2024 Playoffs: West Finals | Timberwolves (3) vs. Mavericks (5)

Timberwolves-Mavericks: 5 takeaways as Luka, Dallas punch Finals ticket

Luka Doncic's moment finally arrives, Minnesota is forced to wait for its and Kyrie 'The Closer' shines in closeout win.

Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving pour in 36 points apiece to guide Dallas to its 1st appearance in the NBA Finals since 2011.

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• Game detail: DAL 124, MIN 103

MINNEAPOLIS — The Dallas Mavericks finished the Western Conference Finals the way they started it: building a big lead. This time, they crowned the achievement.

There would be no historic comeback — or collapse, whatever definition would’ve fit — because Luka Doncic, eager to play for an NBA championship for the first time, had other plans for the Timberwolves. Like, vacation plans.

Doncic dropped 20 points before the first quarter ended Thursday, before the Target Center knew what hit it, before the Wolves could prevent the inevitable. After building a 3-0 series lead followed by a momentary one-game stumble, the Mavericks won in five games to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2011.

It will be Boston vs. Dallas, Doncic and Kyrie Irving vs. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and an NBA championship series that should last longer than the East (a Celtics sweep) or West (Mavs in five) championship series.

Here are five takeaways from the Mavs’ breezy and convincing 124-103 clincher, taking them from the Draft Lottery to the Finals in one year.

1. First Finals for Doncic

You knew this would happen eventually. This year? Not a guarantee at all. Until he demanded it, based on his play, especially this series.

So it’s officially, finally, a championship quest for Luka. A player with his talent and drive would not be denied. At 25, Doncic is in that range where he finally has enough experience, lessons learned, and failure. All that breeds motivation to take the next step.

“It means a lot,” he said. “It’s a hard road. But this is where we are. We’re here because we deserve to be here.”

Yes, he had help. This is his best supporting cast, and Kyrie is his best wingman. This doesn’t happen without Irving’s cooperation and skills, his ability to take over games, especially in the moments of truth, and his presence.

“Those two worked at it,” said Mavs coach Jason Kidd. “It didn’t happen overnight. It’s a beautiful combination. You can see that they care about one another. Cool to see.”

The Mavs were also bolstered by P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford arriving in a midseason trade (salute, GM Nico Harrison) and, before that, Dereck Lively II coming from the Draft to give the Mavs frontline balance.

But make no mistake, Doncic’s role … well, the magnitude of that was captured in Game 5, especially the first two minutes actually, when he outscored the Wolves and pointed the way for Dallas.

2. Doncic meant business from the jump

Wait — more Doncic? Yes, that happens when you crush the souls of the opposing team and opposing crowd and capture the Magic Johnson Trophy for the Most Valuable Player in the series.

It was Doncic in his element, or as Kidd said: “Luka magic mode.”

He had 20 points in the first quarter (12 points in the game’s first 153 seconds). The Wolves had 19. Doncic hit jumpers, shook defenders — actually, left folks shook, period — and eagerly exchanged gestures and comments with courtside fans.

“That gets me going,” he said. “You score a few buckets and it gets quieter.”

The Mavericks were up 29 points at the half. That was a wrap. And it’s all because Doncic removed all doubt.

“He took the crowd out of the game and let us know we had to take it up a notch,” said Kidd. “As a leader, that’s what you need on the road against a confident team.”

Lively said: “When I saw him going off like that, my reaction was the same as everyone else’s — get him the ball. Let him go.”

Doncic going scorched earth in the first half meant the Mavericks would once again settle into a pattern. Which is this — Doncic starts and …

3. Irving with another strong response

The game was out of hand by the time Irving warmed up. Yet, on cue anyway, Kyrie ‘The Closer’ did his job. Just in case.

While Doncic had 20 of his 36 in the first quarter, Irving delivered 15 of his 36 in the second. The tag-team approach once again was too much for the Wolves to overcome; Minnesota simply fell in line with Oklahoma City and the Clippers before them. They all were victims of one of the most creative backcourts ever formed.

“He used his speed to get to the rim, playing off Luka and got a lot of wide open looks but also be able to pull up at full speed, stop on a dime,” said Kidd. “Those were the shots that just didn’t go down for him in Game 4, but did tonight.”

In a sense, given his advantage in experience on this team — Irving will make his fourth trip to the Finals, first since 2017 — wearing the late-game hero hat fits Irving.

“He’s a winner,” said Kidd. “For Ky to be able to play off Luka and vice versa, it’s helpful. Luka sent a message to Ky, and Ky took over in the second half.”

So next it’s the Celtics for Irving, which comes with mixed blessings and unearths old wounds. His two-year stay in Boston had a sour ending in 2019, with Irving reneging on a pledge to sign an extension and leaving in a huff after playing poorly in the postseason. Later he would stomp on the Celtics’ center-court logo and flip off fans when he returned for the first time, as a member of the Nets.

Irving wasn’t in the mood for specific reflection. He has seemingly turned the corner maturity-wise and speaks in future terms, not dwelling on the past.

“Boston is between our goal,” he said. “That’s it.”

4. Dallas’ defense was better than Minnesota’s

That wasn’t in the pre-series projections, but in the end, the Mavericks solved the Wolves a lot better than anything the Wolves threw at the Mavericks.

The Wolves, with the No. 1 rated defense during the regular season, had late-game answers only once in five games. Otherwise, the Mavericks gave the Wolves fits with effective double-teams while cutting off passing lanes.

This was evident in the closeout game. The Mavs forced Anthony Edwards to surrender the ball and took their chances with Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels being left open or lightly guarded.

The Game 5 result: McDaniels managed just six shots — he only played 21 minutes — and Gobert, as he often does, fumbled away scoring chances.

Also, the Wolves shot just 31% from deep, a constant problem for this team in this series.

5. A comedown for Edwards

It wasn’t his fault that Minnesota lost this series. But when looking for reasons, the inability of Edwards to provide an impact was definitely high on the list.

His postseason began smashingly. Edwards punished the Suns on drives and 3-pointers alike and spanked them verbally in the process while averaging 31.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists. It continued in the semifinals against the Nuggets, although Edwards seemed to lose his efficiency as the series progressed.

Then the wheels came off against the Mavericks. He was limited to one decent game — the only victory for the Wolves — and overall Edwards was never the best player on the floor. Even his 28 points Thursday were meaningless in a game the Wolves trailed big from the first quarter.

Understand this: He’s just 22. Just a reminder. This was a postseason of growth for Edwards and, if anything, this is more a lesson for those who are quick to elevate a player as “the face of the league” and “the next superstar” and so on. Such is the hot-take world in which we live; next time, it will be someone else.

“It’s fun man, I love it,” he said. “I look forward to being right back in this situation next year.”

The Timberwolves' run crashed to a halt in the conference finals, but Minnesota's core is set to contend.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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