After winning a combined 24 playoff games, scoring a combined 3,394 points, and outlasting all 28 other teams, the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks are all set for what should be a thrilling NBA Finals. Their paths to get to the final round of the playoffs could not have been more different, though each team represents their opponents’ toughest test yet. Dallas last made the Finals in 2011, when Dirk Nowitzki delivered an all-timer of a title win, and the Celtics were last seen on this stage getting their hearts ripped out by Steph Curry two years ago. Each team starts a guy who flamed out as a member of the opposing team, each team’s best player has made first-team All-NBA for three seasons running, and nobody involved in this series has won an MVP award. The Celtics were the best team in the NBA all season; Luka Doncic is undoubtedly the best player in this series.

To preview the Finals—which tip off tonight at 8:30 Eastern, on ABC—we have called upon the expertise of seven Defector staffers, and we are considering the series through the following lens: What are the three things to look out for when each team has the ball? Three writers have answered that question on either side of the ball, and Ray Ratto was assigned to hold court on the broadcasting booth that will work the series. Enjoy the games.

When Dallas Has The Ball

  • Dallas’s regular-season offensive rating: 117.6 (10th); Postseason ORtg: 116.6 (sixth)
  • Boston’s regular-season defensive rating: 111.6 (third); Postseason DRtg: 109.3 (third)

Luka Doncic And The Unconquerable Rage Of The True Gamer

When Luka Doncic has the ball, he’s most often going to initiate the Mavericks’ offense with a pick-and-roll. When that happens, the defense is left with three options: 1) switch the screen, sending the big man up to guard Doncic on the perimeter 2) play drop, sinking the big man into the paint and inviting Doncic forward, or 3) blitz, double-teaming Doncic on the perimeter in an attempt to force the ball out of his hands.

None of these options are good. The blitz gets undone by Doncic’s combination of size and passing genius, allowing him to throw the ball out of a double-team to any spot on the floor with precision accuracy. Drop coverage just creates a cat-and-mouse game in which the cat either ends up hitting an open floater or setting up his teammate with a lob at the rim. As for switching, well, we’ve all seen how that goes:

Doncic will present the Celtics with more than just tactical challenges. His size and skill and processing speed all make him impossible to guard, but the thing that makes him impossible to defeat is his Gamer Rage.

What is Gamer Rage? It’s what you saw on Doncic’s face when he shouted, “Motherfucker! You can’t fucking guard me!” at the back of poor Rudy Gobert’s skull. It is an emotional state that Doncic, an avid enough gamer to have reached Top 500 rank in Overwatch, is all too familiar with. Gamer Rage’s potency relative to other types of rage cannot be overstated. Doncic has been engaged in high-level athletic competition since he was a teenager, but I can guarantee you that he has never felt angrier than when he lost a game of Overwatch because his teammate, who is a stupid piece of shit, didn’t nano-boost him when he dove into the opponent’s backline. Gamer Rage is a pure, full-body experience that cannot be avoided. Instead it must be conquered. Because if it isn’t, a controller hits the television screen and the game is over. 

A familiarity with this sort of rage gives Doncic a special advantage on the court. No scoring drought, no amount of hostile crowd noise, no insult from an opponent will be able to make him as angry as watching his rank decrease throughout a seven-game Overwatch losing streak can. This guy has spent hours and hours of his life playing a madness-inducing game while being screamed at by some of the world’s most addled teenagers, and he has had to find a way to control the anger that experience produces. This makes him both meaner and mentally stronger than everyone he will be competing against in the NBA Finals. I wish the Celtics luck. — Tom Ley

Kyrie Irving And Early Offense

Luka Doncic is unsolvable in the half-court, capable of tuning his attack to any speed to unbalance his opponent. The one speed on a basketball court he does not especially relish: full sprint. Doncic likes to collect a rebound and ease back up the floor at slug tempo, and I can’t blame him, because he does a lot of work out there, and is even playing some defense these days, so he’s gotta find time to suck some wind. That doesn’t mean he isn’t seeing opportunities further up court—he sees every gap in the defense at every moment—it’s just that Doncic himself is not going to be cannonballing down the center of the floor to force the issue, like some pinker and damper LeBron. But that’s what the rest of the Mavericks are for. Doncic has wonderful run-and-jump athletes like Derrick Jones Jr. and Dereck Lively eager to do the sprinting by proxy, catching those serene lobs and dunking them into place. More importantly, he has co-star Kyrie Irving to act as a fleet-footed intermediary who ensures that the offensive dark magic spreads to places where Doncic’s foot speed alone cannot take it.

