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Dereck Lively II Is The Man Of The Moment

DALLAS, TEXAS - MAY 11: Dereck Lively II #2 of the Dallas Mavericks reacts during the fourth quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Three of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 11, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
Tim Heitman/Getty Images

The biggest play of the night for the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals began with Rudy Gobert playing authoritative defense at the rim. Kyrie Irving, well on his way to a 30-point masterclass, rejected a screen from Mavs rookie Dereck Lively II, turned the corner on Wolves wing Jaden McDaniels, and challenged Gobert at the rack. It didn't work.

The Mavs had been up eight only minutes earlier, but the Wolves had seized control of the game with a rugged 14-1 run, the sort they produced with electric regularity throughout the Nuggets series: passing lanes disappeared, Anthony Edwards swaggered around on the perimeter, any Mavs turnover was ruthlessly punished. If the Wolves had gotten the stop and pushed their lead out on that play, they could have won Game 1. But there was Lively, crashing hard and snagging the board out from under Gobert and McDaniels, then instantly kicking it to Luka Doncic for a momentum-stealing three.

In a big win for nominative determinism, all Lively has done in his short career and in his tremendous playoff debut is make plays. The 20-year-old center is the last rookie left standing in the 2024 NBA playoffs, a playoffs that he has spent protecting the rim on defense and providing vertical spacing on offense. The Mavericks have reformulated their identity since the trade deadline, electing to become much larger and meaner and, oddly enough, replace Lively in the starting lineup with Daniel Gafford. This allows them to play all 48 minutes with either of their sproingy non-shooting centers patrolling the paint. It's the sort of thing that seems counterintuitive in the regular season, where well-ventilated spacing and scoring 150 points are the order of the day, but Dallas has fashioned it into a series-winning cudgel in the playoffs. They bullied the too-old Clippers, bullied the too-young Thunder, and spent Game 1 bullying the just-right Wolves.

While the identity aspect is usually analyzed in the collective sense, it is becoming impossible to ignore how much better Lively is than Gafford, and how much better the Mavericks are with him on the floor. The two big men do broadly the same thing, and well, but Lively does it more consistently, and at a higher level. Of all the big-time stats, plus-minus is the most susceptible to weird influences and aberrant shooting performances, though only in small samples. Lively was plus-19 in 27 minutes last night, easily a game-high, and Gafford was minus-15 in 21. Through the playoffs, that margin is even more alarming: plus-106 for Lively, minus-62 for Gafford. This speaks to how well Lively does all the little things, making opponents' lives harder and his teammates' easier. The Mavs surrendered that 14-1 run with Gafford on the court, and closed with Lively en route to a 108-105 Game 1 win. It was the first time they've won a Game 1 in their last six tries.

A few Mavs observers have noted that this is probably the most likable Luka team yet. I tend to agree with this; even though Irving is still around, the bar is really low. The Dwight Powell types that filled out Luka's earlier teams are out of the rotation now, and the team plays with a distinct flair that goes beyond Doncic's own ruddy mastery. This team overflows with secondary guys named some version of "Derek," and I love watching Derrick Jones Jr. The Dante Exum experience is always a fun one, and while P.J. Washington's game is not necessarily cool or "fun to watch," I've liked how he's filled the gaps perfectly. And Lively is perhaps the most rootable player left in the playoffs—he's young and cool and enthusiastic on the court, and any rookie having such a moment is automatically worth cheering for. Lively is also being up admirably in the face of some very difficult stuff. He lost his mother just over a month ago, and it takes strength, bravery, and vulnerability to face down personal tragedy like that. I can only imagine what it's like to have to do so during your first NBA playoffs, while already carrying so much weight.

Lively's play was not the operative reason why the Mavs won Game 1—Doncic put together an impish 33-6-8 and Irving dropped a crisp 30; most good things that happen for the Mavericks will continue to happen because of them. But Lively was the team's third-best player, and the best big man on the court in a game featuring 72 minutes of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. His 11 rebounds were a game-high, and he buffed his line out with three assists, two blocks, and a perfect 4-for-4 from the field. The most indicative stat of the night is the 56 percent (14-for-25) rate the Wolves shot at the rim. That is 15 percent lower than their regular-season rate, and would be the worst in the NBA by a significant margin. Towns and Gobert were a combined 7-for-18 in the paint, which is a testament to Lively's quality as a defender. He is huge and athletic, and somehow never fouls. The last bit is extremely rare for a rookie center, as young big men pretty much always spend their first years in the league learning how not to foul at an alarming rate. Lively moves his feet well, doesn't reach, and always seems to contest without falling for ball fakes.

Minnesota's strategy relies on a certain amount of battering-ram shit; Towns pops or rolls and attacks space, Gobert either slides in from the dunker spot for an alley-oop or sets a second screen in the paint, and the Wolves get easy buckets. Every part of that becomes much harder to do with someone like Lively defending the action, and that friction created the circumstances that allowed the Mavs to win despite making one-third as many threes (six) as the Wolves (18). Their defense has been revelatory since they buffed up at the trade deadline, especially with Irving and Doncic busting ass on the perimeter. It is honestly remarkable that it's working this well against this team. They simply shut that machine down.

The Wolves, remember, just won a brutally physical seven-gamer against a Denver team purpose-built to bully opponents. They accepted the Nuggets' gambit and played oversized, nasty basketball and overwhelmed the champs at their own game. Watching that series, it was hard to imagine that anyone else besides the Wolves would be able to dictate terms so authoritatively. How could another team, when Minnesota is so huge? What sort of team would be able to match them, let alone impose their playing style on the road, having brought they ass to Minnesota?

Game 1 offered an answer, if not a complete one. Dallas was fearless. They took their chances to catch the Wolves napping on the fast break and Doncic made a point of attacking Gobert. At the center of it all was Lively, cleaning up around the edges and keeping the Wolves from getting too burly with it.

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