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Sequel much better for Doncic, Irving as Mavs head to West finals

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DALLAS (AP) — A smiling Luka Doncic pumped his fist as he settled in next to Kyrie Irving to answer questions about the Dallas Mavericks advancing to the Western Conference finals for the second time in three seasons.

Doncic's co-star wasn't there for the run that ended with a five-game loss to eventual champion Golden State two years ago. Irving hasn't played this deep in the playoffs since he and LeBron James were together in Cleveland seven years ago.

And don't think that didn't occur to the eight-time All-Star in the locker room, considering all the chaos and controversy — plenty of it self-inflicted — surrounding Irving since then.

“I had to make an impromptu speech, and I was doing my best not to let some tears come down from my eyes because it feels like it’s been a long time coming just being back in this position,” Irving said after Dallas ousted top-seeded Oklahoma City with a 117-116 victory in Game 6 on Saturday night.

“It’s just a long way back,” Irving said. “Look back, parts of my career where I took it for granted, getting to conference finals three years straight, and then not getting back for a little bit can weigh on you as a competitor. That’s what made the celebration feel that much better.”

It wasn't just conference finals, either. James and Irving went to three straight NBA Finals together, winning once and losing twice before Irving was traded to Boston.

The Celtics made the East finals in their first season with Irving in 2018, but he missed the entire postseason because of a knee injury.

Teaming with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn never worked, for many reasons, before a trade request landed Irving in Dallas.

The series victory over the Thunder wasn't about offensive dominance for Irving. Instead, the score-first guard has played what coach Jason Kidd called the best defense he's seen Irving play in any postseason.

Irving had two big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter as the Mavs rallied from 17 points down in the second half of the clincher against the Thunder. But the intangibles always seemed to come first.

“When you look at his series, yes, he didn't have the offensive explosion,” Kidd said. “He was the glue in this series. He kept everybody together. He kept everybody positive. Yes, it was the hardest thing. But it only gets harder. And that's what makes it fun for the great ones.”

The first two months of the Doncic-Irving pairing last year were a dud for the players now with 13 All-Star appearances between them. Same for Dallas, which decided to tank at the end of last season to try to preserve a draft pick even with a mathematical chance to make the play-in tournament.

The plan worked and landed center Dereck Lively II, who had a significant impact as a rookie. But the roster still didn’t seem quite right, with the Mavs just three games over .500 after blowing a 25-point lead in a loss to Milwaukee to start February.

This time, the trade-deadline efforts worked, with the additions of P.J. Washington Jr. and Daniel Gafford shortly after the loss to the Bucks boosting Dallas on both ends of the court.

The Mavericks finished 24-9 to rise to fifth in the West and ousted the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round with the same sequence of wins and losses that beat Oklahoma City.

“This group has been together for like five months,” Doncic said. “We’re capable of more and more. Big-time trades and big-time adjustments. Keep bringing them.”

For his first deep playoff run two years ago, Doncic didn't have a sidekick with nearly the playoff pedigree of Irving.

The 25-year-old superstar is still the headliner, and the Mavs will have to play without home-court advantage for the third time in three series this postseason.

That was the case for the second round in 2022, when Dallas pulled a Game 7 stunner by blowing out Phoenix. The Mavs were never much of a threat against the Warriors.

Now it's time to see what the addition of Irving will mean against the Denver-Minnesota winner starting Wednesday night. The Nuggets and Timberwolves play Game 7 on Sunday night.

From the 32-year-old Irving's point of view, it's more about what it means for him having Doncic, who has playoff career averages of 31 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.2 assists, next to him for the first time in the postseason.

“We all know how skilled he is, we all know his numbers and stuff like that, but I want to be a teammate and brother next to him that helps him grow like a man and helps him achieve the things that he wants to achieve,” Irving said. “I know he feels the same way.”

After a second playoff series victory, Doncic sure seemed happy sitting next to Irving.

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