Nico Harrison’s reconstruction has the Mavericks back in the conference finals

by margoquc456

Nico Harrison was nowhere to be seen Friday night in the Dallas Mavericks‘ American Airlines Center. His handiwork? That you couldn’t miss. And the Mavericks are headed to the Western Conference finals for the second time in three years because of it.

While Luka Dončić posted his third consecutive triple-double and fellow star Kyrie Irving had his moments, three players added by Harrison through a variety of means — and for a variety of reasons — were the difference in a 117-116 win to complete their upset of the No. 1 seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.

PJ Washington (acquired in a trade deadline deal), Dereck Lively II (the Mavs’ 2023 first-round draft pick) and Derrick Jones, Jr. (free-agent signing) all made one crucial play after another in the final minutes to secure the comeback from a 17-point third-quarter deficit.

“(PJ) and DJones, those are our dogs,” said Dončić. “They never complain, just play hard. Those are the kind of people you need on your team. (And) we don’t win the series without DLive. For a rookie, not being scared, it’s insane the way he played.”

Dončić and Irving are known for being clutch, but this time it was their supporting cast coming through for them. Lively II collected eight of his 12 points and six of his 15 rebounds down the stretch, repeatedly out-jumping and scoring over Holmgren, who finished with 21 points but only three rebounds in 34 minutes.

Washington, who came into the game with a postseason free-throw shooting percentage of 52.4 (11 for 21), stepped to the line with the Mavs trailing by one and 2.5 seconds left. To make matters worse, he’d missed his previous free throw about five minutes earlier.

Unfazed by the pressure of the moment — heightened by having to wait through a challenge to the foul call by Thunder coach Mark Daigenault — Washington not only sank the first two free throws for the lead but then purposely missed the last one in the most ideal way, bouncing it softly off the back rim. That resulted in a slower-than-usual ricochet and, with OKC out of timeouts, the best they could do was a Jalen Williams’ three-quarter heave that sailed out of bounds wide left of the backboard.

“It won’t go as the biggest play, but to miss the free throw in the proper way, sometimes we’ll say miss the free throw and you hit the backboard and they get to set up,” said Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “We didn’t want them to set up.”

The play began with Doncic backing down Thunder defender Lou Dort and losing his balance and nearly losing the ball, slapping it out to Washington as he fell. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander initially got a hand on the ball, but because Washington double-pumped the attempt, SGA’s subsequent slap on Washington’s forearm drew the whistle.

“Obviously if I had the moment back I wouldn’t have fouled him,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I would have just let him miss the shot. You wish you could take the moment back.  Just have to learn from it, and I will.”

Earlier, Jones bailed out Irving in similar fashion. Irving’s corner 3 attempt was blocked by Jalen Williams, but Jones Jr. grabbed the ball and arced a turnaround fadeaway jumper over a leaping 7-foot Holmgren. The ball found nothing but net as the shot clock expired for a 115-110 lead with 71 seconds left.

Dallas appeared to be in charge but Washington’s last-second heroics were preceded by a few miscues that made them necessary. First, he was slow to find Gilgeous-Alexander after Jones’ shot clock-beating jumper. Result: Gilgeous-Alexander only needed six seconds to cut the lead back to two with a pull-up transition 3. Washington then tried to answer but back-rimmed his three-point attempt. He then committed a non-shooting foul on an SGA drive, resulting in a frontcourt inbounds play for the Thunder with 27 seconds left. But before the Thunder put the ball in play, Washington bulldozed through a Dort screen for another foul — his fifth — giving OKC a free throw and possession of the ball. Gilgeous-Alexander sank the free throw and then found Holmgren for a dunk, giving the Thunder a one-point lead with 20 seconds to play.

“Obviously, it was a rough game,” Washington said. “I’m just glad we came out on top.”

The “we” is vastly different than the last team that reached the conference finals. Dončić and Josh Green are the only holdovers and there was a point last season that Harrison — and owner Mark Cuban — were being dragged for letting Jalen Brunson sign as a free agent with the New York Knicks. It got worse when, after acquiring Kyrie Irving in a trade deadline deal, the Mavs promptly slid from fifth in the Western Conference to 11th, failing to make the postseason for the first time since 2019, Doncic’s rookie year. 

But Harrison remained resolute the Dončić-Irving nucleus could work, that it was a matter of giving them time and putting the right pieces around them. Which he did. They needed an athletic rim protector and lob threat — Lively. They needed a versatile stretch 4 with on-ball defensive skills — Washington. And, having dealt Dorian Finney-Smith in the deal to get Irving, they needed a bargain three-and-D wing with the team already hard-capped — Jones Jr., on a one-year veteran’s minimum deal.

If Harrison kept a low profile Friday night because the lesson of how fickle the public and media can be remains fresh, it’s hard to blame him. But there was no hiding what the pieces he acquired did to keep the Mavericks’ season alive. They’re now in the same place they were the last time you-know-who was in town. 

At the start of the season, that was considered as unlikely as a 52.4 percent free-throw shooter executing three win-or-lose shots from the line. Flawlessly. 

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a weekly podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.


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