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2024 NBA Finals preview: Everything you need to know for Celtics-Mavericks, including our series prediction

After a grueling seven-month campaign — followed by a restorative week off! — the 2023-24 NBA season has now reached its conclusion. The Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics (64-18) — the East’s No. 1 seed and the top overall seed in the postseason bracket — will take on the Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks (50-32) in the 2024 NBA Finals.

It’s the first postseason meeting between the two franchises. Boston enters looking for the 18th NBA championship in its glittering franchise history, and its first since Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen hoisted the Larry O’B back in 2008. Dallas seeks a second league title to join the iconic 2011 crown won by Dirk Nowitzki and a slew of high-end complementary role players … including Jason Kidd, who leads this iteration of the Mavs from the coaching box. The NBA Finals tip off Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

By acing most of the tests they faced and passing the others. Team president Brad Stevens augmented Boston’s existing core — All-NBA wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, Al Horford — with reinforcements, swinging offseason trades for Kristaps Porziņģis and Jrue Holiday. The result was the NBA’s best top six, a unit that opened the season 11-2 and never looked back.


The Celtics finished the season with the NBA’s No. 1 offense and No. 3 defense, outscoring opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass — just the ninth time in the last 20 years that a team’s net rating topped plus-10. Boston lapped the rest of the East, finishing a staggering 14 games ahead of the second-place Knicks and becoming just the 26th team in NBA history to win 64 or more games. (Fifteen of the preceding 25 won the title … which actually seems kind of low.)

Winning the top seed earned the C’s a favorable path through the postseason, though nobody could have known just how favorable injuries would make it: no Jimmy Butler or Terry Rozier for the Heat in Round 1; no Jarrett Allen and only three games of Donovan Mitchell for the Cavaliers in Round 2; only two games of Tyrese Haliburton for the Pacers in the conference finals. Boston seized that opportunity, dropping just two games in three series despite losing Porziņģis to a calf strain in Game 4 against Miami … even if the performances in those wins weren’t always as dominant as some would’ve liked.

That friendly road through the weaker conference has led to some skepticism over just how battle-tested these Celtics are. Four more wins against these hard-charging Mavericks, though, and Tatum and Co. will hold an awfully impressive golden argument-ender.

By becoming their best selves. On Feb. 4, despite Luka Dončić playing at an MVP level all season long, the Mavericks were just three games over .500, in eighth place in the West — looking like they’d spend the stretch run of a second straight season bobbing and weaving in the play-in picture.


Four days later, at the 2024 NBA trade deadline, they’d make a pair of deals, adding power forward P.J. Washington and center Daniel Gafford. About three weeks after that, having followed a seven-game winning streak by dropping five of six — the kind of stretch that made certain dopes wonder just what the hell to make of Dallas, anyway — Kidd shuffled his rotation for the umpteenth time, moving Gafford, Washington and defense-first wing Derrick Jones Jr. into the starting lineup alongside Dončić and Kyrie Irving.

And everything just clicked.

Dallas ripped off a 16-4 run to finish the season, boasting the NBA’s second-stingiest defense in that span and rising up to the No. 5 seed. The Mavericks outclassed the fourth-seeded Clippers — featuring an either mitigated or missing Kawhi Leonard — in Round 1. They choked out the offense of the top-seeded Thunder in Round 2 and did the same thing to the Timberwolves in the conference finals.

The Mavs are now 34-14 since trading for Gafford and Washington — a 58-win pace in an 82-game season. They’re 28-9 since Kidd’s starting-five shakeup — a 62-win pace. Drop off two season-ending losses in which neither Dončić nor Irving played, thanks to having the fifth-seed and their matchup against L.A. all sewn up early, and that’s 28-7 — a torrid 66-win clip.


They have knocked off the West’s No. 1 seed and the NBA’s No. 1 defense. They have a defined identity, built on Luka and Kyrie creating advantages on offense and the roster’s sheer size and athleticism erasing them on the other end. And when it gets into crunch time, they have two half-court locksmiths capable of escaping the constraints of whatever coverage you throw at them.

The Celtics enter this series as favorites, and justifiably so. But Dončić, Irving and this defense — the elements that have coalesced into the best Mavericks team since Dirk became immortal — make for a pretty ferocious underdog.

Boston won the regular-season series, 2-0.

