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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Celtics Deliver Knockout After Withstanding Mavericks' Initial Punch

The Dallas Mavericks opened game three of the NBA Finals by hitting the Boston Celtics with a 22-9 punch, but the Celtics delivered a knockout by posting a 106-99 win to drop the Mavericks into a 3-0 hole from which no NBA team has ever recovered. The Celtics are the fourth team to take a 3-0 lead in each of the last two playoff series in a season, joining the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, the 1996 Chicago Bulls, and the 2017 Golden State Warriors. If the Celtics win on Friday night, they will become the first such team to sweep both series.

Jayson Tatum scored a team-high 31 points while also contributing six rebounds and five assists. Jaylen Brown had an even better all-around game (30 points, team-high eight rebounds, game-high eight assists). Tatum did most of his damage early, registering 20 first half points, while Brown poured in 24 second half points. Tatum and Brown became the first Celtics duo to each post a 30-5-5 stat line in an NBA Finals game. Derrick White was the only other Celtic who scored in double figures (16 points). Kristaps Porzingis, the MVP of game one and a major factor at both ends of the court, missed game three with a rare lower leg injury suffered late in game two of the NBA Finals. His absence was particularly felt on the boards--Dallas outrebounded Boston, 43-36--and in the paint (Dallas outscored Boston 52-36 in the paint), but the Celtics are so big and talented that they can survive without a player who would be the second option on some very good playoff teams.

Kyrie Irving finally showed up three games into a series that may only last four games, and he scored a game-high 35 points on 13-28 field goal shooting. Luka Doncic added 27 points, but he shot just 11-27 from the field before fouling out with 4:12 remaining in the fourth quarter. He also had six rebounds and a team-high six assists. Those are good boxscore numbers for most players, but they are also acceptable numbers from Boston's perspective considering that the Celtics are containing the 2024 regular season scoring champion primarily with single coverage, which limits the lob dunks and corner three pointers that are the twin cornerstones of the Mavericks' offense. P.J. Washington had 13 points on 3-9 field goal shooting, and he grabbed eight rebounds. Dereck Lively II contributed 11 points on 5-6 field goal shooting and a game-high 13 rebounds off of the bench.

This game was even more of a roller coaster ride than usual for an NBA that has become overrun with high variance three point shooting, but the one constant is that Boston's size poses a lot of problems for Dallas. Correctly deployed size leads to high percentage shots in the paint, wide open three pointers after the opposing defense collapses into the paint, and low percentage shots for a smaller team forced to pass and shoot against long, outstretched arms. Doncic (13 points) and Irving (nine points) came out blazing in the first quarter as the Mavericks built that early 13 point lead, but Tatum countered with 13 first quarter points as Boston trimmed the margin to 31-30 by the end of the opening stanza. The second quarter was a 20-20 tie, but Boston dominated the third quarter 35-19 while shooting 13-20 (.650) from the field, including 5-11 (.455) from three point range. The three point shooting catches the eyes of casual fans and "stat gurus," but the real story is Boston's suffocating defense that limited Dallas to 8-21 (.381) field goal shooting and that has not yet given up 100 points to the Mavericks in a game. 

Just when the Celtics seemed poised to blow out the Mavericks, the Celtics lapsed into poor fourth quarter shooting (7-18, .389) and sloppy ballhandling (five turnovers) as the Mavericks wiped out what had been a 21 point deficit to trail by just one point (93-92) after Irving nailed a jumper at the 3:37 mark. The Celtics closed the game with a 13-7 run, limiting Irving to just two points in that critical stretch.

The story of this game--and this series thus far--is Boston's great defense, but there are media members who are predictably mesmerized by Irving's flashy play. J.J. Redick--who repeatedly slanders the great players of the past while shamelessly acting like Irving's biggest fan--described Irving as a "wizard" and as an "ethical scorer" who does not flop and flail. However, Redick neglected to mention that two major components of Irving's "wizardry" are palming and traveling. Irving's space-creating moves would be much more impressive if he could accomplish them within basketball's traditional rules, because the game he plays now would result in more turnovers than field goals made if Irving played in previous eras when the rules were correctly enforced.

