In the NBA Finals, the Celtics and Mavs face different challenges than the ones they just overcame

Each NBA playoff series is its own event, with no true point of continuity between the end of one and the beginning of another.

For example, the Minnesota Timberwolves took down the defending champion Denver Nuggets, but that didn’t automatically make them kings of the hill; The series against the Dallas Mavericks in the next round presented a completely different set of challenges, and the Timberwolves’ roster was less able to handle those challenges. Likewise, the Indiana Pacers’ valiant battle against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals tells us almost nothing about what might happen to Boston in its series against Dallas; Regardless of the inclination to hire Rick Carlisle, Indiana and Dallas couldn’t be less similar.

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This is an important piece of knowledge to retain in the coming days, as we survey every possible angle in our extended break before the start of the NBA Finals between the Celtics and Mavericks on June 6. Dallas has won six of its past seven games, culminating in an elimination. by Minnesota on Thursday, while Boston won 12 of 14 by a double-digit scoring margin.

However, using those matchups as a predictive point for what might happen in the NBA Finals is a fatal flaw: The matchup between these two teams will be very different from what they faced in the previous round. In that sense, it’s probably a good thing that Dallas and Boston have a few days off to recalibrate. The formula for winning in the next round will be radically different.

Take the Celtics, who just finished a series against one of the most extreme teams in basketball and now need to adapt to a completely different type of team on both ends. The Pacers’ defensive approach, in particular, is about 180 degrees different from Dallas’. The Pacers have given up the fewest three-point attempts in the league this season and have been more willing to allow drives to the rim as long as they shut down the three-point line.

Although they played that role imperfectly against the Celtics — Boston still shot 43 threes per game in the conference finals, right in line with their season total — it’s still a radically different approach than what Dallas did in its three playoff runs. The Mavs tried to protect the basket at all costs with rim protectors Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford, holding opponents to just 50.2 percent shooting on 2s in the playoffs entering Game 5 against Minnesota.

The Mavs didn’t give up a huge amount of 3s overall, but there was one particular type they were willing to give up — pick-and-pop-type 3-pointers from opposing centers. The Clippers and Wolves didn’t have the key players to hurt them here, but Dallas allowed Chet Holmgren and Jaylen Williams to fire up the Thunder (42 attempts in six games), while Minnesota backup Naz Reid tallied 25 three-point attempts in 132 minutes in the conference finals. .

Needless to say, this is a very questionable strategy to pursue against the Celtics if Kristaps Porzinis is healthy (he is expected to return for the NBA Finals). Porziņģis shot 37.5 percent from 3 this season on more than six attempts per game, and many of his attempts were from several feet beyond the 3-point line. In this regard, Boston big man Al Horford received 41.9 percent.

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Dallas isn’t the only team to have this problem. Keeping rim protectors close to the rim has been a vexing question for Boston’s opponents all season, one that has seen many original but unsuccessful solutions. For example, Golden State tried to put Draymond Green on Jaylen Brown, keeping Green in the paint and challenging Brown to shoot 3s in a March game. Brown hit five 3s in the first seven minutes and was on pace to break Wilt Chamberlain’s career scoring record before the Warriors reconsidered.

I was there for that game, and my column this weekend delves deeper into the unique dilemmas presented by Boston’s superior shooting at every position. The short version: Teams that strive to get 3s and live with basket attacks, like Indiana, are the only ones that stand a chance against the Celtics. Sure, the Pacers gave up points, but they also beat Boston twice in the regular season and put them to death in Game 1 of the Conference Finals before fate intervened… with a late 3-pointer.

By contrast, Dallas was an average team at blocking the opponent’s 3 and played that way again in the playoffs. The big puzzle for the Mavs is figuring out how to twist a defensive strategy that was close to perfect to play with the Clippers, Thunder, and Wolves and adapt it to play with a completely different Boston team. Recent events do not bode well on this front. When the Mavs walked into Boston with all of their new trade pieces in March, they lost 138-110, with Boston shooting 21 of 43 on 3s.

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However, the Celtics have some adjustments of their own to make. While Indiana would shove the ball down their throats at every possible opportunity with anyone with the rock, Dallas plays a much slower, more central style. Yes, the Mavs will run opportunistically, but compared to the Pacers’ play, it will look like they’re shifting from technical delirium to Gregorian chants.

Additionally, the player at center in Dallas is likely the best offensive player in the league, working against a defense that essentially has one weakness — an inability to really switch between five positions. We saw how it worked out for Minnesota, the top-ranked defensive line in the league. Can the Celtics really survive a series of coverages against 40-plus minutes of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving? Or do they need to feel uncomfortable?

While the Celtics have more options on the roster (maybe they could put Porziņģis on Derrick Jones Jr. to switch against the pick-and-roll in Dallas with Lively and Gafford, for example) and two All-Defense guards in Jrue Holiday and Derrick White , Dončić. He saw and discovered all the coverage.

Obviously there’s a lot to unpack here – Porziņģis and Irving’s revenge streak! Luka’s first NBA Finals! Jayson Tatum’s shot at redemption! Reflections on the Grant Williams era! We’ll have plenty of time to do all that, but these teams seem almost relieved intermezzo Before this final round. Everyone will need it for a complete tactical overhaul.


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(Photo by Luka Duncic and Al Horford: Maddy Meyer/Getty Images)

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