DALLAS (AP) — Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic draped their arms over each other in a pseudo-embrace, smiles of exhaustion on the faces of the co-stars of the Dallas Mavericks.

The final seconds of a 147-136 overtime victory against Houston on Sunday were still ticking off, with Irving and Doncic having combined for 85 points as part of a 22-point rally for a win that wouldn’t have been possible without Dante Exum’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of regulation.

Irving, who scored a season-high 48 points, may have been “depleted” — his word during an on-court interview just a couple of minutes later — but he and Doncic hope they’re just getting started.

The 14th victory in 16 games was another step toward Dallas securing a guaranteed playoff spot among the top six in the Western Conference.

The Mavs are two games clear of seventh with four games remaining, and face 19-win Charlotte on Tuesday night. Dallas holds the tiebreaker on the next three teams in the standings.

What that means is Irving and Doncic are on the verge of their playoff debut together, a year after the trade for Irving led to an unceremonious tanking instead of a trip to the postseason.

“Life is about redemption, especially in sports, where anybody can say anything and something could happen the next day or the next two weeks or the next few months that leads to you succeeding at a very high level,” Irving said.

“Or failing at a high level,” he quickly added.

Sort of covers the endings of both seasons for superstars with 13 All-Star selections between them.

Last year, injuries were a problem in the two months after Dallas sent two important players from the run to the 2022 Western Conference finals to Brooklyn for Irving.

Once the Mavericks realized it would be difficult to get into the West play-in tournament with two games remaining, coach Jason Kidd essentially acknowledged the team was tanking to try to salvage a draft pick from the failed trade for Kristaps Porzingis four years earlier.

Although costly (a $750,000 fine from the NBA), the strategy worked, and Dallas added a building block in center Dereck Lively II from Duke.

Lively’s availability for the playoffs is in question due to a knee injury, but Daniel Gafford’s addition at the trade deadline this year gives Dallas a similar dunker and rim protector.

P.J. Washington was the other February acquisition, and the roster appears to be a much better fit than after the Irving trade. At least that’s what the standings show.

“The chemistry is big,” Doncic said. “We are on a roll right now.”

Injuries were an issue for Irving the first half of this season, but Dallas is 22-7 in the 29 consecutive games he has played since returning from a thumb injury. He also had an extended absence with a bruised heel. Irving is on his longest continuous stretch since 2015-16.

Doncic is two games from playing in 70 for the first time since his rookie season, and the Mavericks recently won 10 consecutive games with the NBA scoring leader — and Irving, of course — in the lineup.

When Doncic sat with a sore knee in Friday’s 108-106 victory over Golden State, Irving played more than 42 minutes for just the second time this season.

During Irving’s six-game absence with the thumb injury, Doncic played at least that long four times, and ended up sitting once to rest because of the heavy workload.

Irving scored 25 points in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Rockets. The 11th of 12 assists from Doncic, who scored 37 points, set up Exum’s tying 3. Plenty of reasons for both to savor the win.

“At the end of the game, Luka’s like, ‘I’m tired, man,’” Irving said. “That was one of those in-the-moment type things for us as brothers to embrace each other. We know how hard we’ve worked and how much work it took to get to this point in the season.”

After the Irving-Doncic connection failed a year ago, Kidd faced tough questions during the awkward and heavily criticized ending.

Doncic was pulled in the first minute of the second quarter of the second-to-last game against Chicago, when the Mavs blew a 13-point halftime lead and lost. He didn’t play in the finale, and Irving didn’t play in either of the final two games.

Now, the questions are about to revolve around the Dallas opponent in the first round, and what needs to happen for Doncic to get deep in the playoffs again.

He and Irving have at least one more year together, and Kidd figures to be their coach at least that long.

“This is always continuous in the sense of building,” Kidd said. “The same thing’s gonna happen this summer. There’s going to be change. We’re building something (and) when you talk about Kai and Luka, you’ve got talent. And you have to have talent to win in this league. And that’s what we’re doing.”

A year later, the Mavs are well on their way to a happier ending.


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