2024 NBA Finals: Kyrie Irving remains the focus as the Mavs try to avoid a 3-0 hole

DALLAS — The NBA Finals haven’t gone according to plan for Kyrie Irving, Luka Dončić’s running mate who’s yet to put his stamp on this series.

He’s seeing plenty of bodies, and they’re all equipped to defend him or at least make things tough. So far, they’re winning the battle — Irving hasn’t made a 3-pointer despite getting some good looks and is shooting just 35.1% through the first two games.

What’s more, he hasn’t gotten to the line much and defensively the Celtics are putting him in spots where Irving has to be on the back line, meaning he’s more susceptible to being in foul trouble.

In summation, if he doesn’t turn it around and quickly, the Dallas Mavericks will be facing elimination Friday night. Irving said he reached out to Dončić to take accountability for not playing well, saying he has to play better.

Both Irving and Boston’s Jayson Tatum haven’t been themselves offensively, but Boston has a much more balanced, experienced roster. Tatum can afford to have bad shooting games, but he’s also facilitating on offense and being a point man for ball movement when the Celtics are getting good shots. He's also defending well and rebounding.

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (11) during Game 1 of the NBA Finals basketball series, Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Dallas guard Kyrie Irving (11) needs to turn the corner if the Mavs want to make the NBA Finals a real series. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Irving has to score in this case, and the Celtics have made it a priority to stop him.

“First thing of that is just accepting that I haven't played well or up to my standards, as well as I would have liked,” Irving said Tuesday following Mavericks practice. “Being back in Boston, there's such a level of desire that I have inside of me to play well. Wanted to be there for my teammates. As a competitor, it's frustrating.”

Perhaps he was trying a little too hard to block out the chants and the boos from the TD Garden crowd every time he touched the ball, in addition to wanting to perform at his peak.

“I think he's missed some easy shots. I expect him obviously to be even more aggressive and to fight to get those shots,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “The most important thing is just being detailed in individual defense. It's not about shutting him down. It's about just making it difficult for him because of his ability to impact plays.”

Having three straight bad shooting games or even three bad games feels unlikely, as he never had back-to-back sub-20 point games during this regular season. He’s shown a propensity to bounce back during this playoff run, turning into a distributor during the Oklahoma City series when he didn’t shoot well in Game 2 and Game 4.

Let’s not forget, he absolutely torched the Minnesota Timberwolves' defense, with three 30-point games in that five-game romp.

And it feels like the Celtics are well aware they only have so much of a handle on Irving, careful not to step on any land mines.

“I think it's team defense. We do it as a team. It's not just one person, it's everybody,” Jrue Holiday said. “We just try to defend him, we try to show him bodies, multiple people and just try to make it difficult.”

Holiday has had a stellar series and is in the early conversation for Finals MVP — a task he’ll have to keep up with Kristaps Porziņģis’ health being a question mark headed into Game 3, as he was listed as questionable Tuesday afternoon.

For Irving, one less body in the lane, one less set of long arms at the rim could make a world of difference. He says the Celtics are “sending specific strategies against me to make it difficult,” and he has to figure it out.

“Just trying to make it difficult for him,” Celtics guard Derrick White said. “He's obviously a great player, and just trying to make him take tough shots. We expect him to play better, so it's going to be more of a challenge for us.”

He’s gotten off the ball, especially playing next to Dante Exum, but the shooters haven’t connected to tilt the Celtics' defense. Even if that trend changes in Game 3, the more likely path to changing the complexion of the series will be Irving breaking the Celtics' defense all on his own.

It’s tempting to look at 2016, when Irving was in Cleveland with LeBron James and that squad went down 2-0 and then 3-1 before turning it around against the 73-win Golden State Warriors.

But this is an older Irving, a really good but perhaps not dynastic Celtics team on the other side and a younger Mavericks team that probably needs more in the way of leadership from Irving rather than just the shot-making he was called on to provide eight years ago.

The common denominator, though, is the resilience necessary to stay in it mentally and not succumb to the worst thoughts or impulses.

“We had time to fail together. We had time to go through our trials together. We lost in 2015,” Irving said of the Cavaliers team. “A lot of guys came back in 2016 and we won. So there was an inner motivation there. We also knew who we were going against, how well they played.

“I think if you have a healthy way or perspective of looking at where we are now, it feels like we are that team that's gaining the experience, that's being able to fail at this level. Now we have an opportunity to respond. That's all you can ask for in a basketball season.”

Dallas could very well be taking its lumps, like the Celtics did two years ago in the Finals against the Warriors. As Irving has stated multiple times, though, there’s no guarantee to get back to this stage.

So he’s taking the deficit with an attitude of gratefulness, one supposes.

“If you asked me in September or October, would I want a chance to be down 0-2 and having a chance to respond in Game 3 or be out of the playoffs, I think I would choose the former,” Irving said. “It's as simple as that in terms of putting it in perspective. We're the only teams left. This is about chess. That's all it is.”

His next move comes Wednesday.