Minnesota Timberwolves edge out Dallas Mavericks as NBA puts on a show for Abu Dhabi

Rising stars, basketball legends and A-list celebrities all part of Eithad Arena showcase

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The NBA officially staked its claim for the attention of Abu Dhabi sports fans young and old, committed and casual, on Saturday night with its biggest and best show yet in the city.

As the Minnesota Timberwolves claimed a 104-96 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the world’s top basketball league demonstrated how seriously its top brass takes its relationship with the UAE capital, after making its presence felt across the city for weeks.

The NBA Abu Dhabi Games pitted two of the league’s best young players, Dallas’s Luka Doncic and Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards, against each other for a pair of games at the city’s Etihad Arena.

This was no coincidence - both of these exciting scoring stars could have been built in a lab with the purpose of appealing to a growing basketball fan base.

The NBA flew in legends including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the best players in history, plus championship-winners Ray Allen, Gary Payton and Shawn Marion.

It attracted celebrities including Ronaldo (the Brazillian one) and Michael B Jordan (the Hollywood one), Grammy Award-winning rapper T-Pain and Lebanese singer Maya Diab, as well as the UAE’s own star MMA fighter Mohammad Yahya, to courtside.

The NBA also brought with it the small matter of two professional basketball games.

And after a comfortable victory for the T-Wolves on Thursday, Abu Dhabi fans enjoyed a much tighter contest on Saturday night.

Doncic, who had finished with 25 points in just 16 minutes on Thursday, opened the scoring with a three-pointer on Saturday on his way to another 18 in just 19 minutes.

His star teammate Kyrie Irving, who hit just two in his 14 minutes in the first game, missed out on Saturday with a groin injury.

But Edwards returned for Minnesota after missing Thursday’s game - a 111-99 victory for Minnesota - with his own injury, hitting 13 points in just 17 minutes for the winning side.

The T-Wolves led after the first half, as they had two days previously, taking a 53-43 advantage into the half-time break. They extended their lead by a point after the third period behind 14 points for their other star Karl-Anthony Towns and another 14 for big man Naz Reid.

But as the stars were benched for the night, the Mavericks would not go quietly, pulling the game back to 93-91 with a one-handed hammer dunk by Dexter Dennis with four minutes to play as the fans screamed for a Mavericks win.

That was as good as it got for Dallas as the final score showed a Timberwolves victory - but this is pre-season, when results count for little and games help players get fit and coaches tweak their rotations ahead of the regular season.

What does matter is the NBA’s impact in the city as more than 12,000 fans packed into the Etihad Arena, sporting jerseys from every team - with the Mavs easily winning the battle for laundry supremacy.

Dalla Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said not only had Abu Dhabi done its part to welcome the players and coaches, the NBA had also lived up to its side of the deal.

“I think there is a partnership,” he said. “When you look at Abu Dhabi, there is a five year contract and this is the second year. To participate in this region, normally we don’t get a chance to travel like this in preseason.

“Players and coaches are excited to come back in the summer or August or whenever it’s a bit cooler.

“When you talk about Abu Dhabi, they do it right, they have class and this is something for the world to see.”

Yas Bay was taken over by basketball showmanship for days, with portable hoops for fans to try their luck, a floating court and every type of live entertainment for anyone with or without a ticket.

Abu Dhabi indeed delivered on its part of the deal as host. Its Grand Mosque, desert sunsets and lavish dining were lapped up by the players. Timberwolves’ 7ft 1in centre Rudy Gobert even rode a camel. That poor animal earned his night’s rest.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver promised during the visit that the partnership between his league and the UAE capital would only go from strength to strength, with a regional hub of youth basketball planned for the city.

Whichever teams are chosen for the 2024 spectacle, the city’s energetic fan base is sure to return with them.

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch said the inclusion of exciting young players such as Doncic and Edwards was “invaluable for the intimacy of the game” for Abu Dhabi fans.

“It’s a star driven league,” he said. “Kudos to the NBA for bringing two of the brightest ones.

“When I was young I would go to the games to watch Julius Erving, Dr J, and it was everything for me personally in growing our love for the game. Hopefully our guys will have left that impression on the youth here.

“I thought it was a great first game for Anthony. He went out hard and was extremely engaged. Offensively he let the game unfold and made the right plays. He made some tough shots in a spectacular way at times which he has the ability to do so.

“We had a great week. I thought we played extremely well at this point in the season. We are getting better. Off the floor we had an amazing experience. I would like to thank everyone from the NBA, Abu Dhabi, who have been so warm and welcoming. You have treated us to a first-class experience.”

Updated: October 08, 2023, 5:10 AM