Mavericks can’t quite overcome Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving finally having off games

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DALLAS — There aren’t gimmes in the conference finals.

The Dallas Mavericks, a professional basketball team, knew that. What happened in Tuesday’s 105-100 Game 4 defeat to the Timberwolves was just a reminder with a hefty consequence, given that its chance at a series sweep has now been exchanged for another trip north to Minnesota. The team’s margin for error, always slim at this point of the postseason, had grown slimmer still due to center Dereck Lively II’s absence with a neck sprain. Without the rookie, the team had no real chance to overcome an abnormally poor evening from its superstar duo, Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, who both took blame for the defeat.

“I think that game’s on me,” Dončić said. “I just didn’t give enough energy.”

Dončić still managed 28 points while tallying up a 15-rebound, 10-assist triple-double, but he was inefficient (7-of-21 shooting) and occasionally looked bothered by Minnesota’s team-defining defensive physicality in a manner he hadn’t in the prior three games. (While Minnesota’s most notable adjustment was tasking Anthony Edwards as Dončić’s primary defender, reserve Kyle Anderson seemed to get under Dončić’s skin most often. Anderson has been the most effective defender on the star for most of the series.) Typical of his night, even when he hit a magical shot — a 30-foot and-one 3-pointer that could’ve cut the lead to two points with 12 seconds remaining — Dončić missed the ensuing free throw.

Irving was affected more by the ramifications of Minnesota’s defensive switch-up, which turned Jaden McDaniels into his primary defender.

“It has a huge impact,” Irving said. “He’s a 6-9 wing defender who I’m seeing now from the first time from the start of the game, but I love it. I relish in these types of battles.”

With McDaniels guarding him more frequently, Irving finished with 16 points on 6-of-18 shooting. He seized some of the blame that Dončić had claimed for himself.

“A lot of this is on me,” said Irving, specifically indicating he needed to start the game better. “I had spurts, we had spurts, but I’ve got to put a full 48 minutes of a game together.”

Lively, even at 20 years old, is the team’s third-most important player. (“We miss him a lot,” Dončić said.) Lively’s a team-high plus-22 in this series and plus-109 for these playoffs. Every offense Dallas has faced this postseason has struggled to account for his constant presence of chaotic disruption. His absence, caused when Karl-Anthony Towns inadvertently kneed Lively in the back of his neck in the first half of Game 3, could have been worse. While Lively’s return to the series remains unclear — he’s considered day-to-day — it’s a positive sign that he didn’t have to enter concussion protocol and joined the team’s bench in street clothes for Game 4.

Without him, Dallas needed other contributors to step up on Tuesday. Maxi Kleber, out since May 3 with a right shoulder dislocation, returned to help fill that void at center.

Dallas also received boosts from two of its bench guards, including Dante Exum, who scored five straight points early in the second quarter after going scoreless in this series’ first three games. More notably, second-year Jaden Hardy helped lift Dallas’ offense through some unsettlingly quiet stretches. He scored 13 points in 12 minutes on 5-of-8 shooting, which included three makes from 3-point distance and a driving dunk where he seemed to suddenly appear above the rim without any advanced notice.

It was unexpected contributions such as these, from players who had made little impact over the past weeks, that helped boost Dallas and make this game winnable.

The Mavericks needed more, still. Irving pointed out team-wide defensive breakdowns, many of which yielded easy layups.

“Defensively, that’s where our presence has to be felt,” Irving said. “It comes from matching the physicality, or overpowering their physicality, to start the game.”

While those lapses existed, that’s not why the Mavericks lost Game 4. Yes, Towns finally broke out for 25 points on just 13 shots. Yes, Anthony Edwards sealed the game late with two long mid-range jumpers. But Dallas allowed the Timberwolves to score just 112.9 points per 100 possessions on Tuesday, a worse mark than they scored in both Game 2 (114.9) and Game 3 (117.6), both Dallas wins.

It was the Mavericks’ offense that faltered. The team scored just 105.4 points per 100 possessions, easily its worst mark of the series, which can indeed be blamed on the team’s two superstars. Ever since cashing in some of the team’s offensive explosiveness for this stalwart defense, Dallas has relied upon the luxury shotmaking Dončić and Irving provide.

“We’re in the NBA, man,” Irving said. “No team is going to lay down and give me open shots.”

There were possessions where he or Dončić could have created better looks, Irving said. He indicated the duo understood they needed to be better. If even one of them had been, Dallas probably would have been packing in extra sleep, not suitcases, on Wednesday. Over the course of this season, and this series, they almost always are.

“This one hurts,” Gafford said. “We were expecting to be happy at the end of the game, and now we’re pissed off.”

This team’s superstar duo, despite frequent attempts on the court to convince us otherwise, is still human. They will have inefficient nights like these, and on Tuesday, those nights overlapped. It is difficult for the Mavericks’ offense to withstand that, barring an elite defensive performance. Within this series, though, there’s more than enough breathing room. That’s the cushion that the team’s lead, now 3-1, provides them. The gentleman’s sweep, as it’s called, is fairly common. It’s less common for the closeout Game 5 to happen on the road, but Dončić and Irving have already led Dallas twice to wins up north. It only needs to happen once more.

“We’re humans (and) we came in here (tonight) to win,” Irving said. “There is a level of disappointment. (It’s) a human emotion. But there’s also reflection about how we can play better moving forward and wash our hands of this.”

This version of the Dallas Mavericks, and every player but Irving, had never experienced a closeout game for a chance to go to the NBA finals. They have now.

“We’ve got to win four games,” Dončić said. “So we’ve got to win one more game. That’s it.”

(Top photo: Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

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