LOS ANGELES — Jason Kidd expected Kyrie Irving’s return from injury would give the Mavericks “some juice” Friday night against the Los Angeles Lakers.
That he did.
But not even the Mavericks’ head coach could’ve predicted Maxi Kleber’s final sizzle in the 111-110 victory.
With 6.7 seconds remaining, reserve forward Theo Pinson inbounded the ball to Irving, hoping the 30-year-old superstar guard could out-dribble the Lakers’ defense for a shot to tie the score at 110 or seal the Mavericks’ late comeback with a 3-pointer.
Irving couldn’t generate enough space against Los Angeles’ double-team attention, though, so with less than three seconds remaining, he passed out of traffic to Kleber on the wing.
Seven games after returning from an intricate hamstring tendon surgery and 2.5-month rehab, Kleber swished the game-winning 3-pointer as time expired. He shouted in jubilation as the Mavericks swarmed and tackled him at mid-court.
“It was a pretty amazing feeling,” Kleber said of the first game-winning buzzer beater of his career at any level of basketball. “Once I let it go, I saw the ball in the air, and then mid-air, I was like, ‘Oh damn, it has a chance to go in.’ All of the sudden it went in, and next thing I knew, it was like the whole team was running at me.”
What an answer to a near-disaster.
RELATED: Watch: Kyrie Irving finds Maxi Kleber for Mavericks’ buzzer-beater against Lakers
After blowing the 14-point lead they opened two minutes after halftime, Dallas needed Irving’s production (38 points) and Kleber’s six points in the last 7.2 seconds with Luka Doncic (left thigh strain) watching from the end of the bench for a fourth consecutive game and with the Western Conference standings on near-constant shuffle mode with three weeks left in the regular season.
The Mavericks started the night in eighth place, one game ahead of the ninth-place Lakers, so the victory added cushion to their lead for the win-and-in half of the play-in tournament seedings and helped them capitalize on the seventh-place Minnesota Timberwolves’ double-overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls earlier in the evening.
Winners of two consecutive games for the first time since Feb. 8-10 — before Doncic and Irving debuted as post-trade deadline teammates — the Mavericks will now spend their off day Saturday in Santa Monica basking in game-winning positivity.
Forgive fans who felt nervous as the Lakers erased the Mavericks’ double-digit advantage in the second half by out-scoring them 29-16 in the first 11 minutes of the fourth quarter.
In their last outing against the Lakers, the Mavericks blew a 27-point lead in Feb. 26 in American Airlines Center, punctuating the collapse with Doncic mishandling an inbound pass from Irving with 15 seconds remaining and derailing their hopes of a game-winning look.
In their mid-January visit to Crypto.com Arena, Dallas needed multiple clutch time 3-pointers from Doncic to force overtime and double overtime and hang onto victory.
No surprise drama ensued again Friday.
Two nights after Kleber nearly cost the Mavericks victory over the Spurs with two fouls and an inbounds turnover in the last six seconds of regulation, he overcame the “very, very low” feeling he carried from San Antonio and led the “very, very high” clutch-time heroics.
With 7.2 seconds remaining, Kleber drew a 3-point shooting foul at the top of the arc against Anthony Davis and trimmed the Mavericks’ deficit to 109-108 by making all three attempts at the foul line.
Dallas fouled Davis on the Lakers’ ensuing possession, but the 30-year-old All-Star who’s shined in LeBron James’ extended foot injury absence missed the first of two attempts. That left open the chance for the Mavericks to win on a 3-pointer — not just tie.
RELATED: National reactions to Mavs-Lakers: Maxi Kleber provides ‘March Mavness’ with game-winner
Recent history said the two-versus-three-point margin didn’t matter.
The Mavericks entered Friday with a 0-12 record when in games they’ve had a chance to win or tie on their final possession in the last 15 seconds.
Make that now 1-12 thanks to Kleber, Irving and Pinson’s synergy.
Pinson called timeout after the Lakers smothered his first attempt to inbound the final possession to Irving with 6.7 seconds left. After the break, he managed to toss the ball to Irving as Irving closed toward the sideline, sneaking between two defenders.
As Irving dribbled at the top of the key, Pinson rolled toward the basket to draw attention from Kleber on the left wing.
Irving sensed three defenders around him once he picked up his dribble near the right high post, so he ignored his instinct to try a tough two-pointer for the tie and instead hurled an overhand heave to Kleber.
“Knowing Kai, he wanted to go for the win, and with the double team, he had to give the ball up,” Kidd said. “That’s just trust with his teammates, and Maxi was at the right place at the right time.”
In the locker room after the game, Josh Green told @LesleyMcCaslin that Maxi Kleber’s game winner was the favorite moment of *Josh’s* NBA career.— Callie Caplan (@CallieCaplan) March 18, 2023
Josh wore a “better days” shirt to the arena today to support Maxi after mistakes in San Antonio and was so thrilled for his friend.
Kleber had waited back to give Irving a secondary option, so once he saw Irving look over with 2.5 seconds remaining on the game clock and Davis late to rotate on defense, he didn’t hesitate.
Kleber flexed in instant celebration before Josh Green and McKinley Wright IV chest-bumped him mid-air. Kidd sprinted from the bench to join in the team-wide dogpile, too. Irving ended up to Kleber’s left in the heap and assumed a push-up position to provide one final assist.
“Trying to make sure that we didn’t squish him or anything,” Irving said with a smile. “That’s the way we’ve got to celebrate as a team because we know how hard we work.”
Find more Mavericks coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.