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    The Mavs are a nightmare matchup — but the Warriors can still win

    It’s been an interesting, often messy, occasionally affirming season of basketball in the Bay Area. And now, after all the sideways lurches and missteps and injuries and late course corrections, a mere four wins separate the Golden State Warriors from returning to the NBA Finals. 

    How did they get here? First, they made relatively short work of an out-manned and overmatched Denver Nuggets team playing for pride, and then narrowly survived the fury of the deep and rowdy Memphis Grizzlies. The Warriors have much to be proud of for passing these initial tests. Before the 2021-22 campaign began, a trip to the Western Conference Finals seemed possible but unlikely, and that was before the gaudy start, and before Steph Curry mysteriously lost his shooting touch, and before we saw what Klay Thompson’s up-and-down reintegration looks like in real time. 

    But they did it. They got here. It’s impressive and great, and we should all appreciate it before they tip-off against a possible nightmare matchup in the hungry, resurgent Dallas Mavericks and their transcendent young centerpiece, Luka Doncic.

    I’m not going to look it up (why would I), but my gut feeling is not all that many pundits predicted this particular Western Conference Finals battle — certainly not when Dallas sat well outside the play-in tournament to begin the calendar year. The Mavericks were the dark horse whose unruly gallop only intensified down the home stretch. Obviously, this sort of come-from-the-middle success story will bring back certain memories for those of you exactly my age, such as the time in the 2004 Democratic primaries when Howard Dean was expecting a two-man race between himself and Richard Gephardt in Iowa, only to be surprised by the late surge by John Kerry, who absolutely clobbered them both when the votes were actually counted. It’s disorienting to expect one thing and get something else, but that’s the situation. Doncic, one of this next generation’s most fully formed and realized talents, stands athwart the graying Warriors, who are trying to extend their masterpiece of a run just a little bit more.

    It wasn’t supposed to happen this way; even just a few days ago this wasn’t what was on the fixed menu. Most of us expected, perhaps even hoped, that Golden State would square-off against the Phoenix Suns in the Conference Finals. It was as good a matchup against a No. 1 seed as the Warriors could have drawn. They played the Suns tough this season, handily winning two of three games until losing a close one in March without Steph Curry. Phoenix was an efficient, dispassionate buzz saw, but they were manageable, almost predictable in their regular-season dominance. The Suns were definitely a team that “chased wins” as Steve Kerr might wryly opine. The series wouldn’t have been a walk in Dolores Park — the Suns won such an impressive number of games for a reason — but they didn’t exactly fill our secret hearts with inexorable dread. 

    The Mavericks are an altogether different beast, even now, still in the early stages of their final evolution. It’s an unfortunate break for the Warriors, drawing this unpredictable new force, and not just because it means we might have to see footage of Mark Cuban and Joe Lacob arguing about who the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy is more attracted to. The Dubs surely would have relished casting down last season’s Western Conference Champions instead. That never-to-be series would have been an invaluable boon to the Destroy CP3’s Legacy Industrial Complex. But the frontrunner Suns unraveled at the biggest moment and robbed us of this petty revenge, and so now the Great Unravellers wait in their place. 

    If you happened to stop paying attention when the Warriors began their second-half-of-the-season plunge, you might have missed the Mavericks climbing past them in the opposite direction (nearly overtaking them in the standings in the final days of the season). To paraphrase R. Lee Ermey from “Full Metal Jacket,” the Dallas Mavericks were reborn hard at the trade deadline.

    Moving on from the plodding “will he, won’t he” Kristaps Porzingis Experiment sent a jolt of life through a decisively middling squad and lifted them up. It reinvigorated their fighting spirit. It solidified the identity of the team. It markedly improved their defense. It also secured Dallas a pair of talented underperformers in Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, who clearly only needed a change of scenery from that unscrupulous miasma of our nation’s capital to deliver in huge ways.

    Luka Doncic, the sort of generational talent who can drag mediocre teams to first-round exits through sheer excellence, is now balling lock-step with his supporting cast, most of whom are stepping up at critical moments. The first round was a Jalen Brunson coming out party. Dorian Finney-Smith, who has spent years percolating in the organization, is a rangy wing with great defensive chops who is shooting the 3 at just under a 40% clip. Reggie Bullock is a more than serviceable professional basketball player with cool hair (he’s shooting it pretty well too). And then there’s Maxi Kleber, the pesky floor-stretching German big who can and probably will punish this often disengaged Warriors team. 

    The Mavericks in general are built to punish the disengaged, to chase down the weak links again and again, as they showed so memorably against Chris Paul, going at him disrespectfully hard, eventually grinding him to future Hall of Fame dust. They will score off of sloppy turnovers. They have, and will again, put Steph Curry in a half-court dungeon. The Warriors will need to be crafty, perhaps even mean-spirited with their adjustments. Jason Kidd, who will be barking on the sideline like some mix of a Sea Lion and the singer of Sleaford Mods, will make sure his guys know exactly who to exploit, when to trap, how they’ll ram the ball down Golden State’s gullet, and all the best places in Oakland to get a steak. He’s a great communicator, Jason Kidd.