The shift in the Mavericks’ offensive diet is glaring. Since Doncic was drafted, the Mavs have ranked, in terms of frequency of transition offense, 28th in the league, 30th, 30th, 29th, 30th—until this past season, when suddenly, they leapt up to 13th. The Doncic-Irving chemistry did not immediately take, but in their first full season together they figured out how to combine their collective handling-passing-scoring threats to devastating effect, most visibly in their quick-hitting early offense. Kyrie Irving attacking a defense that’s not fully set is instant death, either by his own hand or an open teammate’s. He will streak up the sideline as soon as the Mavericks turn the ball over or seize a rebound, and even in those instances where he cleans the boards himself, he is happy to offload the rock to Doncic and keep moving. Though most celebrated for his elaborate on-ball hijinks, Irving understands that both a ball and person-without-ball move way faster than any person-with-ball. Throughout this postseason, on nights when his own shot isn’t falling, he has juiced the Mavericks’ offense by spraying the ball around quickly enough to keep a rotating or backpedaling defense in hell. 

That extra early-offense oomph might prove essential for Dallas in the Finals. Because if you were to design a defense to bother an inveterate mismatch hunter like Doncic in the pick-and-roll, you would 1) fail, but 2) probably settle on something quite similar to the Celtics’ switch-heavy defense with size at every position. Doncic is still too big and talented to be shut down completely, but he will have to toil much harder for his advantages than he did against the Thunder and Wolves. The Mavericks will be hungry to score outside the half-court, and we’ll see Doncic pitch the ball to Irving, praying that the quicker guard can earn them an edge early in the shot clock.

Unfortunately for Dallas, such opportunities might be scarce and difficult: The Celtics turned the ball over the least of any regular season team and, relatedly, had the best transition defense in terms of points ceded per possession. And depending on how the Celtics lay out their defensive assignments, we might also see just how creative Irving can get when he’s haunted by Jrue Holiday, one of the few who can hang with him step for step. This will be a more challenging Finals sidekick gig for Irving than any in Cleveland. Doncic will be well-rested, but he’s also been carrying knee and ankle injuries for weeks, and said on Tuesday that the time off didn’t fix anything. Anytime Irving senses the Doncic energy bar dwindling, he’ll have to be assertive, seizing on opportunities that are barely there. — Giri Nathan

What Does Boston Do With Their Centers?

The bread-and-butter of the Mavericks offense is a form of basketball cruelty laid out above, and when the going gets truly tough, they have Luka Doncic locate the opposing center, wave him up for a screen, and then invite the usually overmatched big guy to dance with him. Accepting the switch, instead of bending the shape of the defense around and scrambling, is a tough gambit to accept and teams only accept it because the alternative is something perverted like the Gobert shot.

In the same way that the Clippers’ offense is theoretically set up to thrive in the slower, more matchup-based playoffs, the Celtics defense is also as playoff-ready as any scheme gets. They don’t rely on forcing turnovers, which tends not to really work in a playoff context, they just smother you, everywhere, until you croak. Jrue Holiday has lost a half-step, but he’s still a total freak at the point of attack, especially now that he has fewer creative responsibilities. Derrick White, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are also all plus-defenders for their position, and honestly all four of those guys could have arguments for all-defense.

