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Warriors on cusp of a return to NBA Finals, barring a historic Mavericks comeback

Andrew Wiggins hammered home a dunk over Luka Doncic in Game 3, as the Warriors put themselves in position to return to the NBA Finals.Ron Jenkins/Getty

Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors have won nine consecutive games in the Western Conference finals.

They can make it an even 10, eliminate Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, and return to the NBA Finals after three years away with a victory in Game 4 in Dallas on Tuesday night.

“I’m not going to fast forward,” Curry said after a 109-100 victory in Game 3 for a 3-0 series lead. “We can play better, but we’re finding ways to win games. There’s no expectation other than what’s the challenge ahead of us, and the challenge now is to close out a series against a really good team to get back to an opportunity to win the Finals.”

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The Warriors haven’t lost in the West finals since erasing a 3-2 deficit to Houston in 2018, when they won the last of their three titles in four years by beating Cleveland. Golden State swept Portland for a fifth consecutive trip to the Finals in 2019 before losing in six games to Toronto.

Stephen Curry and the Warriors can finish off the sweep in Game 4.Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

The Mavericks are playing beyond the first round for the first time since first-year coach Jason Kidd was the point guard on the Dirk Nowitzki-led team that won the 2011 title.

Dallas was down, 2-0, to top-seeded Phoenix in the West semifinals before winning twice as the home team took the first six games. The Mavs stunned the Suns with a 33-point victory in Game 7 in Phoenix, putting Doncic a year ahead Nowitzki’s schedule in reaching his first conference finals.

Golden State rallied from 19 points down to win Game 2 at home before erasing a nine-point deficit in the final four minutes of the first half in Game 3 — and ending any hope of Dallas repeating its Phoenix feat.

Instead of winning four out of five, the Mavericks have to win the last four games of the series. No NBA team has done that.

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Luka Doncic and the Mavericks have struggled to get off the canvas over much of the first three games.Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

Doncic scored 21 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter, but a desperate Dallas rally never gained traction. The young superstar masked a mediocre first half by hitting a 32-footer at the first-quarter buzzer.

“I think the first two quarters I played very bad. That’s on me,” Doncic said after the Mavs fell to 2-6 in three playoff years when their All-Star scored at least 40. “But I’m still learning. I think after this season is done, whatever we are, I think we’re going to look back and learn a lot of things. I’m 23, man. I’m still learning a lot.”

Doncic also learned what it’s like to be on the wrong end of a moment that will live forever on highlight reels.

The three-time All-Star who is used to sending defenders stumbling with crossover and step-back moves was posterized on a dunk by Andrew Wiggins.

Yes, the same Wiggins who was criticized by some after being chosen as an All-Star starter in his first appearance this year. He got the nod over Doncic, who started the season poorly by his standards because of issues with weight and conditioning.

That wasn’t Wiggins’ only dunk on his way to a playoff career-high 27 points, and he had another off one of his six offensive rebounds, just one fewer than Dallas had as a team.

The 2014 No. 1 overall pick also has been one of the primary defenders on Doncic in a multifaceted scheme that has limited Dallas’ career triple-double leader to five assists per game — three below his career playoff average.

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“He’s a fantastic two-way player,” coach Steve Kerr said. “You don’t win in the playoffs without guys like Wiggs. We’re basically mirroring Doncic’s minutes so that Wiggs can stay on him and he’s another guy like Steph who just never seems to get tired. He’s in amazing shape.”

The Mavericks are in bad shape in this series because they’ve been outscored on average 62-47 in the second half. Part of the reason is the inconsistency of Doncic’s supporting cast.

In Game 3, Spencer Dinwiddie scored 26 of Dallas’ 28 bench points after the Mavs’ reserves were outscored, 36-13, in Game 2. But key 3-point specialists Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Reggie Bullock combined for just 9 points — all of them from Finney-Smith after Kleber and Bullock missed all 12 of their 3s and all 15 of their shots overall.

How will Jason Kidd and the Mavericks respond in Game 4?Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

Pardon the Mavs if they sounded a bit defeated, knowing the history of 3-0 deficits.

“When you’re in a battle, you’re not thinking about the big picture,” Kidd said. “But as we reflect this summer, whenever that starts, we’ll understand what we did and how we can get better. And that’s the blessing of this whole thing is, we truly believe we belong here.”

For now, the Mavs have to believe they can prolong things.

Denver basketball ops boss jumping to Minnesota

Tim Connelly is leaving his job as president of basketball operations of the Denver Nuggets for a similar role with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Connelly agreed to the deal on Monday, the Timberwolves announced.

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The 45-year-old Connelly steadily built the Nuggets into a perennial playoff contender through draft picks that included two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and point guard Jamal Murray.

Connelly's decision to switch teams inside the Western Conference's Northwest Division was first reported by The Athletic and ESPN. The deal is reportedly for five years and worth more than $40 million. It also includes ownership equity.

Connelly will oversee a Timberwolves team led by Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. The Timberwolves are coming off a 46-win season and their first playoff appearance since 2018. They took the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies to six games before being eliminated.

Tim Connelly is moving from Denver to Minnesota.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Connelly’s first opportunity to enhance the promising roster he’s inheriting will come in one month at the draft, when the Timberwolves have the 19th overall pick in the first round. They also have three second-round choices.

Towns has two years and more than $69 million remaining on his contract, and if he’s an All-NBA selection, he’ll be eligible for a max extension. The more pressing matter will be the status of point guard D’Angelo Russell, the No. 3 scorer in the still-developing star trio. He’ll be entering the final year of his deal, with a 2022-23 salary of more than $31 million, after another up-and-down season with inconsistency that stretched into the playoff series against the Grizzlies.

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The Timberwolves could also use help at the power forward spot, where Jarred Vanderbilt was the primary starter this season. The 23-year-old Vanderbilt averaged 6.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. He was brought to the Nuggets by Connelly in a trade in 2018, and then sent to the Timberwolves in a multi-team deal in 2020.

In 2013, Connelly stepped in for Masai Ujiri when Ujiri left for the Toronto Raptors. The Nuggets won 48 games this season despite missing Murray (knee) for the entire season and Michael Porter Jr. (back) for all but nine games.

With Connelly leaving, the Nuggets could give more responsibility to general manager Calvin Booth. One of Denver’s top priorities this summer is signing Jokic to a super-max deal.