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Monday, June 10, 2024

Balanced Celtics Overcome Doncic's Triple Double to Take 2-0 Lead

Luka Doncic's seventh triple double of the 2024 NBA playoffs was not enough to prevent the Boston Celtics from beating his Dallas Mavericks 105-98 to take a 2-0 NBA Finals lead before the series shifts to Dallas for games three and four. It is a bad sign for the Mavericks that the Celtics won despite narrowly losing the rebounding battle (43-41) and shooting just 10-39 (.256) from three point range; this was the Celtics' "B" game at best, and they still nearly won by double digits. In game one, the Celtics were at their best while building the largest first quarter lead (37-20) in NBA Finals history before cruising to a 107-89 win, but in game two the Celtics demonstrated that they are so superior to the Mavericks in terms of overall size and in terms of having multiple players who are elite at both ends of the court that they have  sufficient margin for error to win without being at their best.

Boston's Jrue Holiday was the best all-around guard--and perhaps the best all-around player--in game two with a team-high 26 points on 11-14 field goal shooting, a game-high 11 rebounds, three assists, and no turnovers in 41 minutes. Milwaukee's trade of Jrue Holiday for Damian Lillard--which resulted in Boston acquiring Holiday from Portland--turned out to be disastrous for the Bucks and a blessing for the Celtics. Holiday has 38 points and no turnovers so far in this series, the second most points with no turnovers in the first two games of the NBA Finals since the NBA began tracking individual turnovers in the 1977-78 season, trailing only Michael Jordan (70 points and no turnovers in the first two games of the 1998 NBA Finals, also known as the Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance.").

Jaylen Brown had another strong game, contributing 21 points, seven assists, and four rebounds, with the only blemish being his team-high six turnovers. "Stat gurus" who worship "advanced basketball statistics" may focus on Jayson Tatum's 6-22 field goal shooting, but Tatum had a game-high 12 assists plus nine rebounds; his defense, rebounding, and playmaking were crucial for Boston, and his 18 points on inefficient shooting were a bonus. Numbers matter, but what matters more is that Tatum impacts the game at both ends of the court, and that his talent distorts Dallas' defense, creating open high percentage shots for his teammates (even on plays for which Tatum did not earn assists). Derrick White added 18 points and five rebounds. Game one hero Kristaps Porzingis had 12 points, four rebounds, and two blocked shots in 23 minutes before sitting out the final 4:40 of the game after tweaking his lower right leg. Porzingis missed 10 straight playoff games with a right calf strain, so his health status is a cause for concern for Boston even though he insisted right after the game that he will play in game three no matter what. 

Doncic led the Mavericks in scoring (32 points), rebounding (11 rebounds) and assists (11), but he had a game-high eight turnovers and his 12-21 field goal shooting is a testament to his immense talent, because he had to work very hard for every shot that he made. The Celtics defended Doncic one on one for the most part, with Brown and Tatum shouldering the bulk of the load and each doing an excellent job even though Doncic posted gaudy boxscore numbers. P.J. Washington had a solid game (17 points, seven rebounds), but Kyrie Irving again fell well short of expectations, finishing with 16 points on 7-18 field goal shooting. He added six assists but he still has not made a three point field goal in this series, and his 2-2 free throw shooting marked his first free throw attempts in two games versus Boston's elite defense; the Irving redemption narrative being forced down our throats by many media members is on hold for at least one more game--but even if Irving plays well in game three his unrepentant antisemitism and his complicity with China's slave labor policies/widespread human rights abuses should not be forgiven or forgotten; those things are much more important than how well he shoots or how his team performs.

It is fair to say that we need a recount on the assertion by TNT's Stan Van Gundy that Doncic and Irving are the best offensive backcourt of all-time; so far in this series, they have been the best offensive backcourt for one quarter out of eight: in the first quarter of game two, Doncic (13 points on 5-7 field goal shooting) and Irving (eight points on 4-5 field goal shooting) staked the Mavericks to a 28-25 lead before combining to score 27 points on 10-27 field goal shooting the rest of the way.

The biggest threat to the Celtics' championship hopes is their propensity for squandering too many offensive possessions with low percentage three pointers early in the shot clock; such shots are not conducive for team success in general, and they are particularly senseless in this series when the Celtics enjoy such pronounced matchup advantages every time Brown, Holiday, or Tatum attack the hoop off of the dribble. The Mavericks are just not able to consistently stay in front of Brown, Holiday, or Tatum, which results in either high percentage close range field goal attempts or else high percentage drive and kick three pointers (which are much better shots than three pointers jacked up early in the shot clock without first challenging the Mavericks in the paint).

Dallas fans may say that the Celtics merely did what they were supposed to do at home and that the Mavericks can get back in this series by holding serve at home, but the reality is that teams that have taken a 2-0 NBA Finals lead won the series 31 out of 36 times--and the five exceptions to that historical rule featured all-time greats Bill Russell (1969 Celtics), Bill Walton (1977 Trail Blazers), Dwyane Wade (2006 Heat), LeBron James (2016 Cavaliers), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (2021 Milwaukee Bucks). If the Mavericks will four of the next five games, it will be because Doncic has one of the greatest Finals performances of all-time and because the Celtics drifted away from high percentage paint shots to low percentage three point shots.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 AM



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