In NBA Finals, Celtics and Mavs face different challenges from what they just conquered


Each NBA playoff series is its own distinct event, with no real continuity point between the end of one and the beginning of another.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, for instance, knocked off the defending champion Denver Nuggets, but that didn’t automatically make them kings of the hill; a series against the Dallas Mavericks in the next round posed a completely different set of challenges, and the Timberwolves’ roster was much less able to handle those. Similarly, the brave fight the Indiana Pacers put up against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals tells us almost nothing about what might happen to Boston in a series against Dallas; aside from a proclivity for employing Rick Carlisle, Indiana and Dallas could hardly be less alike.

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That’s a crucial morsel of knowledge to retain in the coming days, as we survey every possible angle in our extended break before the NBA Finals between the Celtics and Mavericks begins June 6. Dallas has won six of its past seven games, capped by its elimination of Minnesota on Thursday, while Boston has won 12 of 14 with a double-digit scoring margin.

Yet using those games as a predictive point for what might happen in the NBA Finals is a fatal flaw: The matchup for both these teams will be completely different from what they faced the round before. In that sense, it’s probably good that Dallas and Boston have a few days off to recalibrate. The formula for winning in the next round will be radically different.



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Take the Celtics, for instance, who just finished a series against one of the most extreme teams in basketball and now need to adjust to a very different type of team at both ends. The Pacers’ defensive approach, in particular, is almost 180 degrees from that of Dallas. The Pacers gave up the fewest 3-point attempts in the league this season and were more than willing to allow drives to the rim as long as they shut off the 3-point line.

While they did this part imperfectly against the Celtics — Boston still launched 43 triples per game in the conference finals, right in line with its season totals — it’s still a radically different approach from what Dallas did in its three playoff rounds. The Mavs tried to protect the basket at all costs with rim protectors Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford, holding opponents to just 50.2 percent shooting on 2s in the playoffs entering Game 5 against Minnesota.

The Mavs didn’t give up a huge quantity of 3s overall, but there was a certain type they were willing to concede — pick-and-pop 3-pointers from opposing centers. The Clippers and Wolves didn’t have the starting personnel to hurt them here, but Dallas let Chet Holmgren and Jaylin Williams fire away for the Thunder (42 attempts in six games), while Minnesota backup Naz Reid ripped off 25 3-point attempts in 132 minutes in the conference finals.

Needless to say, this is a highly questionable strategy to pursue against the Celtics if Kristaps Porziņģis is healthy (he is expected to return for the NBA Finals). Porziņģis shot 37.5 percent from 3 this season on over six attempts per game, and many of his tries are from several feet beyond the 3-point line. For that matter, Boston big man Al Horford made 41.9 percent.

Dallas isn’t the only team that has faced this problem. Keeping rim protectors near the rim has been a vexing question for Boston opponents all season, one that has seen multiple original but unsuccessful solutions. Golden State, for instance, tried to put Draymond Green on Jaylen Brown, keep Green in the paint and dare Brown to shoot 3s in a March game. Brown made five 3s in the first seven minutes and was well on his way to breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring record before the Warriors reconsidered.

I was at that game, and my column from that weekend delves further into the unique dilemmas presented by Boston’s superior shooting at every position. The short version: Teams that strive to take away 3s and live with basket attacks, like Indiana, are the only ones that have a chance against the Celtics. Sure, the Pacers gave up points, but they also beat Boston twice in the regular season and had them dead to rights in Game 1 of the conference finals before fate intervened … with a late 3-pointer.

Dallas, in contrast, was a middle-of-the-pack team in preventing opponent 3s and has played that way again in the playoffs. The Mavs’ big conundrum is figuring out how to contort a defensive strategy that was close to optimal for playing the Clippers, Thunder and Wolves and adapt it to playing a very different Boston team. Recent events don’t augur well on that front; when the Mavs marched into Boston with all their new trade pieces in March, they lost 138-110, with Boston shooting 21 of 43 on 3s.

The Celtics, however, have some adjusting of their own to do. Whereas Indiana ran the ball down their throat every possible chance with whomever had the rock, Dallas plays a much slower and more heliocentric style. Yes, the Mavs will run opportunistically, but compared to playing the Pacers, it will feel like switching from a techno rave to Gregorian chants.

Additionally, the player at the controls for Dallas is possibly the best offensive player in the league, and he’s operating against a defense that essentially has one weakness — not really being able to switch across five positions. We saw how that worked out for Minnesota, the league’s top-ranked defense. Can the Celtics really survive a series in drop coverage against 40-plus minutes of Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving? Or do they need to get uncomfortable?

While the Celtics have more roster optionality (they could perhaps put Porziņģis on Derrick Jones Jr. to switch against Dallas’s pick-and-roll game with Lively and Gafford, for instance) and two All-Defense guards in Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, Dončić has seen and figured out every coverage.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to unpack here — Porziņģis and Irving revenge series! Luka’s first NBA Finals! Jayson Tatum’s shot at redemption! Reflections on the Grant Williams era! We’ll have plenty of time to get to it all, but it almost seems like a relief these teams have an intermezzo before this final round. Each will need it for a full tactical revamp.

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(Photo of Luka Dončić and Al Horford: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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