Mavericks rally in Game 6 to eliminate Thunder, advance to Conference Finals

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) shoots over Dallas Mavericks' Derrick Jones Jr. (55) in the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

DALLAS — P.J. Washington Jr. made two free throws before an intentional miss with 2.5 seconds left, lifting the Dallas Mavericks to a 117-116 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night and into the Western Conference finals for the second time in three seasons.

Washington was fouled by Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on a 3-point attempt after Chet Holmgren put the Thunder in front 116-115 with a dunk on an assist from his star guard with 20 seconds remaining.

Luka Doncic, who had 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his fourth triple-double this post-season, worked his way to the basket in the final seconds before passing to Washington in the corner. Washington pump-faked to get Gilgeous-Alexander in the air and the whistle blew as the shot fell short.

Oklahoma City challenged the ball, but replay showed Gilgeous-Alexander making contact with Washington’s arm as he went up to shoot.

After making the first two free throws to put Dallas in front, Washington missed on purpose with the Thunder out of timeout after the challenge. Holmgren passed to Jalen Williams, whose desperation shot from well behind half court wasn’t close.

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“If it was a clear-as-day foul, I obviously wouldn’t have challenged it and held the timeout,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. “Even if you advance the ball with 2.5 seconds at a deficit, your chances are very low.”

The Mavericks wrapped up the series in Game 6 at home against the top-seeded Thunder, just as they did in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers. Dallas trailed by 17 points in the third quarter.

“Being down 17 in a closeout game isn’t a position you want to be in,” said Kyrie Irving, who improved to 14-0 in closeout games in his career. “But that’s where we found ourselves. We had to respond the way we’ve been responding all season.”

Dallas will start the West finals at the Denver-Minnesota winner on Wednesday night. The Mavs lost to eventual champ Golden State in five games in the 2022 West finals, Doncic’s first trip that far.

The final sequence capped a riveting fourth quarter with five lead changes and two ties in the final five minutes after the Thunder led for all but one minute until then.

Gilgeous-Alexander scored 36 points, his most in the playoffs this season, while Jalen Williams had 22 points, nine rebounds and eight assists and Holmgren scored 21.

Irving and Derrick Jones Jr. scored 22 points apiece for Dallas. It was the second consecutive game with a playoff career high for Jones.

Washington — the second-leading scorer for Dallas in this series, ahead of Irving — didn’t have a point until the fourth quarter. He scored nine, with tying and go-ahead 3s before the winning free throws.

Doncic didn’t have Irving when he led the Mavs to the West finals in 2022.

The first two months of the Doncic-Irving pairing after the blockbuster deal last year were a dud for the players now with 13 All-Star appearances between them. 

Same for Dallas, which decided to tank at the end of last season to try to preserve a draft pick even with a mathematical chance to make the play-in tournament.

The plan worked and the Mavericks landed centre Dereck Lively II, who had a significant impact as a rookie and his playoff best with 15 rebounds to go with 12 rebounds in the clincher. 

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But the roster still didn’t seem quite right, with the Mavs just three games over .500 after blowing a 25-point lead in a loss to Milwaukee to start February.

This time, the trade-deadline efforts worked, with the additions of Washington and Daniel Gafford shortly after the loss to the Bucks boosting Dallas on both ends of the court.

The Mavericks finished 24-9 to rise to fifth in the West and ousted the Clippers in the first round with the same sequence of wins and losses that beat Oklahoma City.

The Thunder lost four out of five games following a 5-0 start to the playoffs.

Led by the MVP runner-up in Gilgeous-Alexander and two more key pieces of a young core in Williams and Holmgren, Oklahoma City tied defending champion Denver for the best record in the West at 57-25 and took the top seed by virtue of a tiebreaker.

Just two seasons earlier, the Thunder finished 24-58 in a second consecutive year of fewer than 25 victories.

Daigneault’s playoff debut came in his fourth season, and the first-round sweep of New Orleans was the franchise’s first series victory since reaching the West finals in 2016.

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