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The Celtics Were Basketball's Best All Year, Now It's Time to Seal the Deal

The saying goes that they only play for banners in Boston, and in 2024, anything short of that metric would be a failure for this vaunted Celtics outfit. Last year, they were a game away from taking the East for the second year in a row, and in turn, become the first team ever to overcome a 0-3 hole to win an NBA playoff series, but a Jayson Tatum injury seconds into a home Game 7 dashed those hopes.

However, a couple of weeks before that loss, the Celtics found themselves on the brink in Philadelphia in a win-or-go-home Game 6, and I got the sense that despite the comeback, this team needed some level of change going forward. While the trio of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart had made it to an NBA Finals in 2022, they had a bad habit of being their own biggest enemy, a feeling only amplified once they lost a Game 3 to the Heat down in Miami.

Sure enough, Celtics GM Brad Stevens shared that sentiment, as last summer, he made the biggest set of moves since leaving the coaching ranks. As an unintentional side effect of the Milwaukee Bucks, Stevens was able to turn Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon (plus two first-rounders) into Jrue Holliday, and then months prior, had moved a package headlined by Marcus Smart to nab Kristaps Porzingis from the Washington Wizards.

The necessary changes that this core desperately needed after years of running back mostly the same core were made, and the results were astronomical. Boston has had 64 regular-season wins, the most since the 2008 season. The Jays put together a pair of All-NBA-worthy seasons, and the newly paired tandem of Jrue Holliday and Derrick White has become one of the most ferocious defensive backcourts in recent memory.

Steamrolling through a worn Eastern Conference in just 14 games, four more victories now separate the game's original monarchy from an all-time record 18th NBA Championship. All that stands in their way? A hungry Dallas Mavericks outfit, who look to take home Championship No. 2, led by Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

Dallas Scouting Report

Jason Kidd's Mavericks squad was a middle-of-the-road outfit up until the beginning of Feburary, which marked just a matter of days before they made a pair of moves to grab P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford, who've proven vital in this Finals run. From their first game of that month to the end of the regular season, they went 24-10 over their final 34 games and have now rode that late-season surge to a Western Conference Title.

Offensively, their game plan has been to let Kyrie and Luka cook, and that's done wonders for them so far. The pair have combined for an average of 51.6 points per outing this postseason, and teams like the Clippers, Thunder, and Wolves had tons of trouble containing them. Specifically against Minnesota, they got everything they wanted working the pick-and-roll game. Drop coverage, switching defenders, and everything in between didn't matter. Giving someone with Doncic's Basketball IQ that many ways to pick you apart with the ball in his hands is a dangerous game.

While Doncic and Irving are more than deserving of their flowers this postseason offensively, the Mavs' big issue offensively has been getting a truly consistent scoring option behind those two and, to a lesser extent, mid-season acquisition P.J. Washington, who's averaged just south of 14 per game this postseason. Guys like Derrick Jones Jr, Daniel Gafford, and Derrick Lively have been fine, but history would suggest not good enough.

In the three postseasons since the bubble, the eventual NBA Champions had at least four players average 12 points per game throughout the postseason; right now, the Mavericks have just three (Boston has five at the moment), and that'll likely remain the case barring something drastic. Luka and Kyrie will get theirs, but it can't come down to them every game offensively, especially with how much wear and tear the former has taken these last two months.

Scouting Report Continued: Defense

A lot has been said about Luka's defense as he continues his career, and it likely will continue to be said, but the numbers would say he's been good and looked passable on the eye test in these playoffs. What may surprise you is that the five-man pairing of Irving-Donic-Jones Jr-Washington-Lively has been the best defensive lineup these playoffs with a rating of 98.5. The catch is this: they've only been on the court together for 7.93 minutes per game in 16 of the 17 Mavericks playoff outings, and they were not a good unit against Minnesota, with a 133.8 defensive rating in four games in 38 minutes. That should tell you a lot, given Minnesota lost all four of those games, the first three of which they held fourth-quarter leads despite some highly suspect shooting.

Matchup-wise, Jaylen Brown has made it a point to get after Luka on both ends of the court, and I imagine that isn't going to change here. In the matchup down in Dallas in January, Doncic missed four-of-six shots with Brown in coverage, making up a little under half of the coverage on him that game. I would also expect Kyrie to get picked on defensively early and often. Speaking of whom...

