NBA Finals

Jason Kidd faces one last NBA mountain with Mavs in Finals

NBC Universal, Inc.

Having experienced the great and ugly of sports, and of life, the most popular high school athlete in Bay Area sports history now wears his gray facial hair like a badge of maturity earned through years of toil, turbulence and accomplishment.

Jason Kidd, 51, has one more mountain to climb, one more professional summit to scale. And he’s staring at it.

At his third stop, 678 games into his professional head-coaching career, Kidd stands before the NBA Finals. His Dallas Mavericks are confronting the mighty Boston Celtics, with Game 1 scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday night at TD Garden.

“This is a road trip in the sense of a job,” Kidd said Wednesday during the Finals news conference in Boston. “We have an opportunity here to find a way to win on the road. That's how we're approaching it.

“This is the best of the best at the highest level. It's fun. That's what the Finals are all about, is seeing what team is going to step forward and take advantage of mistakes.”

It wasn’t long ago that Kidd, despite an offense anchored by stars Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, wondered if the Mavericks would be able to secure a playoff berth in the rugged Western Conference.

“Our offense is good enough,” Kidd told NBC Sports Bay Area in December, when the Mavericks were in the Bay Area to face the Warriors. “I’ll take Luka and Kai anytime.

“But we have a lot of work to do to fix our defense. We have a rookie [Dereck Lively II] we really like, but we need more at the rim and on the wings.”

I then asked Kidd if he misses Dorian Finney-Smith, a defensive-minded wing who was traded to Brooklyn 11 months earlier.

“Yeah,” Kidd said. “But that’s what it took to get Kyrie. I think it’s worth it.”

The Mavericks were 22nd in defensive rating at the time, in fifth place in the Western Conference with an 18-14 record. Five weeks later, they were 24th in defense, with a 26-23 record. They had fallen to eighth place.

Dallas’ front office, led by general manager Nico Harrison – whose relationship with Kidd goes back more than 20 years – went to work, approaching the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline shopping for defense. They returned with gifts, trading for Washington Wizards center Daniel Gafford and Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Washington.

The Mavericks won 24 of their last 33 games, with the NBA’s seventh-best defensive rating (110.3) over that span. Only the Celtics, at 27-6, posted a better record.

Finishing fifth in the West, Dallas in the first round of the playoffs dispatched the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in six games before ousting the No. 1 seed Oklahoma City Thunder in six in the conference semifinals. Underdogs once more against the third-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, the Mavericks shocked most observers by winning the conference finals in five games.

If there were an award for “Coach of the Playoffs,” Kidd would win it in a walk.

The Mavericks are in the Finals because Harrison won the trade deadline by acquiring two starters, Gafford and Washington, that addressed a weakness and lifted the roster to contender status.

They are in Boston because Kidd and his staff, with lead assistant Sean Sweeney as the co-pilot, found the elusive key that unlocked Derrick Jones Jr., a superb athlete who spent six years searching for an effective offensive game. A 31-percent shooter from deep before this season, he’s at 39.6 percent in the playoffs.

Dallas rolled through the West because Kidd, a 19-year point guard who was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, concocted schemes that maximize both Dončić and Irving, whose coexistence was questioned by many. Both are equally dynamic as a scorer or a playmaker, while also possessing the killer instinct required to win tight games. Minnesota, which had the league’s top-rated defense, was put to sleep by Dončić and Irving.

Mostly, though, the Mavericks have reached the Finals because Kidd has bottled the prodigious sum of his experiences and carefully sips from it.

There was the celebrated prep career at St. Joseph High School (Alameda, Calif.) to consecutive state championships. There the two seasons at Cal, where his appeal prompted the Golden Bears to move several games to the Oakland Coliseum, which had nearly three times the capacity of Haas Pavilion in Berkeley. That led to Kidd entering the NBA and being taken No. 2 overall by the Mavericks. Playing for four different teams, Kidd’s professional resumé includes 10 All-Star games, nine All-Defensive teams, seven All-NBA honors, five gold medals for Team USA and a peerless 46-0 record in international play.

All this was achieved despite a tempestuous first marriage that ended shortly after he pleaded guilty to domestic abuse and, later, a misdemeanor DWI charge.

Kidd is better for the trials and tribulations along the way. Through dramatic highs and lows, on and off the court, he is a survivor. It’s visible in his facial gray. He seems to know it, too, which explains his composure in the face of fire and his gift as a “star whisperer.”

This is Dallas’ third trip to the Finals in 44 seasons. The last appearance was in 2011, when two Hall of Famers – Dirk Nowitzki and Kidd – pushed the team to its only NBA championship with a win over the Miami Heat.

And on Thursday, he becomes the first coach representing Oakland in the NBA Finals since Bill Russell in 1969 – four years before Jason was born to Steve and Anne Kidd.

All these decades later, Kidd is seeking the one significant thing he has not gotten from basketball. A ring as the head coach of the last team standing.

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