The only weak point in the Celtics’ defense, which is as switchable 1-4 as any NBA team I have ever seen play defense ever, is that Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis can’t really guard in space. In recent matchups against the Mavericks, and notably, in their second-round series against the Cavs, their solution has been to put their centers on the opposing team’s least capable wing player, conceding the switch on the least favorable terms possible. Sure, Doncic might get his wish, but every subsequent action becomes more difficult and clunkier if, say, Derrick Jones Jr. is tasked with making a quick decision and initiating 20 or so plays a night. If there’s no immediate threat of the screener doing something with the ball, the downside of blitzing Doncic or sending late help or doing anything else shrinks, and, crucially, gives the Celtics the initiative.

The downstream consequences of this stratagem are fascinating for both teams. Whoever the Celtics put on Dereck Lively II or Daniel Gafford is going to have to be extremely careful offering help, as one single half-step in the wrong direction opens a large enough window for a quick-fire lob. They will also have to box out like their life depends on it, as both centers love to crash the offensive glass for putbacks. That job will probably go to Jayson Tatum, who is hard to dislodge and also a good rebounder. One wonders, then, if the Mavericks will target someone like Derrick White instead of someone like Al Horford, accepting a slightly less favorable matchup against Doncic. White is a great defender and is only a weak point on a team as great as the Celtics, against an opponent as huge as Doncic, but out of the group of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Jrue Holiday, he’s the only one who Doncic can expect to put under the basket with regularity.

The Celtics protect the rim as well as any team in the NBA, both because their guards make it hard to get there and Porzingis snuffs out many who get past the first line. That said, the Mavericks have really found something with the bivalent threat of Washington’s shooting and their centers’ lob-catching. It’s a different type of spacing, and the simplest way to contain that is still forcing someone other than Doncic to make decisions. The degree to which they can confuse him will determine their defensive performance more than anything else. — Patrick Redford

Halftime Ratto Special

JJ Redick is scheduled to take second chair next to Mike Breen and Doris Burke at Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Boston, spreading wisdom, knowledge, theory, and practicum of all things Celtics and Mavericks for ABC and its many ancillaries. It seemed as recently as yesterday, though, that Jeanie Buss and her adjutant LeBron James had a chair for him 3,000 miles west and could not wait for him to fill it.

That was before his job was apparently usurped by Danny Hurley, the national championship coach from Connecticut, leaving us with the even more shorts-riding-up discomfort of watching him putting a happy face on his future while the Finals are going on around him. However it plays out, we will still have the sheer gymnastic phenomenon of watching NBA gadflies fulminate about Redick’s potential hiring.

The basic argument is one thing—”is he or isn’t he” runs out of steam pretty quickly, especially now that it looks like “isn’t he” is winning, while the speculative intrigues leading up to that question are straight out of the covering-the-royals playbook: Who’s hiring, who’s the power behind the throne, who knew what and when did they know it, who’s talking to Woj and who’s talking to Shams, and who’s talking to Stephen A. and why isn’t anyone talking to Pat McAfee. It’s a hot mess in which everyone claims to be right because nobody can prove anyone wrong (See: Clark, Caitlin and Carter, Chennedy).

The best part of this is that Redick became a protagonist because he is the new loudest voice in NBA analysis, spending remarkably little time climbing to the top of that gig before apparently crawling out the top hatch and catching the first helicopter out. Whether or not the Lakers prefer him to begin the task of raising them back to their glory years, the fact remains that said glory years largely ended in 2013, and even though they won the bubble title in 2020, their overall record in that span is a drab 26th, just below Charlotte and just above Sacramento. The only teams who have employed more coaches in that timeframe are the Kings, Knicks, and Nets. There’s a message in there that’s hard to miss. Throw in LeBron’s advanced age, and contract and familial situations, and this could become the worst job in basketball in a heartbeat.