The Celtics’ first win, a 119-110 victory in January, came before the Mavs remade their roster at the trade deadline — no Gafford, no Washington, Josh Green starting, Tim Hardaway Jr. getting 32 minutes off the bench. It also, notably, came without Porziņģis, who sat out the second night of a back-to-back on the road while dealing with right knee inflammation. Boston weathered his absence, thanks in large part to stellar offensive games from Tatum and Brown, who poured in 73 points on 43 field-goal attempts:

Holiday and Horford also chipped in, combining to go 8-for-18 from 3-point range, while Brown led an all-hands-on-deck defensive effort on Dončić. The MVP finalist still finished with 33 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in 40 minutes, but needed 30 shots to get there:

The more relevant meeting came March 1 — after the Gafford and Washington additions, but before Kidd inserted Gafford and Jones into the starting lineup. Boston blitzed the Mavs with a 13-2 run to start the game and led the rest of the way, pouring it on in the second half in a 138-110 rout.


How did Boston get out to that hot start? Funny you should ask:

The C’s ran a ton of offense through Porziņģis early, putting him to work in ball-screen actions — in the half-court, but also in transition, where Dallas’ defense wasn’t yet set — that forced the Mavericks’ defenders to make decisions and guard in space. He announced his presence loudest with the pick-and-pop 3-pointers he drilled — the kind of shots that Kidd and Co. gladly gave up to the likes of Chet Holmgren, Jaylin Williams and Naz Reid in the last two rounds, but that are a much more dangerous proposition coming off Porziņģis’ fingertips.

You could also feel it, though, when Dallas switched the screen and he took the smaller Dončić and Irving deep into the paint — the kind of mismatch-hunting post-up play that Rick Carlisle famously dismissed as an inefficient source of offense during Porziņģis’ tenure in Dallas, but one that the center has become significantly better at maximizing over the past two years. Porziņģis averaged 1.3 points per possession finished in the post this season, according to Synergy Sports — the best mark among 91 players to finish at least 25 such plays.

You could feel it in the way his rolls off a high screen and rim-runs in transition drew extra defensive attention, opening up space for White to get to his floater or Horford to walk into a trail triple. You could feel it in the way the paint was just a little more open for Boston’s slashing drivers, because rookie Dereck Lively II couldn’t afford to leave a high-volume 37.5% long-range shooter with a quick-trigger release and the willingness to make the extra pass alone, even 28 or 30 feet from the rim.


The Celtics scored 1.44 points per possession with Porziņģis on the floor in that first quarter, and 1.41 points per trip in his minutes over the course of the full game — a level of offensive efficiency so high above even Boston’s own league-leading full-season mark as to essentially be an imaginary number.

That’s the version of the Celtics that gives opposing coaches nightmares: the five-out offense where everybody’s a threat to screen, dribble, pass and shoot; where every hole you plug springs a leak somewhere else; where there’s a 20-point-per-game grenade-launcher where an Ivica Zubac, Josh Giddey, Rudy Gobert or Kyle Anderson used to be. After more than five weeks of recuperation and rehabilitation from his soleus strain, the grenade-launcher intends to play in Game 1. If he’s ready to resume his role as Boston’s boundary-breaking bellwether, then the Mavericks might find that there’s nowhere to run to, baby; nowhere to hide.

Kyrie vs. Holiday, White … and everybody else. Let’s start here: I don’t think the Celtics are going to stop Luka, because — with the exception of a couple of games against the Thunder when he was dragging around a sprained knee — I don’t think anybody’s come close to doing it yet.


The league’s leading regular-season scorer is, as our colleague Tom Haberstroh recently noted, on track to lead the 2024 NBA postseason in points, rebounds and assists. He’s averaging 28.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in the playoffs, making him just the fourth player to top 28-9-8 while playing at least 10 games in a postseason run. The other three: Jokić, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson.

He is grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck, possession by possession, and making it do his bidding at a level that few players in the history of the sport have ever reached. (I loved the way ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently described Luka’s relentless intentionality: “Dončić is purpose incarnate.”) So while Brown will do his level best, and while Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla will surely throw the tactical equivalent of the kitchen sink, clawfoot tub, hot water heater and Darmine Doggy Door at Dončić, he’s going to get his — as he did during the regular season, averaging 35-15-12 in two games against Boston.

