Luka Dončić promised he would play to win in the final week of the season.
On Wednesday, he backed up his words. And so did Kyrie Irving.
The Mavericks moved a step closer to qualifying for the play-in tournament with a hard-earned 123-119 victory over the Sacramento Kings. They improved to 38-42, the same record Oklahoma City has, to tie for 10th place in the Western Conference.
The Thunder, however, owns the tiebreaker. But if the Thunder loses one of their last two games, the Mavericks would control their own destiny with home games against Chicago and San Antonio remaining.
The teams seeded seventh through 10th will play a tournament to see which teams qualify as the No. 7 and 8 seeds when the playoffs begin April 15.
Irving (31 points) was unstoppable in the fourth quarter and he and Dončić combined for 60 points. Tim Hardaway Jr. added 24.
“It was a good win, much-needed,” coach Jason Kidd said. “I thought the energy was good. I thought the second half, our defense was at a high. And our offense through LD and Kai, they created a lot of opportunities for us.”
Asked about Irving’s fourth quarter, when he poured in 19 of his points, Kidd said:
“That’s just normal. That’s what he does. He didn’t get off to a great start, but just knowing Kai, he’s going to compete. And I thought in the second half, he controlled the game.”
Irving simply said he was trying to “chop wood and carry water.”
“Tonight, it was working well and I was just staying in attack mode, no matter what,” Irving said. “We really needed this win, so just desperation basketball and playing smart. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve been in must-win games, so it felt good.”
A tie game going into the fourth quarter featured a scintillating back-and-forth down the stretch as Irving had 10 of the Mavericks’ first 19 points of the fourth quarter to go up 111-107 with 6:09 left.
The Kings then challenged an offensive foul against Kevin Huerter, which was overturned. But a technical foul against Huerter stood and Irving made the free throw.
It set up a riveting finish. When Irving knocked down one of his many three-pointers, the Mavericks went up 117-112 with 3:06 showing. He would hit another triple to make it 120-114.
Finally, the Kings ran a double-team at the red-hot Irving and he gave up the ball and Josh Green found Christian Wood for the dagger three-pointer with 59.7 seconds left that put the Mavericks up 123-114.
But this was Irving’s night to shine. And the way he ham-and-egged it with Luka was impressive. Luka had all 29 of his points in the first three quarters and was content to let Irving take over.
“It was amazing,” he said. “When we most needed it, he showed up. It was amazing to watch.”
Said Kidd of Irving: “He’s done a great job. He’s played with the best players in the world for a while now so he understands how to do that and he’s playing with one of the best in the world now with Luka. He’s just feeling his way.
“He leads differently than Luka. But you look at what Luka did tonight as a leader. It just shows these two are meant to be together. It just takes time. As much as you guys want to rush the process. It just takes time. These are not robots or AI. They’re human beings. Some times, good things, you just have to be patient.”
Before the game, Kidd said talked about the Mavericks’ decision to play the season out as long as there is any chance of making the play-in tournament.
When asked about trying to save the top-10 protected draft pick by losing games, Kidd understood the line of thinking.
He just doesn’t agree with it.
“That’s a fair question for a fan,” he said. “They don’t own the team. They’re not the general manager. It starts with the player. I think Luka answered that question loud and clear. I think that shows the character of who he is.
“He believes. Everyone in that locker room believes we still have a chance until we’re told otherwise. You have to be a pro.”
And the Mavericks played like pros against a Kings team that will make the playoffs for the first time in 16 years and will have a home-court advantage in the first round, too.
They also own the NBA’s best road record at 25-14 (before Wednesday).
And even when the Mavericks had some rocky moments early, they recovered. They trailed by as much as 13 points early in the third quarter, but a flurry of three-pointers pushed them ahead 82-79.
From there, it was a battle. The Kings had played the night before, winning at New Orleans, but they did not appear to show significant signs of fatigue.
They were getting a huge night out of Sabonis, who was closing in on a triple-double by the end of the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Hardaway was electrifying from long range and the Mavericks were getting nice contributions from Green and were in solid position going into the fourth quarter, tied at 92.