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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Celtics, Game 2

Boston didn't play its best game, and Dallas could not capitalize.
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Boston find ways to step up when it mattered most. 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

Maybe this will sound like the cry of the loser, but there is no shame in getting beat like this by the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. These are not the past-their-prime and withering Los Angeles Clippers. These are not the before-their-time and rising Oklahoma City Thunder. These aren’t the Minnesota Timberwolves, either. The Celtics are a battle-worn, scarred group with much to prove and time left to prove it. 

Yes, the Mavericks are better than their record or seed indicate. They play in the tougher conference; are playing the tougher schedule. But the Celtics are a machine. That doesn’t mean the Mavericks can’t keep it competitive. They can get leads in these games, and they can erase deficits. But it’s very hard to watch these two teams through two games and conjure up any notion that they’re equals. 

Luka Dončić went four for nine from deep in Game 2. Every other Maverick combined to go two for 15. It isn’t like Boston shot the ball particularly well, either, hitting at a 25 percent clip from three and 45 percent overall. But that’s the mark of a great team, similar to what we had been saying about the Mavericks during their own remarkable run. Dallas is simply not on par with Boston to a degree where they can win with off nights. 

That’s especially true considering Boston is so good at taking away things opponents like to do. The Mavericks shot the highest percentage of their shots as corner threes in the entire league this season. Most teams must double Luka Dončić or at least help in a way that leaves shooters open to be hit right in the pocket with a ready-made bucket. Through two games, they have taken a grand total of seven and made … one. The Celtics don’t have to double; they rarely even have to help. It isn’t that Dončić is struggling to create open shots for others. He’s struggling to create any shots for others. 

In games like these, where the margins are so thin and points are at a premium, I see basically two ways to gain an edge: shoot an above-average (but not unattainable) rate from beyond the arc or win in transition. We’ve covered the former point. On the latter, the Mavericks look lost. They haven’t been able to get out and run much off of stops because they’re not getting stops. And they are not a team that plays fast without a long rebound or blocked shot. I wish they were. I’ve always thought that a team built around a point guard in a wing’s body should push the ball more, but for whatever reason, they don’t. A mere 6 percent of the Mavs’ possessions came from transition play in Game 2, and the rate at which they scored on those meager looks would’ve been the worst in the league during the regular season. It just isn’t something they do.

So if you aren’t going to get lucky, and you aren’t going to beat a team on the break, and you’re already at a talent deficit, you’re going to have a hard time. 

It doesn’t help that the grind of the season has finally caught up to Dončić’s body. He should probably be listed as “Questionable: 100-percent usage rate” in every game right now. Nor does it help that Kyrie Irving, the mental leader of this team for almost 100 games now, looks rattled by playing in Boston. But the biggest issue is that they’re not getting much from anyone else on the roster. Maxi Kleber and Josh Green would have to be more than just warm bodies for the Mavericks to win any of these games. The “others” on the Celtics side are just better, and they’ve been here. Jrue Holliday is an NBA Champion. Al Horford doesn’t need to score; he just needs to be Al Horford. 

These two teams aren’t that far apart. But they’re far enough apart that the Mavs need either huge nights from their stars or good nights from their others. Right now, they’re getting about 25 percent of that recipe right. —Jake Kemp

What It Felt Like

The Mavericks have a transcendent superstar. The Celtics have a transcendent team.

We are a ways from either being codified, of course. Dončić needs a half-dozen or so more years like the last five to cement a résumé fully aligning with the brilliance we watch each night, while the ’23-’24 Celtics are still two wins shy of completing one of the great seasons in NBA history. (Peep Brian Dameris’ series preview for the rundown of just how impressive they’ve been all year.) But it was hard to watch this game and feel like either declaration is not fait accompli. 

There was Dončić, his torso mummified in athletic tape as he nursed a chest contusion, gamely turning in an offensive performance on par with Dirk Nowitzki’s Finals best and later scolding himself for not delivering even more. He’s not wrong, technically speaking. Dončić can be more efficient with the ball, and he’d almost certainly be sharper defensively at full strength, too. But Boston has won these first two games by demonstrating that demanding even more horsepower from a muscle car brushing against the redline is no winning strategy. 

Instead, Dallas needs more games like this from P.J. Washington, who stitched 17 vital points together from scraps and broken plays, and Daniel Gafford, whose second half was one of the best a non-Dončić Mav has played thus far. And Dallas needs dramatic improvement from Irving, whose jittery play will do nothing to quiet the narrative nonsense about his play in Boston. And Dallas needs Dereck Lively to not look his age at the worst possible moment, completely understandable though it may be. And, also, Dallas needs Maxi Kleber’s results on offense to match that long-awaited spark of aggression. And Dallas needs someone, anyone, to hit jackpot in Jason Kidd’s latest spin of Bench Guard Roulette. 

And perhaps more, still. Because Dallas will be hard-pressed to see a worse shooting performance than Boston going 10 of 39 from deep, with many misses on open looks. The Mavs will also not find themselves tasked with stopping Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, the Celtics’ fourth- and fifth-leading scorers, far more than Jayson Tatum or Kristaps Porzingis. That they could not win anyway—and that it’s an open question of whether they’d come as close as they did without Porzingis tweaking his calf late in the fourth quarter and leaving the game, thereby opening up the rim for a late 9-0 flurry—is less an indictment of Dallas than the reality of what Dallas is up against: an outfit designed to poke and prod at your basketball fears, whatever they are, until you crumble.

No one player dismantles a horror show like that on his own, not even the scariest dude on the court. And after what we’ve seen in these first two games, it’s hard not to wonder what further terrors might await the Mavericks in the American Airlines Center. —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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