Dallas, Texas — Luka Doncic couldn’t help but smile.

After years of trying and failing, he, Jalen Brunson and a host of an island of misfit toys that is the Dallas Mavericks are advancing to the second round of the NBA playoffs by way of beating the Utah Jazz 98-96 in Game 6 in Salt Lake City Utah.

Thursday night’s celebration was one 11 years in the making. The last time Dallas advanced in the playoffs was when it won the 2011 NBA championship. Since then, times have changed. Jason Kidd is still in Dallas as a coach, not a point guard. Dirk Nowitzki is still with the organization, but he’s a special advisor, not a 20-point per game scorer. Mark Cuban is still running everything, but he’s changed his front office and coaching staff. Things are different. But the feeling of victory and bursting through the proverbial glass ceiling, when many thought Dallas couldn’t, hasn’t changed.

“The last two years were tough,” Doncic said after the game. “I’m really happy to get past the first round.”

Dallas’ first two playoff series in the Doncic era featured bouts with the LA Clippers. They consisted of an injured or disappointing Kristaps Porzingis. They showed how Dallas just wasn’t tough enough to take a punch and get up off the mat. And they highlighted just how far Doncic had to go to compete with the best of the best.

There were the free-throw struggles, the second-half disappearances and the games where Kawhi Leonard showed Doncic that he was no champion yet.

And then, this year, there was a calf. It was unknown whether Doncic would even play Dallas’ first-round playoff series.

Jalen Brunson masquerades as Doncic

So, without the team’s on-court leader, Brunson did what he needed to do to help Dallas stay alive.

A difficult Game 1 loss, where Brunson didn’t shoot the ball well, led to a 41-point Game 2. That performance was followed by the 31-point Game 3, not only keeping Dallas alive but giving Dallas a 2-1 series advantage by the time Doncic returned in Game 4.

“We got everything we could out of [Brunson],” Kidd said.

The soon-to-be free agent guard averaged 27.8 points per game in the series. He vanquished the playoff demons that he said haunted him all of the 2021 summer. And he proved to everyone that on the open market, he demands a premium price.

“He did everything to put his team in a position to win,” Kidd said of Brunson. “His footwork is incredible. It’s kind of like that boxer-type footwork – or soccer – where you can control your lower half and still know where you want to get to.

“To start the series without Luka, and have Spencer [Dinwiddie] and JB carry us until Luka got back, and then to be able to play with Luka as he has done all season, he was big for us on both ends.”

The difference in this team versus years prior 

Yet, somehow, Brunson’s impending free agency didn’t prove detrimental to the team. There is a unique closeness within this group. It’s why Kidd believes this version of Dallas continues to fight, even when things don’t go as planned.

“We don’t talk about the struggle,” Kidd said. “We talk about trust.”

Dinwiddie, who didn’t have a great series but had a good Game 6, believes that this group’s power comes from the belief in each other. For him, a player acquired at the trade deadline, he’s enjoyed the closeness of the roster. He sees it as Dallas’ secret weapon.

“The main thing I sense from this team that is super unique is everyone genuinely likes each other,” Dinwiddie, who scored 19 points Thursday night, said.

Closeness may not directly win basketball games, but it sure does make it easier. The 2011 group had the same aura. They played for each other and celebrated together. Within that locker room, it was Dallas against the world. And the fruit of that team’s labor was a championship.

For the 2022 version of the Dallas Mavericks, the first puzzle is finished. The second round awaits. And the foe is much tougher than a Utah team that was on the ropes long before the first round of the NBA playoffs started.

Heading into round two 

Dallas’ prize for winning its first playoff series in more than a decade is the Phoenix Suns. The best team in basketball.

That challenge may prove impossible for a somewhat inexperienced bunch who lucked into the easiest first-round series they have played in the past three seasons. But that doesn’t matter now. It only gets tougher from here.

However, Mavericks swingman Dorian Finney-Smith, aware of the challenge, presented a sense of irrational confidence — one that appears to have permeated the entire team. He feels like Dallas was supposed to win regardless of what happened with or without Doncic. So, in his mind, the playoffs are as simple as saying Phoenix is next.

“We all expected to get this win,” Finney-Smith said. “We’re ready to play Phoenix.”

And though that is true, sometimes, like Doncic, you can’t help but smile.

Related Dallas Mavericks reading 

“Mavericks: Dorian Finney-Smith is showing how defense comes first.” 
“How the Mavericks overcame Spencer Dinwiddie’s playoff struggles.” 

Feature image via Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports.