Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Celtics putting Mavericks through physical test in NBA Finals: ‘That’s the key’

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BOSTON — Five minutes into Game 2 Sunday night, Jaylen Brown sprinted to staple himself to Luka Dončić as the Dallas Mavericks inbounded the basketball. Brown, who has embraced the top defensive assignments for the Boston Celtics this season, needed to race to the other side of the court to do so.

In a twist, Dončić was far away from the action. As his team began its possession, he headed for the far left corner, leaving the ball-handling responsibilities to Derrick Jones Jr. For one of the first times in the NBA Finals, Dončić would get a bit of a break. That was the likely reason the Mavericks wanted Jones to initiate the offense on the play. In a series that will be taxing for Dončić physically on both ends of the court, every moment of rest could pay dividends later on. He barely moved throughout the possession.

The problem? With the ball in somebody else’s hands, the Celtics’ defenders turned into sharks. Derrick White, applying full-court pressure, knocked the ball away from Jones 80 feet away from the Dallas basket. Kyrie Irving stepped over to set a screen for Jones, but that only set up Jrue Holiday, Boston’s other All-Defense guard, to switch onto the athletic forward. Holiday continued hounding Jones, forcing him to rush just to cross the half-court line within the allowed eight seconds. The Celtics created more problems for Dallas from there. Irving took a dribble handoff from Dereck Lively II and tried to turn a corner against Jayson Tatum, but saw Kristaps Porziņģis waiting to help. The big man’s presence convinced Irving to kick the ball to Maxi Kleber in the near corner. Porziņģis was close enough to Kleber to bother him too.

The resulting airball outlined one of Dallas’ dilemmas in this series. Dončić needs a breather every once in a while, but his team can’t survive without the ball in his hands. The Celtics, with more options on both sides of the court, will continue to turn the NBA Finals into a conditioning test for him and Irving.

“That’s the key,” Brown said when asked about the need to make Dallas’ stars work at both ends of the court. “Just trying to wear on those guys, be as physical as we possibly can, full team effort. Just keep touching them. That’s it.”

Brown set the stage for the Celtics’ approach to the finals in January, when he followed a win against the Mavericks by emphasizing the difficulty of playing both ends of the court at a high level. To apply pressure on both offense and defense, Brown said, a player needs to be at a certain level of shape. Though he didn’t say it directly, Brown seemed to imply a belief he and the Celtics players were more prepared to handle the two-way burden. He suggested he used his matchup against Dončić that day to help build endurance for the playoffs. Brown believed the reps of guarding Dončić full-court would pay off in the future.

Fittingly, Dončić is the Celtics’ finals opponent. They have done their best to keep him working throughout the first two games of the series. They have picked him up full-court. They have thrown several different defenders onto him, although Brown has spent the most time on the MVP candidate. They have attacked him relentlessly with dribble drives. If the approach has taken a toll on Dončić, it would be only natural. After scoring 23 points in the first half of Game 2, he had just nine points, eight assists and five turnovers after halftime.

Dončić, dealing with several injuries, including a thoracic contusion that put him on the injury report before Game 2, is being forced to play hard minutes. He has possessed the ball for 7.9 minutes over the first two games, nearly two minutes longer than Tatum, who ranks second in the series in that category. Dallas has needed to do almost all of its scoring in the half court, where points are usually more difficult to come by, against the league’s second-ranked defense.

“They are very physical,” Dončić said after Game 2. “We let them be physical. So they are pretty, pretty amazing on defense.”

While the Celtics spread the ball around to several different ball handlers, the Mavericks ask Dončić and Irving to initiate almost everything. They don’t always have a third playmaker, and their lack of consistent shooting threats has been glaring early in the series.

“We’ve got to score the ball,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said. “And right now, we’ve got to find someone to join Luka and Kai in that scoring category.”

Nobody, including Irving, has been able to take the pressure off of Dončić consistently. The Celtics have won his 15 minutes on the bench by 12 points over the first two games, and that’s despite the Mavericks going on a meaningless run without Dončić at the end of Game 1. Dončić’s usage rate while on the court (36.9 percent) far exceeds that of anyone else with at least 15 minutes in the series. Dallas needs him to set up so much for himself and his teammates.

Boston hasn’t let him hide on defense either. Through the first two games of the Finals, the Celtics have averaged 54.5 drives per game, far more than their average of 39.1 per game during the regular season, according to the NBA’s tracking data. Tatum alone had 29 drives in Game 2, while Brown added 23 of his own. The Celtics have been ruthless about beating the point-of-attack defender, often Dončić, and putting the Mavericks into rotations.

“The way their defense is set up, ” Tatum said, “and how much they’re loading up and converging at the rim, it just puts us in positions to attack and find the easy kickout reads and just to keep the ball popping … so we can get good-to-great shots on each and every possession.”

The Mavericks appeared to try to apply the same strategy against the Celtics. During Game 2, they spent some time hunting Tatum when the Celtics were on defense. Though he’s typically a strong defender, the strategy had the added benefit of putting a greater physical burden on him. It’s hard to drive the ball as often as he has early in this series, and every additional responsibility could sap him of the energy required to do so. Brown, with Dončić as his usual primary matchup, might have an even more demanding role than Tatum in this series. Brown still had enough juice in the final minute to catch P.J. Washington from behind on a pivotal Mavericks fast break.

A long playoff run can be draining, but the Celtics gave themselves significant rest by ending each series early through the first three rounds. They had nine days between the end of the Eastern Conference finals and the beginning of the NBA Finals. With the exception of Porziņģis, who’s still recovering from a calf strain, they should feel fresh for this time of year. Boston should know the significance of that after appearing to wear down during the 2022 NBA Finals.

This deep in the postseason, games and series often become a battle of endurance. The Celtics don’t necessarily need to keep Dončić from being great. They need to keep him from being great enough to carry an outmatched roster to four wins over the next five games. He could surely use some rest here and there, but Boston will do its best to allow him none.

After Kleber’s airball, Lively grabbed an offensive rebound but the Celtics intercepted his pass. Brown headed the other way, where only Dončić was back on defense. After failing to keep Brown from driving for a dunk, Dončić called for the ball. After just a few seconds as a decoy, it was his turn to run the offense again.

(Top photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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