How the ghosts of LeBron James and the Boston Celtics drive the Kyrie-Luka duo

Mavs rout Celtics by 38 points to stay alive and force Game 5 (1:18)

The Mavericks record the third-largest margin of victory in NBA Finals history as they beat the Celtics 122-84 in Dallas. (1:18)

LONG BEFORE THESE Mavericks were anybody's pick to come out of the Western Conference, before they vanquished the Clippers and the Thunder and the Timberwolves to ascend to basketball's brightest stage for the first time in 13 years, Kyrie Irving had begun to reflect on his three-year tenure with LeBron James, his stint with the Boston Celtics and how those times had changed him.

"Back then I didn't know how to manage those personalities. I went into every day feeling like I have to be better than my teammates," Irving told ESPN. "We were very, very competitive, and the one thing that I always instilled them when I first came there was: stop being afraid to challenge the other guys. That was something that we shared as younger players -- we wanted to establish ourselves as a great team, so that's how we got started."

All season he had been careful not to create distractions for himself or the Mavericks by revisiting his controversial past. Because as much as Irving's time in Dallas has offered him a fresh start, it's also been filled with mirrors to reflect upon his career.

His co-star with the Mavericks, Luka Doncic, is probably the closest facsimile in the NBA, in skill and role, to James, his former co-star with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

His head coach, Jason Kidd, was one of his basketball idols growing up in New Jersey.

"My dad took us to watch the Nets in the Finals when I was in fourth or fifth grade. We sat way up in the nosebleeds," Irving said. "And seeing that up close, that's when I went home and wrote up in my closet so I'd see it every day: 'I am going to the NBA.'"

His general manager in Dallas, Nico Harrison, was one of his trusted business partners at Nike before Harrison left and Irving's relationship with the company disintegrated.

And in these Finals, he has come face to face with the team he tried, and mostly failed, to lead as a 26-year-old after requesting to escape James' shadow in Cleveland to build his own legacy in the NBA.

"These guys on that Boston squad know my game. They know it well and they've been able to scheme for me," Irving said after Game 3 on Wednesday. "Getting over this hump is something that's been on my mind for a while. We obviously knew we would have our challenges, but this is what helps us grow."

Irving struggled against Boston's bigger, physical guards in the first two games back in Boston, averaging just 14 points on 35% shooting. He looked uncomfortable as boos rained down from the TD Garden crowd.

The key to overcoming it, Irving said after a stunning 38-point Mavs win in Game 4, was realizing that he wasn't going through it alone. Doncic had also struggled in the series and was getting criticized at a level he had never experienced before.

"We're figuring out each other in a crazy way during the highest stage of basketball," Irving said of the series. "It's a beautiful thing, but it also can be chaotic if you don't know how to stay poised through it."

Doncic responded in Game 4 with a brilliant and efficient 29 points to lead the Mavs to a blowout win and extend the series to Game 5 in Boston at 8:30 p.m. ET.

"This is his first opportunity and first taste of what it's like to be on this stage, and to not play up to your capabilities ... where every mistake is magnified," Irving said of Doncic. "And he responded very well. I expected it. I think a lot of people that have seen Luka and know Luka expected it. Just didn't know how it was going to happen. He made some things happen that I was very proud of him. He grew."

Kyrie gets the tough finish to fall

Kyrie Irving drives and buries a tough layup for a Mavericks bucket.

IRVING TENDS TO take a long time after the game to collect his thoughts, settle his mind and dress before addressing the media. His clothes usually carry a message; his silver feather earring serves as a tribute to his late mother's Native American heritage.

It is a sharp contrast to the chaos Irving wrought upon his past three teams.

In 2017, the then-25-year-old requested out of Cleveland, wanting to lead a franchise of his own, away from James. Two years later, after an unsuccessful stint doing so, he teamed up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, hoping to bring a title to a team he'd grown up cheering for. Three tumultuous and controversy-filled years after that, he was the NBA's persona non grata -- a player too talented to ignore, but too hot to touch. Then, at the 2023 trade deadline, he was traded to Dallas, to team up with another alpha superstar -- the very type of player who, seven years prior, Irving felt the need to leave.

Books have been written about the breakup of James and Irving in Cleveland and why Irving asked for a trade the summer after they won a championship together in 2016. Perhaps it was a timing issue, a schism between where each player was in his life and career. Perhaps mistakes were made, as James and Irving have suggested in the past.

After much reflection, Irving has come to a different understanding.

"I think there was an unfair expectation at first, for when I was [in Cleveland], and [James] was coming back from Miami," Irving told ESPN. "He was expected to win right away. And then you have this young kid like me who was a three-time All-Star. All-Star Game MVP. I had my own accolades.

"So there's a confidence there. But to be that young, to have that confidence, sometimes it could be taken the wrong way if you don't get a chance to know who that person is."

PLAYING ALONGSIDE DONCIC whose skill set, body type and basketball IQ rivals James,' has been something of a do-over for Irving.

The ways he learned to play alongside James have helped him thrive and coexist with Doncic. But, this time around, Irving is the veteran, not "the kid" as James used to call him. The roles have now reversed.

"When you're out there with another guy that's a top-five pick or a top-three pick and has done it without you," Irving said. "I think you just realize that -- I don't ever want to say take a back seat -- but you just come along for the ride.

"When it's my time to lead, it's my time to lead. When it's [Doncic's] time to lead, it's his time to lead. Or when one of these guys in the locker room gets it going, you've got to allow and accept instead of push back.

"This is his team, he's been here longer, the longest, and has built camaraderie with the other guys. So when I'm coming in as a new guy, instead of trying to fit in, it's like, 'No, I'm actually got to just be myself. Show him and then allow him to lead me as well."

The reasons Dallas was willing to trade for him last season, when his value was at an all-time low after a disastrous run with the Nets, were because of Harrison's and Kidd's previous relationships with Irving, and because he had so much success alongside James.

"They're very similar," Kidd told ESPN of Doncic and James, whom he coached as associate head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020. "They're very similar, IQ-wise. Both just off the charts. Luka doesn't have athleticism like LeBron has. But they do a lot of things similar and they both really know the game."

Harrison leaned hard on his personal relationship with Irving.

"I knew him," Harrison told ESPN. "I knew him since he was 16."

So the franchise took the leap of faith, trusting their history with Irving would be enough to make it work.

What neither Kidd nor Harrison could foresee was how much Irving would influence Doncic.

The Mavs star, who at 25 is the same age Irving was when Irving requested out of Cleveland, listens to Irving, looking to him for guidance on and off the court.

"He's brought calmness to our team and to me," Doncic told ESPN. "That maturity has been unbelievable to have him on our team. I learn from him every day."