, smart guys, high-IQ guys that can adapt to changes. That’s what we showed. 

“And one of the guys who got us going early [was] Dereck Lively, just having that energy and alertness helps us to be on the same page, communicate better and have the right rotations down.”  

Whether all that travels to Boston should be sorted out over the next 48 minutes played at TD Garden.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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