June 23, 2024

Kristaps Porziņģis returns to Celtics, and he’s ‘a matchup nightmare’ for Mavericks

BOSTON — With 8 minutes left on the pregame clock Thursday night, the TD Garden Jumbotron flashed a live video of Kristaps Porziņģis heading down a back hallway toward the court.

Porziņģis’ teammates were already on the floor, warming up for Game 1 of the NBA Finals. In all likelihood, Porziņģis had stayed back in the locker room area to undergo some last-minute treatment on the injured left calf that sidelined him for longer than five weeks. If he had instead been looking to maximize the drama surrounding his return to the Boston lineup, he could not have timed his walk through the Celtics tunnel any better.

The camera focused on Porziņģis as he shook the hand of a staff member in the hallway and proceeded to walk past the Celtics bench for his first appearance since April 29. Seeing the 7-foot-2 center on the screen, the crowd, already eager for Boston to open the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, ramped up the noise by several decibel levels. As impressive as the Celtics were earlier in the playoffs, the piece to complete them was ambling his way toward the parquet floor.

“It is a relief to have him back,” Jayson Tatum said, “because we know we’re a much better team when he’s back.”

How would Porziņģis look physically? In a series against his former team, would he be prepared for every challenge of his first career appearance beyond the first round of the playoffs? For Jaylen Brown, any remaining questions dissolved during the first half of Boston’s 107-89 Game 1 win. Porziņģis, who finished with 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting over 21 minutes, wasn’t just healthy enough to play. Parachuting into the finals after a 38-day layoff, he was ready to unlock pure basketball gold.

“He was just making play after play,” Brown said. “And it was just like, all right, he’s back. There was no question about it then.”

Porziņģis, who came off the bench for the first time since Jan. 19, 2017, checked in with 7:17 left in the first quarter with the Celtics ahead 12-11. He scored 11 points over the next 6:08 as Boston extended its lead to 34-20 and then put up two highlight blocks during the final minute of the first quarter. The first block came against Kyrie Irving in space. After a Tatum turnover 45 seconds later, Porziņģis raced back in transition to stone a Josh Green dunk attempt at the rim.

“It doesn’t matter how long he takes off,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “The guy is going to make plays because of how talented he is and the work he puts in.”

Despite what Mazzulla said, nobody quite knew if Porziņģis would play like himself after missing Boston’s 10 previous playoff games. Though Mazzulla insisted Porziņģis did not have a minutes restriction, the decision to bring him off the bench for just the second time in his career suggested the team did not believe the big man was at full strength.

Even Porziņģis wasn’t certain how his body would respond to his first game action since Game 4 of the first-round series.

“It’s hard to say because all these thoughts went through my mind in that moment,” Porziņģis said after Game 1. “Like, what do I answer? I want to say I’m fine, you know, but I haven’t played, I haven’t been out there, I haven’t had the feel of like, am I 100 percent, you know?

“But tonight was an affirmation to myself, no, that I’m pretty good, you know? Maybe I’m not perfect (physically), but I’m pretty good and I can play like this and I can definitely add to this team.”

A series against Luka Dončić and Irving is no place for a hobbling big man to hide. It would have been a major problem for Boston if Porziņģis hadn’t been healthy. The Mavericks targeted him early, testing his injured calf, but he quickly showed he could move well enough to take away easy opportunities.

Dončić nailed a falling layup over Porziņģis on the first such possession of hunting the big man, but Porziņģis collected stops on two consecutive possessions after that. He was an all-around force in the first half of his return.

Late in the second quarter, Porziņģis splashed home a long 3-pointer to give Boston a 63-35 lead. Near the end of one of the Celtics’ best halves all season, he celebrated the basket by trotting backward with a big smile on his face. He scored 18 of his points before halftime.

“KP got to an unbelievable place there early in the first half, in the first quarter, and I just felt like it got us going and took us to another level as a team,” Al Horford said. “That was huge for us.”

Horford took Porziņģis’ usual place in the first unit. As the Game 1 starters set up for the opening jump ball, Porziņģis jumped up and down on the sidelines and screamed toward one of his teammates. He looked like a 7-foot-2, Latvian Rick Flair.

“Woooo!” Porziņģis yelled.

Porziņģis, in an unusual bench role, would need to wait for his first stint. Still, he was already revved up. He had every reason to be. In his ninth NBA season, he is making his finals debut against the team that essentially gave up on him by dealing him to the Washington Wizards at the 2022 trade deadline. The pairing of Dončić and Porziņģis, which excited the Mavericks in theory, never meshed in reality.

Porziņģis has proven to be a much better fit, and a more complete player, in Boston. It still raised some eyebrows when, at his first news conference after the Celtics acquired him, Porziņģis said he didn’t know if he would be ready for the challenge of the playoffs.

But on a team with loads of playoff experience, Porziņģis owned hardly any. He has said during his final playoff series in Dallas, one of three in his career before this season, the Mavericks coaching staff essentially stationed him in a corner and limited him to a role as a floor spacer. It was only honest for Porziņģis to acknowledge he didn’t know how exactly he would handle a bigger role on a title contender. The playoff heat can break players.

It also can reveal all the work a player has put in over the years. Porziņģis, once a shaky low-post player, developed that area into one of his greatest strengths after the Mavericks traded him. In Game 1, he drained four jump shots out of post-ups, hurting the Dallas defense for switching smaller defenders onto him.

“He’s a matchup nightmare,” Derrick White said. “Even when you play good defense, he doesn’t see you. It’s been unreal just watching him all year. Then defensively, he uses his size well, just impacts the games in so many different ways. He changes us and he makes us a better team.”

Even after an extended absence, Porziņģis was finals-ready.

“It’s just basketball,” Porziņģis said. “It’s OK, it’s high intensity, it’s like more intricacies of the game and stuff, (there is) more focus on little details. But at the end (of the day), it’s just basketball and I’ve been doing this for a long time. Even if I have time off, I can jump right back in and I feel the same way. I get to my spots and I (operate).

“So whether it’s playoffs, regular season or whatever, I know how to do this. That’s it, just having that confidence, going out there whatever, first round or finals, just going out there with full confidence and giving what I have to the team.”

Boston players and coaches believed all season that Porziņģis would give them more solutions deep in the playoffs.

During much of the first half Thursday, he was the solution. Though the Celtics only lost once without him in the second round and Eastern Conference finals, they never looked as dominant in either series as they did in the first two quarters of Game 1.

They will need to be great for the rest of the series to hold off Dončić, Irving and the talented Mavericks defense, but with Porziņģis back, they are whole again.

(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)