    Steve Kerr and others in the organization are comparing these newly forged Mavs to the 2018 Houston Rockets, who as you may recall, were the Western Conference ring-chasing mercenaries (I mean, “team”) that came closest to deposing the Kevin Durant version of the Warriors in that hard-fought, frustrating seven-game series. Luka’s game nicely overlaps and then diverges with that of James Harden, though fortunately for Luka, he doesn’t yet have his reputation for wilting in big moments. Sort of the opposite, thus far! Not since LeBron James’ first stint in Cleveland, or possibly Galileo, have we discussed heliocentricity so much. Luka, like Harden and James, is a Machiavellian trickster manipulating defenders. He’s broken free of the first round finally and doesn’t want to stop now. I hope somewhere someone is lighting a candle for Andrew Wiggins, who bless his heart, has likely drawn the short straw.

    Luke Doncic also seems almost tailor-made to become the Righteous Vessel for a nation of Golden State haters. Yes, as difficult as it is to believe, many of your friends and neighbors and otherwise decent people hate your Golden State Warriors. They hate them for myriad reasons, stretching back years (though always discounting the 30 previous years). Some consider the Warriors to be entitled, arrogant and even dirty, all while uncomfortably adjacent to a (somewhat) imaginary caricature of a Silicon Valley tech bro. Yeah, that Joe Lacob guy doesn’t help either. Obviously, we reject this unfair, simple-minded stereotype! That said, Luka is now being positioned as something approximating LeBron’s heir apparent, which means this series presents a ready-made mythical quality: the opportunity to avenge his spiritual predecessor against the soft Bay Area dilettantes that robbed the king of so much of his Michael Jordan-chasing legacy. 

    And, of course, Luka and the Mavs have a deeper, more localized score to settle: a nice spiritual cleansing of the first round of the 2007 playoffs. The We Believe series. For Warriors fans, that was likely the best thing that had ever happened in our hoops-loving lives, at least up to that point. For Mavericks fans, it’s a scar that healed strangely. The humiliation of a 42-win team unceremoniously drop-kicking you into an early offseason was somewhat ameliorated when Dallas won the title in 2011 (thanks Jason Kidd!), but the bad feelings are never going to completely disappear. It’s too big for that. Any punishment Dallas can mete out on the modern Warriors is icing on the revenge cake. It’s not a perfect flipping of roles, but Dallas very much feels like the upstart taking on a Warriors squad almost indolent by years of success after success. Too many people will rejoice if this feisty Mavericks team puts the hybrid past/future Warriors team down.

    This is Luka’s hour of glory and he has earned the right to savor it. But some might say the praise pendulum has swung just a bit too much in the other direction. I’m as terrified as anyone about the Warriors playing the Mavericks, but I’m not quite on the precipice of abject surrender, even if FiveThirtyEight doesn’t like Golden State’s chances advancing to the Finals. In general, pundits and fans seem more split than you might have imagined, given the legacy-respect usually afforded to this squad.

    The mood of some Warriors fans on Twitter seems to be a foregone capitulation. Of course, the mood of other Warriors fans on Twitter is that the Warriors are the greatest, most perfect team ever to exist, and will somehow win this series in three games. Anyone taking the Mavs lightly will be in for an abrupt and rude awakening. They will appear to (and often will) have the best player on the floor. They will exploit Golden State’s weaknesses more than any postseason opponent has thus far. They have the ability to embarrass the Warriors, if they don’t take it up a proverbial notch, starting from the opening tip.

    But anyone can be beaten, even the Slovenian version of LeBron James.

    The Warriors simply can’t be considered “underdogs” yet. The Mavericks are talented, they are sometimes downright scary, and they are most importantly peaking at the exact right time. Dallas may even look like a juggernaut, but many a juggernaut has bashed itself into oblivion trying to get past this wily Golden State Warriors team that, no matter what they achieve, still have to prove themselves worthy over and over and over again. Past successes do not predict future victories, as much as we might cling to that hope. Even I, a skeptic of the highest order when it comes to this sometimes unserious and often under-performing team, am in straight-up awe of all the seemingly bottomless holes they’ve managed to dig themselves out of. Again and again, they pull it off, even when they don’t deserve to. They’re survivors of unquestionable skill. And if I’m a regular season hater, call me a postseason patriot. If this is the last hurrah, I will believe in the Warriors to manufacture one more miracle (and if we’re lucky, two more).

    In closing, some nonscientific augury: The Denver Nuggets won the season series against the Warriors 3-1. So did the Memphis Grizzlies. And so did these Mavericks.

    There’s just something about the Warriors and 3-1. Can’t put my finger on it. Almost, almost makes you believe.

    Warriors in 6.



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