A 0-3 NBA finals comeback may be Kyrie Irving’s biggest conspiracy theory

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Kyrie Irving;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Kyrie Irving</a> walks off the court after a painful loss to the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Dallas Mavericks;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Dallas Mavericks</a> in Game 3 of the NBA finals. </span><span>Photograph: Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports</span>

Late in Game 3 of the NBA finals on Wednesday night, the Dallas Mavericks were on the brink. They had mostly clawed back a 21-point deficit to get within three points of the Boston Celtics. Then Luka Dončić, the Mavs’ superstar scorer, fouled out – the first time he’d ever done so in a playoff game.

That left Kyrie Irving, the Deadpool to Dončić’s Wolverine, to carry the day. And when he went on to score Dallas’s next four points, including an 18ft jump shot that cut the Boston lead to one, it looked as if the Mavericks might actually make this a competitive series. But it was not to be. Boston are simply too good and too tough. The result, a 106-99 Celtics victory on Dallas’s home floor, puts the Mavericks in a 0-3 series hole, a margin from which no NBA team has ever come back. And it came just when Irving, who scored a game-high 35 points, had two quiet games to start the series.


Best-of-seven series. All times US eastern time (EDT). 

Thu 6 Jun Game 1: Celtics 107, Mavericks 89

Sun 9 Jun Game 2: Celtics 105, Mavericks 98

Wed 12 Jun Game 3: Celtics 106, Mavericks 99

Fri 14 Jun Game 4: Celtics at Mavericks (8.30pm, ABC)

Mon 17 Jun Game 5: Mavericks at Celtics (8.30pm, ABC)*

Thu 20 Jun Game 6: Celtics at Mavericks (8.30pm, ABC)*

Sun 23 Jun Game 7: Mavericks at Celtics (, ABC)*

*if necessary

This NBA season has been notable for Irving’s deafening silence in the face of endless opportunities to speak his mind. Forget the wars going on around the world and the protests on US campuses. Irving kept things low-key when LeBron James, the championship-winning running mate Irving seemingly couldn’t wait to get away from, went on his podcast days before the finals to say how much he missed playing with “the most gifted player the NBA has ever seen.”

And there are signs Irving is a much better teammate these days. After Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics, his first thoughts were for Dončić.

“You just got to let it breathe a little bit,” Irving said about what he wanted to tell his co-star. “Let the human emotions come out. Just give him a hug. That’s it, man. It’s easy to point the finger at just him, say, ‘You could be better.’ That’s easy to say. I think he knows that. But, yeah, it’s reiterating that I have his back, we all have his back.”

And all season long Irving has looked for all the world like the zen disciple of Phil Jackson’s dreams, one with the universe, in harmony with his family and firmly in his zone of creativity. He telegraphs as much by showing up to work sporting a necklace of charms and a feather earring, much as he did when he was still burning sage on the TD Garden court in Boston. Only now he’s taking the high road in interviews before lacing up his moccasin sneakers. The change in scenery and a $126m offseason extension in Dallas have apparently done wonders for Irving’s perspective and inner peace. His pairing with Dončić, a heady experiment that many expected would fail spectacularly, has instead been an historic success.

Related: Luka Dončić fouls out as Celtics beat Mavericks to move within one win of NBA title

In the Mavericks’ iso-ball scheme, the two ball-dominant scorers stamped themselves as arguably the league’s top duo and crunch-time performers, amassing an impressive 23-9 record in games where the score was within five points in the last five minutes. Now here they are in Dončić’s first NBA finals series less than 18 months after Dallas traded for Irving. It’s enough to make you believe Irving has always played the hero. But he’s still trying on the role.

