Mavericks Edge Thunder in Game 6 Thriller, Secure Conference Finals Spot

The Oklahoma City Thunder are disappointed.And they should be. Their season is over after losing to the Dallas Mavericks 117-116 in Game 6 on Saturday of their Western Conference semifinal series.

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The Mavericks advanced to the conference finals, where they will face the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between Minnesota and Denver.

Mavs forward P.J. Washington made two free throws with 2.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter to win the game. Dallas outscored Oklahoma City 69-52 in the second half, and Mavs star Luka Doncic recorded a triple-double with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. Kyrie Irving and Derrick Jones Jr. each scored 22 points for Dallas.

Dallas is making its second appearance in the conference finals in three seasons. The Mavs’ collective experience, especially with Doncic and Irving, and the trade deadline acquisitions of Washington and Daniel Gafford, managed the moment.

The loss stings, but it wasn’t a disappointing season for the Thunder, and perspective is necessary for one of the NBA's youngest teams that has one of its brightest futures.

Let’s take a step back. In 2022-23, the Thunder finished 10th in the West at 40-42, made the play-in game but did not win two games to qualify for the playoffs. This season, Oklahoma City improved by 17 wins to finish 57-25, earning the top seed in the West, and the Thunder were one of two teams (Boston was the other) to finish in the top four in offensive and defensive efficiency.

It can be argued the Thunder were ahead of schedule this season, and the front office and coaching staff took a measured approach to the regular-season success. They had players with little or no playoff experience, and expecting a roster like that to zoom straight through to the conference finals or even NBA Finals was not a given.

The playoffs are often about lessons learned and figuring out what’s required not only to win a game but win a series. It’s an old-school notion, but it took teams like the 1980s Pistons and 1990s Bulls multiple playoff defeats before they broke through and won a championship. Teams absorb those lessons, come back stronger, and apply what was learned to future series.

The good news for the Thunder and their fans: they’re going to be in the hunt for the next several seasons with MVP runner-up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (36 points in Game 6), Rookie of the Year runner-up Chet Holmgren, potential All-Star Jalen Williams and 2023-24 Coach of the Year Mark Daigneault. Lu Dort, Aaron Wiggins, Josh Giddey, Isaiah Joe, Jaylin Williams, and Cason Wallace round out a strong squad. The Thunder have all those players under contract or can have them under contract for next season.

Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti has considerable draft assets with which to improve the roster. He has multiple first-round picks to either use the picks or trade them to acquire players who can help immediately. Oklahoma City needs interior depth for scoring and rebounding and help with perimeter wings around Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Thunder may also have cap space and salary cap exceptions to dabble in the free-agent market.

They are in great position. And while they were ahead of schedule this season, they have set expectations for next season, and it includes more than a first-round series victory.

Kyrie Irving probably wondered if his uncanny run of closeout victories without a loss in his career was finally near an end.

The streak lives, and the Dallas Mavericks are through to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in three seasons.

P.J. Washington Jr. made two free throws before an intentional miss with 2.5 seconds left as the Mavs rallied from 17 points down in the second half for a 117-116 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder to finish the second-round series Saturday night.

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 – which trailed by 17 early in the third quarter and by nine early in the fourth – will start the West finals at the Denver-Minnesota winner on Wednesday night.

“Being down 17 in a closeout game isn’t a position you want to be in,” said Irving, who is now 14-0 in such games and will play in the conference finals for the first time since 2017 with Cleveland. “But that’s where we found ourselves. We had to respond the way we’ve been responding all season.”

Washington was fouled by 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 postseason, 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 call, but replay showed Gilgeous-Alexander making contact with Washington’s arm as he went up to shoot.

“Obviously, if I had the moment back, I wouldn’t have fouled him,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who had a playoff career high with 36 points. “I would have just let him miss the shot. You wish you could take the moment back. Just have to learn from it, and I will.”

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

“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 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.

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

“It wasn’t Luka or Kai making the game-winner,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said. “It was the trust of Luka, and the ball touches the paint, they collapse, he trusted P.J. We find a way to win.”

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.

“I think we just stay together,” Doncic said. “We always talk on the bench, stay together, positive energy. And today was a good example of it.”

Doncic didn’t have Irving in leading the Mavs to the West Finals in 2022, when Dallas lost to defending champ Golden State in five games.

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. More trade-deadline moves this year from general manager Nico Harrison worked this time.

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.

Williams had 22 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists as the Thunder were ousted. Holmgren scored 21.

Just two seasons ago, 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.

“You don’t accomplish what we accomplished without tremendous resilience and the ability to throw punches with our talent, with the way we play, and then take punches,” Daigneault said. “And tonight we took a lot of punches, and we did … and we took a lead into the last 20 seconds of that game.”

Two mistakes ultimately doomed the Oklahoma City Thunder late Saturday night in Dallas, defining the final seconds of their Game 6 loss and second-round elimination, ending a 57-win dream season in abrupt, sour fashion.

The first came from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, their MVP candidate and the main reason they led by 1 point late. Gilgeous-Alexander had 36 points. His eighth assist was a lob to Chet Holmgren with 20.6 seconds left, putting the Thunder up 116-115. But on the deciding possession of the series, Gilgeous-Alexander tried to block a P.J. Washington corner 3, and after initially clipping the basketball, his arm slid down to Washington’s elbow, earning the whistle.

“I shouldn’t have fouled him,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We talk about it all year, the little things that go into winning games. The discipline. It sucks.”

The second mistake came from Mark Daigneault, the NBA Coach of the Year and considered one of the rising minds in the league. He had one timeout and a challenge still