But the C’s won both of those games and held the Mavs to 112.1 points per 100 possessions in them — 6.3 points-per-100 below their full-season average, an offensive rating that would’ve ranked 25th — because they prevented anybody else from going off. And here’s where the strings come in.

One of the more quietly interesting stories of the Mavericks’ second-round win came on the flipside of Jalen Williams’ underwhelming offensive performance: namely, that he spearheaded an effort (with plenty of help from Cason Wallace, Luguentz Dort, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and just about everybody else in OKC’s perimeter rotation) that influenced Irving into facilitating first rather than looking for his own offense. The difference in his production was glaring:


The billion-dollar question: Can Boston’s All-Defensive backcourt tandem act as the same sort of dampening agent on Irving over the next two weeks?

During the regular season, Holiday and White — who just about evenly split the Kyrie assignment, with plenty of help behind them — handled the job about as well as you could ask. Irving scored 42 points on 43 field-goal attempts against Boston, missing 10 of his 14 3-point tries, dishing just five assists and attempting a measly two free throws in 73 minutes across two games against the C’s — a span in which Boston outscored Dallas by 15 points.

Holiday, White and Co. did their damnedest to get over ball screens and stay connected with Kyrie when he worked away from the ball. The helpers shrank the floor when he came off a screen to try to dissuade him from pulling up for 3 and tried to chase him inside. When he drew a preferred matchup on a switch — Horford, Porziņģis, a reserve wing like Sam Hauser or Payton Pritchard — they loaded up, hoping to keep him between the paint and the arc and force him to make a contested midrange jumper.

He can absolutely do that. Only 10 players made more midrange J's per game than Irving during the regular season. Only five have made more total midrangers in the postseason, where he’s drilling 52.8% of them. You can play the percentages and the angles perfectly, and he can still make you wrong; this is what incredible shot-makers do.


Still: It’s not an easy way for even Kyrie to live. And if it means you’re keeping him from uncorking eldritch wizardry in the lane, from earning the free throws that he knocks down at a near 90% clip, from piling up points from distance and from spoon-feeding the Mavs’ complementary options, then it’s probably the best option available.

If the general fundamentals of the Celtics’ season-long defensive success — avoiding the live-ball turnovers that fuel opponents’ transition attacks, not sending opponents to the foul line, finishing possessions with defensive rebounds to limit second-chance points — hold firm, then the Mavericks’ chances of scoring enough to contend with that elite Boston offense will come down to how effectively their stars can make magic out of thin air. If both of them are doing it, Dallas has a real shot. If only one is, though, the series leans green.

3-point attempts: Who can limit them, and who can get the ones they want. Mazzulla wants his Celtics to let 'em fly, endeavoring to win the math battle by taking and making more of the highest-efficiency shots in the game. Boston led the NBA in 3-point attempts and makes per game during the regular season and is doing the same in the playoffs; nearly 44% of the C’s shot attempts have come from beyond the arc, the highest share in this postseason.


It’s not exactly easy to run a team off the line when both of its centers are serious 3-point threats, when seven members of its eight-man rotation shot 37.5% or better from deep during the regular season and when the lone outsider was Jaylen friggin’ Brown. Finding a way to do it, though, can pay off handsomely. When the Celtics have gotten up 40 or more 3s, they’re an eye-popping 50-10. Fewer than 40? A comparatively pedestrian 26-10.

The Mavericks don’t launch as many 3s as Boston, but they have specialized in the most valuable ones on the board. Dallas led the league in corner 3-point attempts during the regular season and is doing the same in the playoffs, shooting a sparkling 39.4% from the corners in its run through the West.

At the heart of that is Dončić, whose ability to generate those shots has become the stuff of legend:

Dončić led the NBA in assists leading to corner 3s this season … as he did last season, and the year before that, and in 2019-20. (All that stands between Luka and an uninterrupted five-year streak? 2020-21 Julius Randle. Naturally.) His most frequent targets during the playoffs: Washington and Jones, who rank first and second among all postseason players in corner cash-outs and who played key roles in Dallas outlasting an OKC team hell-bent on limiting the Mavs’ stars.

Whether Dallas can do the same against Boston could depend on whether Washington, Jones and fellow role players like Green and Dante Exum can continue knocking down those corner looks — shots that no team has been better at limiting, by the way, than Boston. Only 6.9% of opponents’ shots against the Celtics in the playoffs have come from the corners; the Mavs went just 4-for-16 on them in the teams’ regular-season meetings.

