Kyrie Irving is healthy and drama-free in Dallas as a playoff pairing with Luka Doncic dawns

Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic, right, argues with a referee, foreground, as Kyrie Irving, left, look on during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, April 12, 2024, in Dallas. Doncic and Irving were not playing due to injuries. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)


AP Sports Writer

DALLAS Kyrie Irving is healthy and publicly free of drama, self-inflicted or otherwise, heading into his first playoff game with co-star Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

The eight-time All-Star and 2016 NBA champion alongside LeBron James in Cleveland brought up on his own that he hasn’t had a 50-win season in six years.

A late-season surge that coincided with Irving’s longest stretch of consecutive games since that title season pushed the Mavs to the 50-win mark, and fifth place in the Western Conference.

Dallas opens the postseason at the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. It’s the third first-round meeting between the clubs since 2020, but the first for Irving.

“It took a long time to get here,” Irving said. “I know what it feels like to fail for the past six years and not reach our team goals or individual goals. I use that energy to get me prepared for what’s coming.”

The Mavericks missed the playoffs last season after the blockbuster deal that brought Irving from Brooklyn before the trade deadline.

Doncic led Dallas to the West finals in 2022, while Irving hasn’t played a game that deep in the playoffs since the year after his Game 7-winning shot against Golden State in the NBA Finals.

James, Irving and the Cavaliers lost the 2017 rematch to the Warriors in five games. Irving was sidelined by a knee injury the next year with Boston, where he was traded in the offseason, when the Celtics reached the Eastern Conference finals before losing to James and the Cavs.

Then came the drama in Brooklyn, where Irving signed as a free agent in 2019 to try to chase a championship with another star in Kevin Durant, an effort that James Harden eventually joined as well.

Irving missed almost all of Brooklyn’s home games during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season because he wouldn’t meet New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

He faced intense criticism after tweeting a link to a film containing antisemitic material, and was suspended by the Nets for not stating clearly that he didn’t hold antisemitic beliefs. Nike ended its longtime relationship with Irving as well.

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (11) dribbles around Miami Heat forward Caleb Martin (16) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Miami. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Irving eventually requested a trade, which is where the Mavs come in. There hasn’t been any hint of controversy in the nearly 15 months since Brooklyn granted his wish.

The roster didn’t fit after the trade for Irving last season, although injuries to him and Doncic didn’t help. This time, midseason deals for Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington shored up the roster, and the Mavs had a 24-7 record in 31 consecutive games with Irving to prove it.

The streak ended when Irving, who missed 18 games earlier in the season with foot and thumb injuries, sat with Dallas comfortably in fifth place with two games to go.

“Somehow I was called a chaos agent for a little bit,” Irving said. “There was this narrative that I’m a locker room cancer. I don’t mind being the butt of anybody’s jokes, but not at the expense of my teammates’ success, our success as an organization.”

The right-handed Irving hit a running, left-handed hook shot from 21 feet at the buzzer to beat defending champion Denver in March.

With Doncic out against Golden State earlier this month, Irving had just his second 42-minute game of the season and made a key pass out of a double team for the bucket that gave Dallas a two-point win.

Two nights later, he set his Dallas highs with 48 points and 45 minutes as the Mavs erased a 22-point deficit and beat Houston in overtime. Doncic scored 37.

“I think Ky’s in a great place,” coach Jason Kidd said. “When you talk about late game, but just down the stretch here, of late, he’s been playing incredible. And we’re going to need that in this series.”

Doncic just won his first scoring title at 33.9 points per game while also averaging 9.8 assists and 9.2 rebounds.

While the Mavs managed to win two of their first three playoff games without an injured Doncic to spark the 2022 run that ended with a five-game loss to Golden State in the West finals, nobody on the supporting cast had a pedigree even close to Irving’s.

The 32-year-old has played in 74 playoff games — Doncic is at 28 — while averaging 23.3 points and matching his career 3-point shooting percentage from 13 regular seasons at 39%.

Seven years after his last postseason run with James, Irving finds himself in a similar situation with Doncic.

“He’s always on a mission, right?” Doncic said. “On the court, off the court, he’s helping a lot of guys. He’s talking to us. So he’s been a great addition, since last year.”

The first task for Irving is ending a personal six-game playoff losing streak, capped by Boston’s first-round sweep of Brooklyn two years ago.

That was the beginning of the end of the time together for Irving, Durant and Harden, who is now trying to make a three-star run with the Clippers alongside Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

“I like the challenge of our first series, going against four future Hall of Famers,” said Irving, referring also to LA guard Russell Westbrook. “Get a chance to see where we stack up. That’s really exciting.”