The Mavericks Have Met The Moment

We ask much of every playoff game because we think we are entitled to nightly memories. We want highlights that stick to the ribs as well as the cerebral cortex, we want indelible proofs of eternal greatness, we want lessons upon which to bloviate for drinks-half-off happy hours to come. We want legacies, and if anything about the 2024 NBA playoffs is truest, it is that logic, legacies, and lessons are all nonsense. Logic says the five-seed dies in Round 1. Legacies are not made in a single year. And lessons are not taught at the conference final level, but merely suggested.

All there is, ultimately, is survival. Everything else is a preamble at best, a false lead at worst. The Dallas Mavericks are going to the NBA Finals because they won three close games over the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the thing we will remember is the fact that they beat the Wolves in Game 5 by 21, and it wasn’t close to that close. We were waiting without justification for a big finish to ameliorate the swiftness and cruelty of Celtics-Pacers, and there wasn’t one.

This is a cynical way to view this series, but it didn’t suggest much else. Five-game series rarely do. The 124-103 final score told us that Luka Doncic is a sensational lead, which we already knew, and that Kyrie Irving is a far better player than a metaphysician, which we also knew. It told us nothing, however, about how the Mavs will do against the Boston Celtics because it wasn’t meant to do so. Playoffs are about that moment and that moment alone.

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Conversely it wasn’t about the Wolves not being ready, or incomplete. This was a series that boiled down to its most basic elements—are my two best guys as good as your two best guys?—and Doncic and Irving were distinctly better bets than Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. Doncic and Irving outscored the Wolves by themselves in the first 27 minutes, and at game’s end the box score within the box score was Doncic/Irving 72, Edwards/Towns 56, Other Mavs 52, Other Woofies 47. It doesn’t get much more elemental than that.

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These playoffs have been largely regarded as insufficiently entertaining, and Thursday night’s rout reinforced that sense. Half the 14 series have ended in four or five games, and like in most playoff seasons, the losers will have their shortcomings explained in mind-numbing detail. The Eastern Conference had one healthyish team held in championship-level regard; the Western more talent but generally historically middling. That is a recipe for forgettable history in a year that does not figure to be remembered long or well.

But that’s history’s problem. The Mavs have only the Celtics to worry about, which is sufficiently daunting. What they did last night was earn the right to see how much longer they are allowed to play; their goal, to see if they can rephrase that to read, “how much longer the Celtics are allowed to play.” The only real historical comp is the 1995 Houston Rockets, who won fewer games than these Mavs and were seeded sixth. And the trick there is while people remember who wasn’t there (Baseball Michael Jordan), almost nobody remembers who Houston beat in that Finals (Orlando).

The truth? Nobody cares to remember who didn’t win, because ours is not a society that respects valorous failures. The law of the streets is “parade or piss off,” and these Mavericks with these two remarkable players won’t be given their due until they prove that they are indeed due. They have earned the right to our notice for 15 more days. Everything after that is up to their own underestimated but considerable mettle.

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