2024 NBA Finals: Dereck Lively II stretches Dallas' ceiling as Mavs show life in Game 4

DALLAS — Halfway through the second quarter of the Mavericks’ momentous 122-84 Game 4 victory in these NBA Finals, Luka Dončić drove past Xavier Tillman Sr., drew Jayson Tatum into the paint and found Dereck Lively II all alone in the right corner. The Mavericks have been in dire need of somebody, anybody, not named Dončić or Kyrie Irving to connect from beyond the arc. Outside Dallas’ pair of All-Star creators, the Mavericks entered Friday night’s contest just 9 of 36 from 3-point range. Subtract P.J. Washington’s 4-of-14 series effort, and no other Maverick outside of Josh Green had converted more than two triples against Boston.

Lively hadn’t attempted a deep ball this entire postseason. He hadn’t attempted a deep ball since Nov. 14. He attempted only 13 in 34 games at Duke. Yet the 7-foot-1 first-year big man dipped Dončić’s pass below his knees, rose and fired a gorgeous arching moonshot that splashed through nothing but net. It marked the first made 3-pointer of the 20-year-old’s professional career — now the youngest player ever to drill a triple in Finals history.

“He's 50% on the season,” Dončić surmised. “So he might as well just keep shooting. He's 1 for 2, right?” In fact, Lively is now 1 of 3 dating to the start of this campaign. “All right,” Dončić smiled, upon that correction from a reporter. “One for 1. He's 100% in the playoffs.”

DALLAS, TEXAS - JUNE 14: Dereck Lively II #2 of the Dallas Mavericks dunks the ball in Game Four of the 2024 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics at American Airlines Center on June 14, 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 Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Dereck Lively II of the Dallas Mavericks dunks against the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the 2024 NBA Finals at American Airlines Center on June 14, 2024, in Dallas. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) (Stacy Revere via Getty Images)

He’s been one of one for Dallas all postseason, blocking shots and ripping rebounds and passing out of the pocket like no other big man in the Mavericks’ frontcourt can. After Lively ran down the American Airlines Center floor with a trio of fingers flashing to the roaring arena, he contested a Tillman layup and then sprinted back down the court to flush a lob from Irving. His seven offensive rebounds Friday were the most the Celtics have surrendered to a single player throughout these playoffs. His final tally of 11 points and 12 boards gave Lively his second straight double-double of this series, becoming the first rookie player to achieve that feat since Magic Johnson in 1980. “[To] call him my teammate,” Dončić said, “it's unbelievable.”

It took some finagling for Dallas to add Lively to this roster. The Mavericks skirted the playoffs a year ago with the clear intentions of retaining a top-10 protected pick Dallas had sent out in a prior trade. Throughout the predraft process, rival teams were well aware of the Mavericks’ specific interest in targeting Lively late in the 2023 lottery. And when Dallas never found common ground with Atlanta, according to league sources, on a potential framework that could have brought Hawks center Clint Capela back to Texas, the Mavericks still managed to trade down two slots with Oklahoma City, shedding Davis Bertāns’ $17 million salary in the process, and secured Lively anyway as the 12th pick overall.

Still, not even Lively’s biggest supporters in Dallas’ front office could have foreseen just how impressive this young man would be once he entered the Mavericks’ facilities. He speaks with a poise and soul of someone much older and witted, a perspective Lively has said he honed while watching his late mother, Kathy Drysdale, handle her fight with cancer that took her from her son this April. When his 3-pointer skied toward the rafters this evening, he felt an angel guide that ball through the rim. “She helped me make it. She's going to help me make a lot more,” Lively said. “She helped me make the free throw. She helped me make reads.”

It was Lively whom Dallas head coach Jason Kidd and Irving both credited as the motivational presence inside the Mavericks’ huddle before Wednesday’s fourth quarter, which preempted a 20-2 run and clawed Dallas right back into Game 3. “That was special,” Irving said. “Those are moments that you remember forever and you carry on as a team that can help you down the line.”

The brunt of that fourth quarter burst came from a lineup featuring Dončić, Irving and Lively, plus Washington and reserve swingman Josh Green. The Mavs relied on a similar five-man group in Game 4, with Maxi Kleber in Washington’s place. Over nine minutes together, that combination posted a staggering net rating of plus-50 points per 100 possessions, thanks to an offensive efficiency of 135 and a defensive mark of 85. “It was a carryover,” said Kidd. “Energy and pace on both ends. Defensively we got stops.” That group can switch all of Boston’s perimeter screen action. Green adds another dimension, alongside Lively, of youth and athleticism and ranginess that the Mavericks need in every which way to combat the Celtics’ long and skilled rotation.

Dallas’ lead ballooned into the 40s, at one point stretching to 48, and both teams emptied their benches for the entirety of the fourth quarter. Again, on the sideline, Lively’s voice stood out among a rowdy crowd of 20,227. A fellow Mavericks rookie, Olivier-Maxence Prosper, saw his first minutes since Dallas’ Game 1 blowout loss to the Clippers in the first round — all the way back on April 21 — and needed counsel, dropping so suddenly onto the Finals stage, even with this Game 4 already decided. “I was telling him to slow down, just enjoy it, feel your way through this game,” Lively said. “Don't rush anything, just feel your way through the game, find little holes, absorb it all.”

That uncanny wisdom from Lively is what has Mavericks personnel most bullish about his ability to maximize every ounce of his potential, throughout however long the team can extend this series and beyond. “It's just not solely focused on this year,” Irving said. “We have a future together where we're going to continue to grow as teammates.” It’s Lively’s makeup, after all that he’s withstood, that projects plenty more 3-pointers in his future, that forecasts an anchor of Dallas’ defense for the next decade. Mavericks coaches expect he’ll be regularly stretching opposing defenses with his stroke as early as next season. They believe he’ll be capable of bringing up the ball on occasion. That he’ll morph into one of the game’s greatest giants, stalking the paint on both sides of the court.

“Whatever doesn't kill you really makes you stronger,” Lively said. “No matter how many times you get hit, knocked down, get up, get up harder than you got knocked down.”