Against that, the job Redick has now is pretty sweet. As second analyst on ABC/ESPN’s top commentary team, Redick replaced the the lower half of the longtime partnership of Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, a.k.a. The Scold Brothers. We say “lower half” because we would prefer Doris Burke on nearly anything just as a matter of personal preference. Jackson and Van Gundy had held their places for 17 years, with Jackson missing two seasons while he took on the task of disinfecting the Golden State Warriors, and a case can be made that they had worn out everyone else’s welcome just by lasting so long. The only unit ever to share a booth for a longer term was the NFL’s conjoined larynges Pat Summerall and John Madden, and they became universally beloved. Inside The NBA, the TNT powerhouse against which ESPN is very unfavorably compared and has now been promoted to Simpsons status as a staple of the American viewing experience, has been around in one form or another for 35 years, but only in its present configuration of Ernie, Kenny, Shaq, and Chuck, since 2012. Indeed, the way you know Inside is that big is that none of them have surnames any more.

ESPN is going through chair upheaval across all its vehicles as a result on Inside‘s dominance in basketball thought, and the promotion of Burke is ridiculously overdue. Redick, though, is a revelation of a different sort, positioning himself as the new oracle of basketball against the largely comedic stylings of Inside. He suffers fools poorly (a feature he will not display with Breen and Burke, who are anything but), and isn’t someone who often displays the kind of self-deprecation that has worked so well for Barkley. He seems, well, slightly preachy.

And if we get what we’re after here, which is for him to defy this morning’s experts and leave Breen and Burke in the lurch at the last minute, he won’t have to self-deprecate at all. He would be the unheard voice if he abandons the gig before it even launches to stand next to Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka and the overarching specter of James, looking mildly uncomfortable at a presser and holding up a jersey he will never wear to try and fix a team that has been patching holes in a leaky boat for a decade.

At worst, Redick will be offered another coaching gig quickly, so even if he stays for the entire series he isn’t likely to stay much beyond that. Redick will join other broadcasters who skipped the coaches’ training course to get a plum gig, like Jackson and Steve Kerr. And if it happens with so little lead-in, his replacement could very well be a new, vibrant and youthful presence in the basketball broadcasting scam who will reinvent anew the game experience for viewers across the globe in different ways than Redick promised.

His name? Hubie Brown. — Ray Ratto

When Boston Has The Ball

  • Boston’s regular-season offensive rating: 123.2 (first); Postseason ORtg: 120.1 (first-tie)
  • Dallas’ regular-season defensive rating: 115.4 (18th) Postseason DRtg: 112.2 (sixth)

Kristaps Porzingis Is The Unsolvable Problem

When Kristaps Porzingis went down with a calf injury in Game 4 of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Heat, it felt ominous. Porzingis has always been a walking injury report, and his health this season felt like a mirage—a powerful mirage, but one nonetheless. He only played 57 games in his first season with Boston, thanks to a variety of lower body injuries. Still, though, after a month of rest and recuperation for his calf, the big Latvian is reportedly healthy and ready to go for the Finals, and this poses one of the biggest problems, both in literal and figurative terms, for the Mavericks.

Boston inserted Porzingis into its five-man lineup this season and promptly beat the everloving hell out of everyone, thanks in large part to his unique skillset as a center. While his defensive prowess helped solidify Boston on that side of the ball, giving the Celtics a rim protector with enough agility to both switch and drop back in coverage, it’s his offensive play that truly unlocked the best five-man lineup in the league. Porzingis at the five gives the Celtics an entire lineup of knockdown shooters; for the season he made 37.5 percent of his threes on five attempts per game. Dallas’s defense thrived in the first three rounds by packing the paint and sagging off non-shooters, but Porzingis negates that strategy in two ways. The more obvious is that he will simply nail his shots if defenders play off of him; he’s got a quick release for a guy his size, and he’s not hesitant to shoot from deep. The bigger problem for the Mavs, though, might be inside that previously walled-off paint.

While Dallas was able to switch onto Rudy Gobert and even Chet Holmgren in its path to the Finals, letting worse defenders like Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving have a bit of a breather outside of the paint, that won’t work here, as Porzingis can drive into the lane and either shoot over them or simply score with a variety of post moves and fakes that made him as deadly a post scorer as there was in the league; 25 percent of his shot attempts came from inside three feet, and he made a ludicrous 75 percent of them. On post-ups, specifically, he was elite, averaging 1.3 points per possession on post-ups (first in the league for anyone averaging at least one post-up per game), and going to the well on 19 percent of offensive possessions (sixth-most in the league).