It was in January 2021 that ESPN’s Stephen A Smith was calling on Irving to announce his retirement because he “clearly didn’t want to play basketball bad enough.” This was back when Irving was another sort of NBA menace, the infamous flat earther who was fined by the NBA and sidelined by his team for flouting mask mandates. Worse, this came after he had effectively created (and then sabotaged) his own superteam in Brooklyn at a time when New York’s high Covid-19 death rate prompted health measures to prevent further spread – not least the requirement that the city’s pro athletes and performers had proof of vaccination in order to work. If you can judge a man by the company he keeps, make what you will of the fact that in October 2021, a mob of anti-vaccine protesters turned up at the Nets’ Barclays Center to “stand with Kyrie”, who had refused to take the jab.

Altogether, Irving missed 53 games over two seasons until New York mayor Eric Adams lifted the workplace vaccination mandate in March 2022 – but not before the point guard bought seats to a Nets home game, and showed up unmasked just to prove a point (unvaccinated people were allowed to attend games in the city but, if they were Nets players, not compete in them). All the while, his superteam – touted as a shoo-in championship contender – were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Ultimately, the medical drama was just an appetizer for a much bigger spectacle – Irving’s tacit endorsement of a film that promoted antisemitic tropes, a cause that had pro-Irving protesters returning to the Barclays Center to make the Nets’ headache worse.

It was only after considerable pressure, a team suspension and Nike dropping him from their roster of brand ambassadors that Irving conceded to the error in judgment and publicly apologized – but by then the damage was done. The Nets super team was a shambles, Kevin Durant and James Harden had been traded away, and Irving figured to be next after failing to come to terms on a contract extension. The prospect of another NBA team taking on such a controversial player looked grim until the Mavericks stepped up. It turned out to be an ideal landing spot.

In Dallas, Irving finds himself completely at home among the state’s prominent medical skeptics; his voice, at least on the regional sports spectrum, doesn’t loom anywhere near as large as that of team owners such as the Mavericks’ Mark Cuban or the Cowboys’ all-powerful Jerry Jones. The Cowboys, Texas Longhorns, Texas A&M Aggies, and the recent World Series champions down the highway and in Houston– these are the teams that usually suck up the oxygen in the Lone Star State. As long as Irving showed up to work and performed as required, he could expect locals to cut him plenty of slack. That he’s also stuck to sports, and resisted the temptation to make his views outside the arena more widely known, most likely comes as a welcome bonus for Texas sports fans too.

Irving more than delivered on that score in his first full season with the Mavericks, combining forces with Dončić as they became the third duo in NBA history to log at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists each in a single season. They go together like two halves of the same whole, Dončić’s fiery fearlessness and craft perfectly meshing with Irving’s slashing savvy. And, for once in Irving’s NBA career, everything is simple. “We like to play basketball,” Dončić said of his running mate, after closing out Minnesota in the Western Conference finals. “We like to play together. That’s it.”

Time is running out fast on this season, however. Their two-man game, while indeed overwhelming, has thus far proven no match for a well-balanced Boston team who boast a dynamic duo of their own in All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Throughout the regular season and the playoffs, offense has been Dallas’ best defense. The Mavs started off hot on Wednesday, opening a 22-9 lead behind big threes from Dončić and Irving that roused the home crowd. But when the moment required Dallas’s duo to actually mark the Celtics, they were either too aggressive (see Dončić picking up his last two fouls in less than 30 seconds) or caught flat-footed (check out Irving losing track of the ball and Brown on this corner three).

With another loss or worse, a sweep, Irving risks making himself a target for scrutiny all over again, on the court at least, especially with Dončić’s contract expiring in 2026, the same time he and Irving can opt out from their deals.

“This is a metaphor here so just be ready,” Irving said after Wednesday’s game while ramping up to explain the mindset it will take to pull out four wins, something none of the previous 156 teams that have faced an 0-3 deficit in an NBA playoff series have done. “Just go home, get the ammo ready, get the bazooka ready, get the 50-cal ready, you know, just get everything ready. Because when we come into Game 4, we know that we got to shoot our gun. We just gotta stay positive.”

A Zen koan that twists gun violence into a positive affirmation? Clearly Irving, like the Mavericks, still has some way to go.