The Dallas Mavericks are inching closer to an NBA Finals berth. After a 116-107 win on Monday, they now hold a commanding 3-0 series lead in their Western Conference Finals matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It will potentially be their first finals appearance since winning the league championship in 2011.

Amidst all the excitement, however, is concern on their rookie center Dereck Lively II, who got inadvertently kneed in the back of the head in the second quarter of Game 3 and wasn’t able to return due to a neck sprain. He was visibly shaken up and seemed to struggle walking back into the locker room.

Several hours after the game, reports came out that while tests on Lively II’s neck were okay, his availability for Game 4 is still unsure:

The 20-year-old fell on the Mavericks’ lap in the 2023 NBA Draft as they traded down with the Oklahoma City Thunder from 8th to 12th, and still got him anyway. Though he had to deal with injuries, he has proved himself to be a steal. Appearing in 55 regular season games, Lively II chipped in 8.8 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game on 74.7% shooting across 23.5 minutes of play every contest, rightfully earning a spot in the 2023-24 All-NBA Rookie Second Team.

Without missing a beat, he continued his strong presence in the playoffs. He was at 9.3 points and 6.7 boards per game in his last 11 games prior to Game 3’s premature exit (eight of those outings had him either score double-digit points or rebounds).

Simply put, Lively II has been a good piece and he will leave a hole in the Mavs should he miss time, which could be tough since they are in the playoff run of their lives. 

As an athletic, rim-running center, he’s an automatic fit to Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving’s style of play, hence the emergence. Such skillset and overall makeup also allows him to thrive on defense, particularly rim protection. He actually finished just behind Rookie of the Year winner Victor Wembanyama (San Antonio Spurs) and runner-up Chet Holmgren (Oklahoma City Thunder) in blocks per game among rookies.

The addition of Daniel Gafford in the trade deadline, a veteran who shares a similar game, has also disrupted the opposition, opening up opportunities for themselves to be even more effective. Such is evident in the way the team has suddenly derailed the hype train on the young Timberwolves.

Whether it’s closing out Minnesota or (understandably) thinking about their finals opponent, the Mavs are hoping they won’t miss their young center’s presence. He is constantly improving and the frontcourt tandem with Gafford can only grow as well, and one can only imagine how it can fare on the Indiana Pacers’ fast-paced attack or their likely matchup, the Boston Celtics, who are pretty talented but also a bit thin in the paint with Kristaps Porzingis still recovering from an injury – Doncic and Irving’s pick-and-roll action with Lively II and Gafford against a 38-year-old Al Horford will be interesting.

The next 24 hours will be telling, and dealing with such situations are obviously tricky, because while the Mavs want him out there, it wouldn’t be wise to rush him back.