2024 NBA Finals: How Kristaps Porziņģis' injury impacts series for Celtics and Mavericks

DALLAS — In the moments after Boston’s win in Game 2 of the 2024 NBA Finals, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said he had no concern about the leg injury that center Kristaps Porziņģis appeared to suffer in the second half of the 105-98 victory.

“No, he's good,” Mazzulla said.

Neither, for that matter, did Porziņģis, who played just three minutes and 26 seconds in the fourth quarter of Game 2 before checking out for good with 4:40 to go.

“Feeling good,” he said. “Yeah, I don’t think it’s anything serious.”

So … about that:

All it took was a late-breaking news release, dropped just as the Celtics opened their media availability at American Airlines Center on Tuesday, to send sports fans and reporters alike searching for a med-school speed run that might allow them to become experts in the ins and outs of the medial retinaculum. (First step in the process? Learning there’s more than one of them.)

The Celtics’ news-release claim that the “torn medial retinaculum allowing dislocation of the posterior tibalis tendon in [Porziņģis’] left leg” is a “rare injury” is backed up by the fact that athletic trainer and injury expert Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes says he has “only one real [comparison]” for the tear in his extensive database.

“If the retrinaculum is torn, the tendon can shift out of place (dislocate), causing pain and instability of the ankle and foot,” Stotts wrote Tuesday. “... It will be interesting to see how this is managed, but given [Porzingis’] injury history, there is reason for concern.”

How significant a concern remains unclear, though. Asked whether it’s more of a pain tolerance issue or if playing on the leg would run the risk of a worse, more serious injury, Porziņģis said, “Good question. I don’t know.”

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 09: Kristaps Porzingis #8 of the Boston Celtics looks on during the first quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Two of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 09, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Kristaps Porziņģis is questionable for Game 3. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

For now, at least, the Celtics haven’t ruled their 7-foot-2 walking mismatch — the floor-spacing center who unlocks their brutalizing five-out offense, the shot-swatting interior intimidator who turns the paint into a no-fly zone — out for Game 3. Instead, they’ve listed him as questionable for Game 3 and termed his status a day-to-day proposition.

“Yeah, I mean, listen, he's doing anything and everything he can to be ready for the game tomorrow. It's a serious injury,” Mazzulla said Tuesday. “At the end of the day, our team and the medical team is not going to put him in any bad situations. We've taken the decision to play out of his hands because [of] the importance of him.

“He's going to do everything he can to play. We're going to leave it up to our medical team. That's really it.”

After missing the end of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Heat and all of the second and third rounds against the Cavaliers and Pacers with a right calf strain, Porziņģis really doesn’t love the idea of missing Game 3; this is not exactly a surprise, considering that hyperbolic post-Game 2 public declaration of his willingness to die on the court in pursuit of the NBA championship. (“Yeah, I'm living by those words, of course,” he insisted Tuesday.) But a late-third-quarter collision on Sunday night has left him with little say in the matter.

“Yeah, I was going for a rebound at the free throw line,” said Porziņģis, who wore a black sleeve and brace over his left ankle as he walked — without any evident limp or discomfort — to and from the podium on Tuesday. “Just kind of pushed in [Mavericks center Dereck] Lively's back, and we bumped knees, and something happened. I just kept playing for a while after that.”

He didn’t look particularly great afterward, though — something ABC’s broadcast crew repeatedly noted, and that was laid bare by his inability to win fourth-quarter footraces with Kyrie Irving or Daniel Gafford:

“Obviously, toward the end, my movement was affected a bit. Joe took me out,” said Porziņģis, who said he’s been undergoing “a lot of treatment, all-day treatment” to try to get healthy enough to play on Wednesday. “... It's kind of a random situation. I felt something, and now I have to deal with it.”

And so do the Celtics. The silver lining to this particular gray cloud? In the 35 games that Porziņģis has missed this season, the Celtics are 30-5. Regular season and playoffs combined, they’ve outscored opponents by 11.8 points per 100 possessions with him off the floor, according to PBP Stats. They’re not just experienced at playing without him; they have, thus far, been excellent at it.

“Same old, same old,” Celtics star Jaylen Brown said of the team’s approach to Porziņģis’ uncertain status. “KP has been tremendous for our group, not just in the playoffs, but all season long. It's obvious: Him on the floor just helps elevate us to a different level. But we've been priding ourselves on next-man-up mentality. We prepare for these moments, to be able to play with or without anyone. It just requires somebody else on our team to step up and everybody to buy in to get a full team victory.”

