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Luka Doncic responds to hecklers and lifts Mavericks to the NBA Finals

MINNEAPOLIS – A wrangler with a bad idea and a handkerchief stood up from his seat on the sideline a few rows behind the field and waved the small piece of cloth at Luka Doncic just minutes into a horrific night. This reckless soul wanted the Dallas Mavericks star to know that his non-stop communication with the referees pretty much turned him into a whiny baby.

Doncic nodded and smiled at the fan before ending the conversation by ending the Minnesota Timberwolves’ season.

Thanks to an utterly ruthless display of Doncic’s scoring prowess, the Mavericks scored a 124-103 victory over the Timberwolves in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday, securing their first trip to the NBA Finals since 2011. The elder Doncic, who had 36 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the closeout victory, was unanimously named Series MVP. Dallas will face the Boston Celtics in the finals, which start Thursday.

Michael Jordan once shrugged and grinned when he couldn’t miss. Doncic becomes sadistic as his play reaches its peak. On this night, perhaps the best of his career considering the stakes, he snarled, bowed, gritted his teeth and skipped around the field in a feverish trance. After each demoralizing shot during a 20-point first-quarter onslaught, he kept glancing toward the heckler to see if he wanted another. Shoot, then stare, shoot, then stare, over and over again until Target Center was silent.

“I can’t tell you (what the heckler said),” Doncic said. “But you know that makes me think. Everyone knows that.”

When another Timberwolves fan, this one sitting along the baseline, rubbed his eyes theatrically during the second half to imitate a crying child, Doncic emptied a basket through contact, looked over his shoulder at the man and asked : ‘Who’s crying, motherf– -eh?’

At that point the match was long over. There was no time to waste, no reason to let this match, like the rest of the series, be decided in the blink of an eye. Doncic, so irritated by his performance in a Game 4 loss Tuesday and so determined to reach the first Finals of his six-year career, scored on Dallas’ first two possessions and made his first five shots. The crowd swallowed as one.

“He was definitely in ‘Luka Magic’ mode,” said Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who was a point guard on Dallas’ 2011 championship team. “He set the tone and made it easier for everyone. He immediately took the crowd out of the match. He let his teammates know it’s time to step up. That’s what you need as a leader.”

Back-to-back Doncic three-pointers extended Dallas’ lead to double digits late in the first quarter. The dazed Timberwolves couldn’t prevent the margin from increasing to 20 points early in the second quarter. A late run by Kyrie Irving gave the Mavericks a 69-40 halftime lead. Doncic went straight back to work after the break to build an insurmountable 36-point cushion; For comparison, the first four games of the series were decided by a total of 18 points.

For Minnesota, it was a sad but somewhat fitting end to a memorable postseason. The Timberwolves had played with fire by winning their first three elimination games – coming back from a 3-2 series deficit to dethrone defending champion Denver Nuggets in the second round before stealing Game 4 in Dallas. The fourth time they were finally burned.

The Timberwolves have also struggled to meet Target Center’s expectations in recent weeks. After winning its two home games against the Phoenix Suns in the first round, Minnesota went just 1-5 at home against Denver and Dallas.

Star guard Anthony Edwards never came close to making good on his promise to force a Game 6. He finished with 28 points, nine rebounds and six assists, much of which he collected after Doncic had already set the terms of the game. Karl-Anthony Towns added 28 points and 12 rebounds, but the Timberwolves seemed content to have saved face by avoiding a sweep.

While the Mavericks improved to 7-2 on the road during their run to the finals and recorded their fifth straight victory in Dallas on Thursday, Doncic’s reputation as a traveling opponent dates back years. During the 2022 playoffs, he capped a thrilling second-round series against the Suns with 35 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in a Game 7 win in Phoenix. He also hit game-sealing baskets in the first two games against the Timberwolves in Minnesota.

Doncic’s penchant for villainy and breaking hearts will be tested in the finale. Boston’s TD Garden boasts one of the NBA’s most respected and engaged crowds, and the Celtics faithful will be excited in anticipation of the storied franchise’s first title since 2008 and a charged showdown with Kyrie Irving, who spent two ill-fated seasons in green from 2017 to 2019.

Irving, 32, completed a strong West final with 36 points, five assists and four rebounds. The eight-time all-star returns to the Finals for the first time in seven years and this will be his first championship series without LeBron James as his teammate. Irving parted ways with James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017 to pursue his own title with the Celtics. When that didn’t work out, he worked with Kevin Durant on the Brooklyn Nets for more than three years, but never got past the second round. Brooklyn then traded him to Dallas in 2023.

“It’s been a long seven years, but it felt like the right amount of time,” Irving said. “I had a three-year losing streak in Cleveland (before James’ arrival in 2014), as people like to remember, where I didn’t do anything without certain guys on the team. I like to enjoy those challenges. As a young player you take (winning) for granted to a certain extent. Now I’m in my thirties and I can stand more comfortably and confidently in my own square. … All stories and stories will last forever. I’m sure I’ll hear it until I retire.”

The Celtics are the betting favorites in the Finals and have almost all the conventional advantages. They won a league-best 64 regular-season games, posted the league’s largest points differential and cruised through the Eastern Conference with a 12-2 postseason run. They have home field advantage and will enjoy three extra days of rest after completing the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers on Monday. Their starting lineup of Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford has far more collective playoff experience than their Mavericks counterparts.

But Dallas has Doncic, who looms as the ultimate equalizer after an excellent postseason run that saw him mount a strong challenge to Nuggets center Nikola Jokic as the world’s best basketball player.

By breaking up the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Timberwolves, Doncic and the Mavericks have slowed perimeter stars like Paul George, Jalen Williams and Edwards; defeated MVP runner-up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; and defeated Minnesota’s huge front line of Rudy Gobert, Towns and Naz Reid. Dallas’ path through the tougher Western Conference should serve as excellent preparation for the Celtics, who have big wings like the Clippers, like to shoot three-pointers like the Thunder and play excellent defense like the Timberwolves.

Meanwhile, Boston must shift into high gear after knocking off the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Pacers, who were dealing with injuries to stars Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell and Tyrese Haliburton, respectively.

After posing for photos with his teammates and celebrating on the court with his father, Doncic walked into the visitors’ locker room arm in arm with Mavericks center Dereck Lively II. Seeing Doncic holding his MVP award in the West finals, Lively commented, “That’s a nice trophy you got there.”

His enemies vanquished and his grin long gone, a grinning Doncic turned generous.

“Here,” he said, holding out the trophy in Lively’s direction. “You take it.”

The rookie center backed up smartly, but Doncic’s ambivalence toward possession of his gold prize was in stark contrast to his ferocious pursuit. No physical object can match the satisfaction of putting that handkerchief back in a lost pocket.

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