The Dallas Mavericks forced a Game 7 in the Western Conference semis, blowing out the Phoenix Suns 113-86 on Thursday night to level the best-of-seven series at 3-3.
Luka Doncic, facing the first elimination game of his young career, came up big with 33 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists to drag the Mavs to a deciding game back in Phoenix on Sunday.
In what has become an increasingly chippy series – in particular between the two young stars from each team, the Suns’ Devin Booker and Doncic – it was the Slovenian guard who seemed to feed off that energy to raise his game.
The 23-year-old shot 11-for-26 from the field, including 2-for-8 from deep and 9-for-14 from the free-throw line, on his way to a dominating performance.
Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd praised Doncic’s ability to remain unflappable while facing playoff elimination.
“I don’t know if he was playing as if he was trying to do something different,” Kidd told the media. “I think he enjoys the moment.
“You guys have seen a little bit longer than I have up close. He’s not afraid of the stage. I think you guys call it the first time winning an elimination game. He’ll be in this situation a long, long time.”
It was a historic evening for Doncic too, as he became one of the fastest players in NBA history to reach 700 playoff points.
Doncic took 22 games to reach the milestone, putting him in the top-five quickest players to achieve the feat.
George Mikan did it in 23 games, Doncic is tied with Bob McAdoo on 22 games, and only Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have done it faster, in 20 games.
Deandre Ayton led the scoring sheet for the Suns with 21 points and 11 rebounds, while Booker added 19.
The Mavericks’ victory on Thursday night continues the trend of the home team winning all their games this series, leaving the Suns with a strong chance of claiming Game 7 on their home court and advancing to their second straight Western Conference finals.
Across the country, the Miami Heat advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, beating the Philadelphia 76ers 99-90 in Game 6.
Jimmy Butler led all scorers with 32 points, to go along with eight rebounds, as the Heat closed out the best-of-seven series, 4-2.
The victory was particularly sweet for Butler, who played for the 76ers in the 2018/19 season. After the game, as he made his way to the locker room, Butler could be heard saying, “Tobias Harris over me,” a reference to Philadelphia’s decision to trade Butler to the Heat in 2019 and choosing to sign Harris to a huge contract instead.
Afterwards, he praised the effect the Heat organization has had on his overall play.
“I think the confidence my teammates and my coaches put in me, it’s a lot,” Butler said. “They really be hyping me up out there and I just go play. I try everything in my power to make sure that we win … They just trust me with everything.”
The Heat will now face the winner of the winner of the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics series in the Eastern Conference Finals.
For the Sixers, it starts an offseason filled with questions, in particular, over whether to offer James Harden an extended contract.
Harden was traded from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this season, but his play since arriving has been hit and miss.
And facing an elimination Game 6 on Thursday, Harden struggled against the stifling Heat defense, finishing with just 11 points but shooting only twice and scoring none in the second half.
Afterwards, 76ers center Joel Embiid said the Harden the team received is different from the Harden who was the MVP just a few years ago.
“Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden,” Embiid told the media. “But that’s not who he is anymore. He’s more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, he could have been, as all of us could have been, more aggressive. All of us whether it was Tyrese (Maxey) or Tobias (Harris) or guys coming off the bench.
“And I’m not just talking about offensively. I’m talking about you know, as a whole offensively and defensively. I didn’t think we were good defensively as a team. They took advantage of a lot of stuff that we tried to do defensively.
“And then, offensively, just really everybody being on the same page, obviously, only having probably what, three or four months to all work together and try to figure it out. Maybe, it wasn’t a lot of time … I don’t think we played our best basketball.”
Embiid was full of praise for his former teammate Butler.
“Obviously, that’s my guy,” Embiid said. “That’s my brother. Oh, man, it’s tough. But I’m so proud of him. He’s playing an unreal level right now. He’s something else right now. I’m proud of him being at this level and carrying them and what he’s been able to do.
“They’ve had ups and downs the whole season. Missing guys, not being healthy, and, they still found a way to be the number one team in the East and to be able to come in and do what they did, they deserve a lot of credit. They have a great team, great guys overall. And, obviously, great coaching and a great front offense, so a lot of credit to them.”