NBA playoffs: Luka Dončić leads 17-point Mavericks comeback to finish off Thunder

The Dallas Mavericks are headed to their second Western Conference finals with Luka Dončić, primarily thanks to Dončić.

The Slovenian star led his team to a 17-point comeback to finish off the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games, winning 117-116 on Saturday against the top seed in the Western Conference. Dallas will face the winner of the Game 7 between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets on Sunday.

Dončić finished the game with 29 points on 9-of-15 shooting with 10 rebounds and 10 assists, the seventh playoff triple-double of his career and his third in a row. The other big contributors were Derrick Jones Jr., with 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, and Kyrie Irving, who also had 22 on 9-of-23 shooting.

While inefficient, Irving improved his record in closeout games to 14-0, the best mark in NBA history.

The Thunder spent nearly the entire game with the lead, and a late second-quarter run put them up 16 at halftime. The lead peaked at 77-60 early in the third. The Mavericks chipped away for much of the second half and had the game tied midway through the fourth quarter, at which point it was a frantic back-and-forth with five lead changes in the final five minutes.

The game ultimately came down to a controversial call. Down 116-115 with three seconds left, P.J. Washington attempted what would have been a go-ahead 3-pointer, but was fouled by Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Thunder challenged the foul.

Replays showed Gilgeous-Alexander clearly got a clean hand on the ball, then hit Washington's arm. Touching the ball then the shooter's arm usually means the play wasn't a foul, but the officials claimed the ball contact wasn't on the release of the shot, as Washington took the contact then released the ball.

The Thunder lost the challenge and then the series. Washington made his first two free throws then intentionally missed the third, forcing OKC into taking the possession on their own side of the court with 2.5 seconds left.

One doomed half-court heave later, the NBA's youngest team's season was over.

May 18, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA;  Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) reacts in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jaylin Williams (6) after scoring during the second quarter in game six of the second round of the 2024 NBA playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Luka Dončić has the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals again. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

The beauty of being the Thunder is you can fall short of the Western Conference finals and still be considered right on schedule.

That's what happens when you go 57-25 while your MVP candidate (Gilgeous-Alexander) is 25 years old, future frontcourt anchor (Chet Holmgren) is 22 years old and the rest of your rotation is 25 or under. Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort are both already under contract for the next three seasons, while Holmgren and Jalen Williams are signed for another two seasons.

The Thunder can be better next season just by getting older, while still adding cheap talent via their ludicrous bounty of draft picks (they pick 12th in the 2024 NBA Draft via the Houston Rockets).

Of course, the more attractive option now that the Thunder are legitimately contending is to trade away some of those draft picks for veteran talent. Particularly some reinforcements in the paint.

If the Thunder had a weakness this season, it was rebounding. Holmgren is underweight at 208 pounds and reserve power forward Jaylin Williams is undersized at 6-foot-9. The team ranked 29th in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate, though they were still strong defensively with Holmgren terrorizing shots around the basket.

The good news is the Thunder already have the hard part done, with a superstar in Gilgeous-Alexander and a potential superstar in Holmgren. If your biggest worries are filling out the rotation and figuring out future extensions, you're probably in a pretty good place.