Mavs Have Early Control Over Wolves In Western Conference Finals With Mature, Savvy Effort By Irving

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving, left, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels, center, during the second half in Game 1 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals, Wednesday, May 22, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt Krohn)
Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving, left, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels, center, during the second half in Game 1 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals, Wednesday, May 22, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt Krohn)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Kyrie Irving injected a burst of energy into the Dallas Mavericks to begin the Western Conference finals with a furious flurry of drives to the basket against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

In the second half, as his shots stopped falling, this matured and refreshed version of Irving that's been fueling Luka Doncic and the Mavericks kicked in with an all-around effort to lead the Game 1 victory.

With an NBA championship and 87 career playoff games on his resume, Irving has the experience in this part of the postseason that nobody on either side in this series can match.

“I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’ve succeeded and I’ve also failed, so I look at this moment as an opportunity to help other guys really settle in and be aware of what comes with this,” Irving said.

The first overall pick in the 2011 draft played in three consecutive NBA finals for Cleveland from 2015-17, but those teams ran through LeBron James. Irving was just 24 when the Cavaliers won it all in 2016. The controversies, injuries and trades that have painted the story of his career since then have begun to peel away this spring with each postseason win by the Mavericks.

“It’s just a new chapter of my life. I was a young man, and I think that people were holding on to my words and actions that I did then, but now being 32 years old, I’ve crossed over that mountain a little bit and been able to figure out that basketball’s a sport I was meant to play,” Irving said. “In order to do that I’ve got to make other guys better, too. I can’t just be out there scoring and worrying about me.”

Irving scored 24 of his 30 points in the first half of the 108-105 victory on Wednesday night. He made 11 of 14 shots, including five layups and four floaters from between 5 and 10 feet as the Mavericks successfully drew NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert out of his rim protection zone and consistently lost their defenders on pick-and-rolls.

“I’ve been here before, so just a little bit more poise on my end and just being able to start the game with the confidence and that aggression,” said Irving, who was also a significant contributor to the team-effort defense on Anthony Edwards that limited the second-team All-NBA pick to 19 points and only four shot attempts from inside the arc.

The 22-year-old Edwards, whose youthful confidence and exceptional athleticism have helped propel him into the mix of the league's biggest stars, created a bit of a stir in his live postgame interview on TNT after Minnesota beat Denver to advance by declaring, “I've got Kyrie."

Considering their disparate performances in Game 1, the natural narrative was that Edwards foolishly poked the bear with such bold talk. But Irving wasn't having it.

“That no-fear mentality that he has is why I respect him as a competitor and why I respect him as a person," Irving said. “When we’re on that court, I know he’s going to give it his all. I’m going to give it my all, and at the end of the game, you know it’s all love, but when we’re inside those lines, he knows what it is and I know what it is.”

Edwards said after the game he was exhausted, an unsurprising admission considering how many defenders Dallas — like Denver in the round before — sent at him whenever he made a move toward the basket. Chasing Irving around on defense is a challenge, too.

“We’re not going to stop him,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Just make it tough on him.”

Edwards and fellow Wolves guards Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker shot a combined 9 for 29 from the floor, including 6 for 26 from 3-point range. A whopping 49 of Minnesota's 89 attempts were from deep, the team's 2023-24 high over both the regular season or playoffs.

The Wolves weren't as worried about the greater reliance on the outside shot so much as they were with their first-half effort on defense and their late-game execution on offense. Coach Chris Finch and his staff pulled no punches in an intense video session on Thursday in the completion of the wakeup call for Game 2 at Target Center on Friday night.

“I told the guys, ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve been this disappointed in your effort. Your performance, your attitude, your application and attention to detail just wasn’t there,’” Finch said. “The Western Conference finals started. Not sure if they got the memo. But they got it this afternoon.”

The 62-38 scoring advantage the Mavericks enjoyed in the paint was still stinging.

“We’re the No. 1 defensive team in the league so the amount of points we allowed, 108, is too much for that team,” Wolves backup center Naz Reid said. “I just think we didn’t bring it defensively."