Special to Sports News Highlights

(SNH) — Even though the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic was recently named the NBA’s MVP for the third time in the past four seasons, the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic is the one still playing.

After leading Dallas with 33.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 9.8 assists, and 1.4 steals per game this season, Doncic and Dallas are in the NBA Finals for the first time since winning it all in 2011 with Mavericks’ icon Dirk Nowitzki.

Getting to the Finals with this Dallas iteration has been anything but a straight line. After falling to the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 Western Conference finals, Dallas went just 38-44 and finished out of the playoffs last season.

Fans in particular chided the team’s performance after acquiring Kyrie Irving during the season. But it’s the enigmatic guard, along with a number of shrewd acquisitions made this season, who have partnered with Doncic to place Dallas just four wins away from its second title.

The Mavericks came into the playoffs as the Western Conference’s No. 5 seed. All they’ve done is knock out the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers and the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in six games, before closing out the third-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in five to take the Western Conference. Per The Athletic, Dallas is only the sixth team seeded fifth or lower to reach the finals.

It's not that the Mavericks are average. A 52-30 overall record in the typically tough Western Conference attests to that. But surviving a trio of higher seeded opponents, including the defending NBA champion Nuggets, give Dallas the air of the favorite in the finals, although they are not.

That’s because, standing in the way of the NBA crown for Doncic and the Mavs are the Boston Celtics, the Eastern Conference representative virtually everybody predicted would be here.

Boston finished the regular season 64-18 and have cruised through the postseason to date. The team’s easy path this postseason has been made easier by multiple injuries to their opponents’ star players (Miami’s Jimmy Butler, Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell, Indiana’s Tyrese Halliburton).

This Boston contingent has yet to get over the hump and win a championship, so Dallas will head into the NBA Finals rightfully confident that they can come away as winners.

The storied Celtics have won just one NBA title since 1986, and they are desperate to break a tie with the Los Angeles Lakers and win a league-record 18th title. But first, they’ll need to overcome a Dallas squad that has hit its stride at just the right time.

Boston defeated Dallas on the road in January and at home in early March to sweep the season series, despite Doncic recording triple doubles in both contests. However, the Mavericks won 16 of their final 20 games heading into the postseason.

In overcoming three higher seeds, Doncic is again leading the way this postseason, averaging 28.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 8.8 assists a contest. He is ranked in the Top 10 in the league in each of those categories. Irving, his backcourt running mate, has gone for 22.8 points and five assists per game. The duo’s performance has created buzz that it may be one of the best backcourts in history.

Also, as the trade deadline approached, Dallas GM Nico Harrison added two fifth-year interior bodies that have paid massive dividends this postseason. He picked up P.J. Washington from Charlotte in February and the former Hornet averaged nearly 18 points a game in the Mavericks’ second-round upset of Oklahoma City.

At the same time, Harrison also grabbed Daniel Gafford from the lowly Washington Wizards. The big man rewarded Harrison and Dallas with consistency the rest of the regular season, and he filed a complete performance in the Western Conference finals. Gafford averaged 10.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.6 steals against the Timberwolves.

After a lengthy rest that allows both teams to rest and recover, the NBA Finals kicks off in Boston Thursday night. Very few people predicted the Mavericks would be there. But few should be surprised if Doncic and co. are hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy later this month.

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