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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Celtics, Game 1

It can't get worse than that ... right?
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Kristaps Porzingis dominated Game 1. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports Kristaps Porzingis dominated Game 1. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us. That’s what we’re here to talk about.

What We Saw

They can’t be worse, and I’m not sure the opposition can be better. You probably don’t want to hear this, but from every statistical standpoint, Kyrie Irving played about the worst game of his life against his former team. He shot 14 percent below his expected field goal percentage, which was the lowest mark for a Maverick this side of Tim Hardaway Jr., who had to play in this game, which tells you something. 

That’s not something a shotmaker of Irving’s caliber tends to do. At the same time, there is no chance he will be this off again. I don’t love to dive into armchair psychology, but what else aside from history can we explain him being this bad against his former team?

Meanwhile, it is perfectly fitting that Kristaps Porzingis had maybe his best game as a Celtic in Game 1 of the finals when returning from an injury. I’ve written it, and I’ve said it: the best version of Porzingis is unguardable. Nico Harrison and the Mavericks have done a fantastic job of building around Irving and Luka Dončić. Rim protection and winning the paint are at a premium, as they should be. But when a 7-foot-plus sniper can hit that many shots in that quick of succession, there just isn’t a whole lot you can do about it.

While we’re talking roster building, it deserves to be said that Jayson Tatum’s first step is something to behold. We all love Dončić for his brand of wizardry. Tatum’s is a sheer volume of power that I’m not sure the league has seen outside of LeBron James. He’s a question the Mavericks don’t have an answer to.

Porzingis won’t be this good. Irving won’t be this bad. But the reality is, the Celtics are a better collection of players than the Mavericks. If Dallas is going to win this, it will take a heroic effort from both of their two best players. That did not happen in Game 1. —Jake Kemp

What It Felt Like

The plan for Dallas pulling an upset in this series was always bigger than the pieces on the floor. Yes, the Mavericks have the best player and the two best closers and the deeper bench, all of which are essential for combating the most balanced starting five in basketball. But they have also been molded by the three consecutive dogfights it took to get here, inoculated against adversity and complacency and insecurity. 

Boston? That was anyone’s guess after the Celtics traipsed through the pillow-soft Eastern Conference, culminating in a conference finals sweep over an Indiana Pacers team missing its best player for half of the series. Aside from Jrue Holiday, no one in Boston’s rotation has won a championship ring, and the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown-led core is just one year removed from an embarrassing conference finals loss to an undermanned seven seed in Miami. Then there’s Boston’s wild card, Kristaps Porzingis, who had not only been out since April but had never played a single minute of playoff basketball beyond the first round.

We knew these Mavericks could win a cage match—perhaps even relish it. Could the Celtics even manage a donnybrook on a stage like this?

Thursday proved the answer is a resounding yes, and that feels even more daunting than how effectively they swallowed up Dallas’ offense on one end of the floor and divebombed threes on the other. For the first time all postseason, the Mavericks seemed meek. The high-flying rim attack was grounded and the swashbuckling drives to the rim rendered aimless, which explains how Dallas became just the second team in Finals history to get blocked nine times while dishing out just nine assists. Only Dončić played to his billing, and the Celtics hardly budged in response, secure that they could shrug off whatever shot he threw at them as long as they remained so unbothered by his supporting cast. No other team has exuded that much confidence against the league’s most lethal scorer. 

For that matter, most players don’t come back from a six-week layoff and immediately deliver the best quarter of their NBA careers the way Porzingis did in an opening stanza that showcased every tantalizing bit of why Dallas bet big on him a half decade ago. But Porzingis has never been like other players, and Boston is unlike anything Dallas has encountered thus far. The Celtics entered Game 1 with so many ways to win this series. The Mavericks exited it having learned the latest might be stealing Dallas’ calling card. —Mike Piellucci

Authors

Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…
Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…
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