Duke in the NBA: Tatum, Irving, Lively II shine en route to finals berths

Former Blue Devil center Dereck Lively II has had a major impact for Dallas in the NBA Playoffs.
Former Blue Devil center Dereck Lively II has had a major impact for Dallas in the NBA Playoffs.

The NBA Finals are set, and three Blue Devils will compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Blue Zone breaks down their performance in the conference finals and what’s ahead for them in the championship round:

Tatum leads Celtics’ sweep of Pacers

At 26 years old, Jayson Tatum’s playoff pedigree — five conference finals appearances and two NBA Finals showings — stacks up with some all-time great players. By and large, he has delivered strong postseason performances for the Boston Celtics, and his outing in the Eastern Conference finals versus the Pacers was no exception. During the series, Tatum averaged 30.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game on 46.3% shooting, leading both teams in scoring, rebounds and minutes played.

The former Blue Devil produced in the clutch several times during the series. In Game 1, Tatum scored 10 of the Celtics’ 16 points in overtime to prevent a Pacers upset. Game 3 saw perhaps the most clutch performance of Tatum’s career, as he scored or assisted on eight of the Celtics’ last 11 points in a 3-point victory, including a beautiful behind-the-back assist to Al Horford for an easy corner shot.

Tatum now hopes to lead the Celtics towards winning an NBA-record 18th title, which would be their first since 2008. A dominant championship performance against the Mavericks for the five-time All-Star could launch him into Boston’s pantheon of basketball greats, and could set the foundation for a Hall of Fame candidacy down the road. As one of the league’s best two-way players, Tatum is a significant reason for why the Celtics are favored against the Mavericks, and he will hope to win a championship for one of the best regular season teams in NBA history.

Irving shows out against Timberwolves, faces former team in finals

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving has played exceptional basketball throughout his 14-year career, as evidenced by his upcoming fourth finals appearance. After an unusual series against the Thunder in the second round where he averaged just 15.7 points per game, his lowest mark in a full series, Irving put on a brilliant set of performances in the Western Conference finals against the Timberwolves. The former Blue Devil averaged 27 points and 4.6 assists per game on a 49.0% shooting clip. In Game 1, Irving scored 24 first-half points to lead a close victory on the road. Game 3 saw the inverse for the 32-year-old, as he scored 14 points to put away the game for good in Dallas’ favor. Finally, Irving scored 36 points and added five assists in a blowout Game 5 victory to advance to the Mavericks’ third finals appearance in franchise history.

In poetic fashion, Irving now faces his former team in the Boston Celtics, whom he departed from in free agency in 2019 under less-than-amicable circumstances. It’s safe to say that he will play the away games in this series with a chip on his shoulder, especially when it comes to playing former Blue Devil and past Celtics teammate Jayson Tatum. Irving, the author of perhaps the most iconic shot in finals history, will attempt to capture playoff magic with a second championship trophy.

Lively II plays ultra-efficient basketball for Mavericks

In many ways, Dereck Lively II has performed as the perfect role player for the Mavericks during this postseason, just as he did for the Blue Devils in the 2022-23 season. Sometimes, this has manifested on the stat sheet. During the Western Conference finals against the Timberwolves, Lively shot a perfect 16-of-16 from the field, the most shots without a miss in NBA history. In Game 1, Lively put up a strong performance off the bench, with nine points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in a close win.

However, Lively’s impact is not always reflected in the box score. Most notably, he set a screen for Dallas superstar guard Luka Doncic in the closing seconds of the game, forcing Rudy Gobert to switch onto Doncic in a less-than-ideal matchup for the Minnesota big man. This would ultimately allow Doncic to sink the game-winning 3-point shot. These moments have made Lively one of the most impactful role players during the NBA playoffs, and he now has the chance to win it all in just his rookie season.


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