The Kyrie Effect

Boston's biggest sports villain this side of peak A-Rod is set to play a key role in this year's NBA Finals, obviously, but Irving's concerning struggles against his former team might be the biggest reason why. Not only has he been on the losing side of his last 10 matchups against Boston, but he's also been a detriment on both sides of the court in the latter nine of these matchups.

Sitting at a -93 in these most recent nine tilts, Irving has averaged 18.8/4.8/4.5 while shooting .401 from the field and .240 from three, averaging two turnovers per on the dot. The defense isn't exactly a new development, and as mentioned, it wouldn't stun me if Joe Mazzula tries to manufacture some possessions to drive the ball against him defensively to set the tone. Then, of course, if the boo birds can get into his head like they have these last few years (the eye test and numbers would tell you they are, I don't care what he says), that's a bonus if it leads to him being a negative offensively.

As far as the villain factor goes, it's been five years since he left, which has cooled things somewhat, but him being one of the final obstacles en route to an NBA Championship has heated things up again. Over time, my biggest issue wasn't that he left but rather how he went about it because he messed up every step of the way from September to May.

Telling a group of season ticket holders that you're re-signing in a way you could save face should anything happen; running a Nike commercial with your father where you verbatim say, "I want to be the reason no one else will [wear No. 11]" with a camera shot from the rafters of Boston Garden months later; getting visibly upset at Celtics beat guys because you got caught scheming an exit to Brooklyn with Kevin Durant at the All-Star Game; and then quite literally shooting the Celtics out of a playoff series against the Bucks after a hollow press conference promising his shooting would get better (spoiler: he lied).

The one thing Celtics fans didn't know then was that Irving was dealing with a death in the family that season, which certainly puts some perspective on things. Ultimately, though, he can't change what he did in 2019, and the consequences of that are still on him.

How Boston Wins

As far as how the Celtics bring this home, it starts with Jaylen Brown staying scorching hot at both ends while getting a little bit better offensive output from Tatum, but that's just one part of the equation—Re-enter Kristaps Porzingis, who hasn't played since Game 4 vs. Miami. According to Sebastian Christensen of ESPN, all signs are that he'll be available on Thursday night, and after seeing the success guys like Pascal Siakam and Myles Turner had last series, they need him back badly, even if as a bench option.

Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively have been big pieces in the Mavericks puzzle, but Porzingis' ability to strike the floor and work in the low post has the chance to give Dallas fits defensively. It's hard to say how good the defense will be before he's out there, but a body capable of providing you 20+ on any given night is gigantic, no matter what. Also, take this for what it's worth: defensively, Porzingis gave the Celtics six blocks and five steals in the three games he completed vs. the Heat. Anything he can give them defensively would be massive; they can't afford to do what they did last series against the Pacers bigs.

Defensively, the Celtics have the luxury of having a ton of switchable bodies, but they need to be able to switch things off properly, or else someone like Luka is going to torch them in the pick-and-roll game. I wouldn't be shocked if Derrick White and Jaylen Brown were your two primary defenders on No. 77, but the Celtics have options, which is never bad.

And one final note: the Celtics are a perfect 12-0 when they've scored > 101 points this postseason. Do with that information what you will.

The Verdict

Thanks to the NBA's awful pre-scheduling, which results in both teams getting at least seven days off before game one, I don't think any momentum either team has/had will matter much. This is as clean a slate as you could want for both teams, given this point in the season and given some of the nagging injuries affecting both teams coming into Thursday.

Dallas is a more than worthy opponent, given their second-half surge and path to even getting out of the West. However, despite the Mavericks having the best player in the series, Luka Doncic, the Boston Celtics are the better basketball team by every metric. They have the deeper team, the better defensive team, and the more all-around experienced team. More importantly than that, the Celtics have shown the ability to show up in crunch time in big spots this postseason, winning games they would've lost 100 times out of 100 over the past several years.

I have every reason to believe that Dallas won't simply keel over at any point in these coming days/weeks. Still, the only two times the Celtics have lost this postseason have been via a night where the Heat made a franchise-high number of threes and when they couldn't buy a three of their own to respond to a Donovan Mitchell masterpiece. Ultimately, the Mavs don't have the down-the-order scoring prowess, and this is where it comes back to bite them. The Celtics were the best team the NBA had to offer, and they played like it from the early days of October to June. Now, it's time for them to lock in and bring it home.

2024 NBA Finals Pick: Boston Celtics over the Dallas Mavericks in 5 Games

2024 NBA Finals MVP Pick: Jaylen Brown

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