Kyrie Irving is the playoff partner Luka Dončić has been craving

Kyrie Irving is the playoff partner Luka Dončić has been craving

By Oghale Apr20,2024

Luka Dončić doesn’t say much in news conferences, but his answers are usually more than three words long. And yet his most revealing answer, the first one he gave when asked earlier this week about the difference between this iteration of the Dallas Mavericks that is preparing to face the LA Clippers and the past two teams who faced them in the 2020 and 2021 postseasons, only needed three.

“We have Kai,” he said.

Kyrie Irving has always been one of the most beloved players within the league itself, his dazzling creativity on the court marveled at and lauded by his peers. Dončić has never been any different, and his midweek response is a notable reminder about this upcoming clash between these two familiar teams, which kicks off Sunday. While Dončić wasn’t quite the player he is today, the Clippers certainly remember how outrageously good he was and how much it took to beat him in those two series. Now, he has a co-star who’s more talented than any other player with which he’s ever shared the court.

Irving turned 32 last month, and Dallas’ worst stretches this season coincided with two injury absences of six and 12 games. He ended up playing 58 games, two fewer than his combined total with Brooklyn and Dallas last season, but more than any prior year since the 2018-19 season. He would have matched last season’s total number of games if necessary: Dallas rested him in the season’s final two matchups because its seed had been locked in. Irving had played 31 consecutive games prior to those intentional absences, the most in a row in his career since 2016.

In those games, Irving was unbelievable. His averages: 26 points, five rebounds, five assists, 51.9 percent from the field, 41.1 percent from 3, 91.7 percent from the free throw line. They’re slight improvements on his overall season stats, although those are impressive enough on their own. (Irving missed a 50/40/90 season by 0.3 percent on field goal percentage.)

And now Irving heads back to the postseason, where he has previously won a ring and made a shot etched into history books. No wonder Dončić’s answer came so quick.

In Dončić’s first postseason clash with the Clippers, one played in the NBA Bubble, he didn’t have enough help after a mid-series injury sidelined Kristaps Porziņģis. (The partnership between those two had been improving up until that moment, which it never returned to and resulted in Porziņģis’ eventual departure.) It was a similar story one season later, except Dončić was better, more able to carry Dallas single-handedly through games early and keep them connected until late in the game. But Dončić was exerting so much effort that, by the fourth quarter, his numbers cratered. In that series, won by the Clippers in seven games, he shot 35 percent from the field and 28 percent on 3s in the final 12 minutes of games, turning it over nine times in contrast to just 12 assists.

Against this iteration of the Clippers, one with James Harden, Dončić will be tasked with the same exertion that comes with any superstar in a postseason setting. Notably, he’ll have to spend time guarding Harden, Paul George and sometimes even Kawhi Leonard, assuming he’s on the court at some point despite lingering knee inflammation the Clippers have been coy providing updates about. The Clippers have three star creators, one more than the two perimeter defenders Dallas begins games with in Derrick Jones Jr. and P.J. Washington. And the Clippers will target Dončić no matter who he’s guarding, pulling him into pick-and-rolls to make him move his feet, even if Dallas begins this series with coverages — like pre-switching off the ball, which we saw in the team’s 2022 playoff run — from the very start to avoid taxing him.

Dončić has been an engaged defender for weeks; since March 6, Dallas had the league’s best defense, which couldn’t happen without Dončić being active, if not always perfect, in his commitment to that end. (March 5 was the team’s fifth loss in six games, a stretch in which both he and Irving were not offering enough on that end.) Even as he bled through compression leggings and limped with various lingering ailments, Dončić played some of the best defensive basketball of his career as Dallas finished its season with 16 wins in 18 tries before the stars sat out the final two games. And it was Irving’s presence making that possible, allowing Dončić to relinquish some of the single-handed offensive authority he can exert on any given game to a peer in whom he has total faith.

Due to Leonard’s murky injury status, it appears possible for Dallas to often have the two best players on the court, which has long been the universal recipe to winning playoff series. This is Dončić’s franchise, and he’s been an even better postseason performer — his career postseason points per game average trails only Michael Jordan’s — despite carrying such enormous burdens for overtaxed rosters he was singularly responsible for holding together. But Irving makes that burden just a little bit easier, a little bit less strenuous, allowing Dončić to do more of what makes him brilliant and providing plenty of his own.

So, yes, the Mavericks have Irving. That’s the difference, the biggest one, more meaningful than any of the many other ways this roster and this team has changed since these two opponents faced each other in 2020 and 2021. And that’s where Dončić’s reverence toward Irving, his quickness to identify the change Irving’s brought, comes from.

He knows, more than anyone, how Irving makes life easier for him.

(Top photo: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

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