If Luka and Kyrie can get busy enough against Boston’s drop coverage that Mazzulla, like Mark Daigneault and Chris Finch before him, opts to crank up the pressure and blitz the ball out of their hands, the Mavericks’ “others” will get their shots. The Celtics, in turn, will have to trust their rotations behind the play to make sure the eventual swing-swing shot attempts aren’t wide open … and, from there, hope for the best.

Letting the vicissitudes of role-player 3-point variance decide the fate of the Finals probably won’t make Celtics fans feel all that comfortable. It starts to sound more enticing, though, when you realize the other choice is letting the opponent’s Hall of Famers do it.

And, because I’ve officially had too long to think about this series, here’s more stuff on my mind:

  • How much will Boston play its preferred drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, having just watched Luka and Kyrie torch Minnesota’s?

  • Will Boston start out cross-matching on defense, sliding Porziņģis and Horford off Gafford and Lively and over to wings like Washington, Jones or Green, trying to keep them out of the pick-and-roll hunt?

  • When the C’s play things straight, how effective will they be at pre-switching their more vulnerable pieces out of those actions? And how insistent will Dallas be about toggling through screeners to get the matchup they want, all while the shot clock keeps tick-tick-ticking down?

  • On the other side of the ball: Both Dončić and Irving have played committed defense in this postseason. Can Boston turn the hunters into the hunted enough to get into their legs and sap some of the energy they’ll need on the offensive end?

  • Where will Dallas station its centers defensively? Will the Mavs play it straight from the opening tip, or will they mess around with something like Gafford on Jrue and a wing on Porziņģis just to see how Boston reacts?

  • How hard will the Mavs’ closeouts be when Porziņģis or Horford pop, and can they rotate on a string behind them to keep up with the Celtics’ ball movement and avoid giving up the store?

  • Can their paint-protecting shell hold up well enough to force Tatum, Brown and Co. into the kind of midrange pull-ups that stifled the Thunder and Wolves?

  • How large a role Maxi Kleber might play as a more mobile, floor-spacing big man, one perhaps better equipped to match up with Porziņģis and Horford than Dallas’ better, but more limited two-headed monster? It’s worth noting, though, that Kidd has mostly played Kleber at the 4 since getting him back from injury; the benefits of having one of Gafford and Lively on the floor at all times might outweigh the potential drawbacks …

  • … including on the offensive glass, where the Mavs have recovered nearly 30% of their missed shots in the playoffs. Eleven of Boston’s 20 losses have come in games where they’ve allowed an offensive rebounding rate of 30% or higher. Can Dallas tilt the odds by tilting the possession game?

  • How aggressive is Tatum in trying to get to the rim? He drove to the basket 17 times in the January win, nearly double his regular-season average, and took a season-high 19 free throws. He drove 13 times in the March win, took just one shot between the paint and arc and got to the line seven times. NBA.com’s John Schuhmann notes that Tatum has shot just 20-for-60 (33.3%) on pull-up 2-pointers in these playoffs; settling for those shots can stifle Boston’s offense. Pressing his physical and skill advantages against Washington, Jones, Kleber, et al., by seizing chances to get downhill, though, can keep the machine humming.

Celtics in 6

The toughest time Dallas had in these playoffs came against Oklahoma City. With Porziņģis back, Boston is basically a bigger, better and even more balanced version of the Thunder — one that also has much more experience on the big stage and more high-level shot creators and shot makers. Luka will put the fear of God into them, but the Celtics have been the best team in the NBA since the season started; they’ll be its best team when it ends, too.

Boston Celtics (-225)
Dallas Mavericks (+180)

Game 1: Thursday @ Boston (8:30 p.m., ABC)
Game 2: Sunday @ Boston (8 p.m., ABC)
Game 3: Wed., June 12 @ Dallas (8:30 p.m., ABC)
Game 4: Fri., June 14 @ Dallas (8:30 p.m., ABC)
*Game 5: Mon., June 17 @ Boston (8:30 p.m., ABC)
*Game 6: Thu., June 20 @ Dallas (8:30 p.m., ABC)
*Game 7: Sun., June 23 @ Boston (8 p.m., ABC)

*if necessary