June 15, 2024

Hollinger: If Mavericks’ stars can’t beat Celtics 1-on-1, this series is over

BOSTON — Here’s the most telling play of Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals, in the opening minutes of the second quarter.

Kyrie Irving gets a Maxi Kleber screen at the top of the key, attacks Boston reserve Sam Hauser on a switch going left, can’t get any separation before he’s walled off in the corner and ends up shooting a wild 3 off the side of the backboard.

It was significant for multiple reasons. First, because amazingly it was the Dallas Mavericks’ only corner 3 in the first 39 minutes of the game, one in which the Boston Celtics completely outclassed the Mavs for a 107-89 victory. Second, it was symbolic of Dallas’ game-long failure to force Boston to commit an extra defender to the ball.

Boston turned the Mavs into a one-on-one team and defended Dallas’ two stars well enough that the role players never got in the game. So decisive was Boston’s edge here that the Mavs recorded zero assists in the third quarter … you know, their good quarter, theoretically, when they briefly cut a 21-point halftime deficit to eight before Boston swarmed them with a 14-0 run to put the game away for good.

Thus, at the end of three quarters, the story wasn’t just that Dallas trailed by 22 points, but that the Mavs had compiled a grand total of five assists. They would finish the night with nine, the fewest in a finals game since Cleveland had the same number in Game 1 in 2007. Even that total was padded by cosmetic diming; when the Mavs pulled their regulars off the floor with five minutes left, they had a piddling seven assists for the evening.

Worse yet, the two Mavs whose job it is to make the game easier for everyone else, Irving and Luka Dončić, combined for a grand total of ZERO dimes after halftime. (They finished with two and one, respectively). Dončić’s total truly stands out; he had registered at least two assists in the last 240 regular-season and playoff games in which he’d played 10 minutes or more.

In fact, the only second-half assists from a Dallas starter came on two fourth-quarter drive-and-dishes by forward P.J. Washington. “I was just trying to take some pressure off Ky and Luka bringing the ball up,” he said, in a hint at one possible adjustment.

Bigger picture, however, Dallas led the league in corner 3-point attempts in both the regular season and the first three rounds in the playoffs, and destroyed Minnesota in the conference finals on those lob plays. Boston took both those weapons away with stunning completeness, and at little cost.

The lack of those shots was the canary in the coal mine for a Mavs offense that eked out just 75 points on the 84 possessions it used in the competitive portion of the game.

The Mavs repeatedly ended up going one-on-one against Boston defenders as the Celtics switched every screen across all their players except “backup” center Kristaps Porziņģis. Dallas normally wins these matchups, forcing teams to say uncle and bring second defenders to stop Dončić and Irving, but Boston never felt the need to put two men on the ball and opening the court for the other players.

Dallas tested all of them, including Hauser in the clip above and in two isos against Dončić.

Al Horford? Nope. Here he shades Luka to take away his stepback going left, and then blocks his shot when he tries the same move going right.

Porziņģis? Nope. And not just because the Mavs failed when they tested him; they couldn’t even get to him in the matchup half the time because Boston was so good at pre-switching Dallas’ actions.

And as for the regular matchups, forget it. Some possessions hilariously ended in a Dallas dribbler screening Jrue Holiday only to end up matched against Derrick White, or vice versa. Jaylen Brown clamped Dončić full-court until a screen came, and forced the Mavs’ superstar into some rare gaffes of his own.

With Dončić and Irving unable to create advantages to open the Dallas lob game, the Mavs’ role players became invisible. When they emptied the bench, Dallas’ role players had combined for only 33 points, 14 of which were from Washington.

Can Dallas do any better in Game 2?

The Mavs certainly caught a better rhythm in the second half, but even then they were doing it the hard way, with Dončić having to work to get one-on-one baskets on nearly every trip. By the time White stole the ball from him and sped the other way for a fourth-quarter layup that put Boston up by 21, Dončić was slouched over with exhaustion, not even bothering to chase the play.

Dončić finished with 30 points, but that was a pyrrhic victory. Even as he made his share of shots, the Celtics were never uncomfortable and never really had to make adjustments. He’s also capable of playing better, of course; in particular he weirdly turned down a few shots where he was open and his teammates weren’t, as if he expected Boston to collapse on him like Minnesota did.

Even when he attacked, it was tough sledding. I mean, this is an amazing shot over four defenders, but it’s also an unsustainable way to generate offense over the course of a hundred possessions:

That said, the best hope for Dallas changing its fate in Game 2 might actually be Irving, who at least had some success attacking Porziņģis in drop coverage and getting clean jumpers. Irving shot just 6 of 19, however, and Boston never had to second-guess its plan for containing him.

“I thought Kyrie had great looks that just didn’t go down,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said.

“Some great looks at 3, some great looks in the paint, that’s just part of basketball. Tonight they just didn’t go down for Ky. Hopefully we can get those same shots in Game 2 and we can be better.”

Getting enough one-on-one buckets, from either Irving or Dončić, might be the tipping point that forces Boston to bring more help and lets Dallas’ role players back in the series. For now, the Celtics can keep a lot of potential adjustments in the freezer for later, if they have to go to Plan B.

In Game 2, however, we’re still on Plan A. Dallas never solved it. If the Mavs’ two stars can’t score consistently enough one-on-one to force the Celtics to put two players on the ball, this will be a brief series. In Game 1, they failed.

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