As adept as Boston has proven to be at getting those contributions, though — and as effective as the Celtics were in the Eastern Conference playoffs without Porziņģis, ripping off nine wins in 10 games across three rounds as he recovered from the soleus strain — it’s inarguable that the best version of the Celtics only reveals itself when he’s on the court.

“We're just so much of a better team when we have him — 7-foot-4 unicorn, right?” said Celtics star Jayson Tatum. “He's as talented as they come. Presents so many matchup problems on the offensive end. Then on the defensive end, somebody that can affect shots, protect the rim as well as he does.”

That impact has shown up in the numbers in this series. The Celtics have outscored the Mavericks by 26 points in the 44 minutes that Porziņģis has played in this series — an eye-popping plus-27.7 net rating. In the 52 minutes that he’s been off the court, though? Dallas has played Boston even, scoring 104.8 points per 100 possessions.

If that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of points … well, that’s because it isn’t. A 104.8 offensive rating would’ve finished dead last in the NBA during the regular season, and 13th out of 16 teams in the postseason, just ahead of the Cavaliers and Heat — both of whom, in a related story, had to play the Celtics.

When you realize that the Mavs have mustered a measly 90.4 points-per-100 with the 7-foot-2 Latvian big man on the floor, though — and that no less an evaluator of Dallas’ plight than Luka Dončić said Tuesday that the team’s “main problem right now” is that “we can't really score” — it starts to seem like a pretty big number.

And, perhaps, a pretty big opportunity for a Dallas side in desperate need of both a foothold to steady itself in these Finals and a launching pad to blast back into the series.

“I think the game of basketball is about makes and misses and capitalizing on mistakes,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said Tuesday. “We just haven't had that opportunity to capitalize.”

Porziņģis being sidelined would represent an opportunity for Dallas to capitalize on in a number of respects.

Without him, Boston loses the weapon of forcing smaller defenders to switch onto him in the two-man game, opening up those nail post-ups that have been tantamount to him playing Pop-a-Shot over well-intentioned toddlers:

No Porziņģis removes Boston’s most lethal pick-and-pop threat, too — the out-to-30-feet floor-spacer whose presence widens the lanes for the downhill drives with which Tatum and Brown repeatedly pounded Dallas in Games 1 and 2, and whose quick-trigger release punishes the defense for straying a bit too far to try to close those lanes down.

It also puts more responsibility on the plate of the just-turned-38-year-old Al Horford. The 17-year veteran has proven he’s still capable of producing at a high level in major minutes, averaging 10.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in 32 minutes per game during the 10 games Porziņģis missed earlier in the postseason — including a huge 22-point, 15-rebound, 5-assist performance in the closeout victory over Cleveland

… and a 23-point, seven-3-pointer outing in Game 3 against the Pacers:

Asking Horford to log heavy minutes, though — into the high-30s or perhaps low-40s — could result in diminishing returns. Especially on the defensive end, where any slippage in Boston’s pick-and-roll coverage could give Dallas new life as it looks to crowbar open more corner 3-point tries, more alley-oop dunks for centers Lively and Gafford, and — perhaps most crucially — more openings for Irving to relocate the shot-making touch that abandoned him through two games in Boston.

“I can be a lot more fundamentally sound, technical on my shots, not get into the paint often where it's three or four guys around me, I'm not making a pass,” Irving said Tuesday. “They're sending specific strategies against me to make it difficult.”

How effective might those strategies be, though, if instead of 48 minutes of Horford and Porziņģis patrolling the back line, it’s Horford and reserve bigs Luke Kornet or Oshae Brissett, who’ve only seen the court in this series in garbage time of Game 1? Or Xavier Tillman Sr., who hasn’t seen it at all?

“Whoever we put out there, we understand they might not be what KP is, but they're going to do whatever it takes to help us win games,” said Celtics guard Derrick White. “I have just as much trust in whoever we put out there as I do in KP.”

The Celtics, to a man, insist that they’re comfortable rolling with Plan B if it comes to that. Just two wins away from a ring, though, it sure would be sweet to be able to stick to Plan A.

“From my side, as I said, nothing is going to stop me unless I'm told I'm not allowed to play,” Porziņģis said. “That's the only reason I would not be out there. … You know, we still have some time. We'll see how I am tomorrow.”