After the game, ESPN's Brian Windhorst declared that Doncic's performance was "unacceptable" and that Dallas can never win a title until Doncic vastly improves his defense and stops complaining so much to the referees. Windhorst is correct that Doncic has reverted to being a defensive liability after playing acceptable defense in earlier playoff series, and Windhorst is also correct that Doncic's whining is not helpful--but Windhorst failed to mention that Irving's plus/minus number in game three was -3, while Doncic's plus/minus number in game three was a team-best +9. Somehow, despite Doncic's "unacceptable" performance the Mavericks won Doncic's 38 minutes by nine points and lost the 10 non-Doncic minutes by 16 points. Further, Windhorst also neglected to note that Irving scored just 28 points on 13-37 (.351) field goal shooting as Dallas fell into an 0-2 hole versus Boston with eight assists, five turnovers, and a -22 plus/minus number. Irving shot 0-8 from three point range and 2-2 from the free throw line in the first two games of this series, meaning that he was not successful from either long range or by drawing fouls.

If Irving were as great as his fans suggest, then Doncic fouling out of game three should not have been fatal. In game four of the 2000 NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant took over after Shaquille O'Neal fouled out, leading the Lakers to a 120-118 overtime win and a commanding 3-1 series lead en route to a 4-2 series win.

Windhorst's Doncic-bashing combined with white glove treatment of Irving only makes sense when you realize that LeBron James loves Kyrie Irving, as recent quotes from James show. Windhorst's media career is founded on following James around and presenting whatever narratives best suit James. Criticizing Irving would not sit well with James, so Windhorst knows the assignment. "Windy" is too busy blowing hot air to fairly assess Irving's play, let alone bother to mention Irving's unrepentant antisemitism and Irving's profiting from Chinese human rights abuses, two storylines that are very relevant not only in the big picture but in this series because Irving literally wears his passions on his head, around his neck, and on his feet; Irving openly advertises how he thinks and feels, but no one who is on James' payroll is going to ask questions that punch holes in the popular Irving redemption narrative.

In my series preview, I picked Boston to beat Dallas because the Tatum-Brown duo is superior to the Doncic-Irving duo, and because Boston has the league's best, most versatile starting lineup. Doncic is a great player, and Irving has flashes of greatness, but Tatum and Brown are bigger and more athletic while also being much more committed to playing elite defense. Regardless of what the talking heads say--and fail to say--the reality is that Tatum and Brown are getting the job done at both ends of the court, while Doncic and Irving have to battle to get off quality shots before being hunted on defense.

Even without Porzingis, the Celtics do not look like a team that will make history by blowing a 3-0 NBA Finals lead--and the Mavericks do not look like a team capable of beating the Celtics four straight times.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

3 comments

3 Comments:

At Thursday, June 13, 2024 11:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep, of course Boston is ok with the numbers posted by Doncic/Irving even if they're great numbers, as long as they limit the rest of Dallas' cast somewhat. Doncic/Irving both basically have to have MVP level games every game for Dallas to maybe squeak out 4 games out of 7 vs Boston. Tatum/Brown are great players, but not MVP-level players, but their cast around them is great even if Boston only plays 7-8 guys. Boston has also had the privilege of not playing one team in the playoffs who is a true contender though. Dallas is their toughest competition so far, but I can't think of any title team I've ever seen worse than this Dallas team, and probably not even that close.

 
At Thursday, June 13, 2024 4:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I would define an MVP-level player as a top five/All-NBA First Team caliber player, and I would argue that Tatum is in that category.

All year long, we have been told how great the modern NBA is and in particular how stacked the Western Conference is. Dallas emerged from the Western Conference, and Boston is dominating Dallas (even though each game has been close, the overall score is 3-0).

Regarding worst Finalists ever (a relative distinction, of course), I discussed this topic in a Basketball Digest article over 20 years ago: Not Exactly the Wonder Five: Pro Basketball's Worst Finalists I am not convinced that the 2024 Mavericks would belong on that list.

 
At Friday, June 14, 2024 4:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Boston dominated the regular season, and they have dominated thus far in the playoffs.

The only logical way to assert that Boston is not a great team is to assert that the entire league has regressed (which may be what you are arguing and may be true); the Celtics have proven to the best team this season, and it is not particularly close (barring an unprecedented Dallas comeback).

 

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