So, what can the Mavericks do? Honestly, if Porzingis is truly recovered from his injury, there’s not a good answer. Dallas won’t help off of Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, of course, but even helping off Derrick White (40.7 percent shooting from deep on 8.4 attempts per game) and Jrue Holiday (39.7 percent on 4.9 attempts) will open up Boston’s league-leading three-point attack. It will likely then fall to Dallas’ big men, Dereck Lively and Daniel Gafford, to be omnipresent; they’ll have to body up Porzingis pretty much from 30 feet on in, while also being flexible and mobile enough to help block off the paint on the Jays, while also not giving up space on the guards. Doncic and Irving will also have to be on point; there will be no easy matchups in crunch time for them, and if they require help from one of the big men, Porzingis might just be able to feast. It’s an impossible ask for a team to play defense against Boston when it has its full complement of shooters, and with Porzingis back in the lineup, navigating that minefield will go a long way towards deciding whether Dallas can keep up with Boston’s turbocharged lineup for long enough to win this series. — Luis Paez-Pumar

Dribbling Is Real Important

Defense wins and loses series; rebounding wins and loses series; passing wins and loses series; shooting wins and loses series. Dribbling maybe doesn’t quite win or lose series. Or anyway most of the time it doesn’t, even if only because, generally speaking, it doesn’t have a chance to: Most teams have some guys who can do it, and the guys who can’t do it don’t have to. Rare indeed is the team both A) good enough at all the other stuff that dribbling can be perhaps its greatest and only significant weakness, and B) bad enough at dribbling that it might plausibly duff several otherwise legitimate championship campaigns for lack of the ability to bounce the basketball. The Boston Celtics may just be that team.

So, what does that actually look like? The outlier case is Game 7 of the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Celtics got blown off their home floor by the Miami Heat because—well, for several reasons, surely, including Jayson Tatum playing through an ankle injury that severely limited him. But also because nobody on the team could handle the ball well enough to break down Miami’s defense or get Boston into its offense quickly, and the job fell to Jaylen Brown, who can’t dribble, and he bounced that sucker off his own foot like 250 times.

It isn’t always that stark. The shape it usually takes is more like: The opposition starts hectoring Boston’s guards the length of the floor; the Celtics lose precious seconds to the struggle of simply getting the ball past half-court; this costs them the ability to screen-and-pass-and-move their way to the best possible shot, and then rears its head again as a result, because now the shot-clock is running low and they need somebody to just win a matchup and get a bucket, and nobody’s well suited to it, because instead of supple five-fingered hands and loose, flexible wrists each of the Celtics’ arms ends in a single gigantic thumb. And so somebody hucks up a crappy contested jumper instead. Or dribbles off of his own foot.

Again: Generally the Celtics are too good at all the other stuff for this deficiency to have harmed them all that much; it certainly did not slow them before now in these playoffs. Everything else about how this Boston team plays—most especially its outstanding defense, which enables it to transition to offense off of misses and avoid walking the ball up against pressure—reduces its dependence on off-the-bounce playmaking. But also, again: The Celtics have tended to end their seasons shy of rings, and a real part of that, before now, is that at some point in each playoff run, there has come a point when they needed to be good at dribbling, and weren’t.

Boston sorta addressed this after last spring’s flameout. Jrue Holiday is, in fact, a steadier ball-handler than the Celtics’ nominal point guard of yore, Marcus Smart, who dribbled pretty much like Allen Iverson if Allen Iverson was holding a spatula in each hand, and generally responded to ball-pressure by panicking and committing a charging foul. But Holiday isn’t a (this term sucks and I apologize) true point guard; he’s always been at his best when not tasked with the duties of a primary playmaker, in no small part because he’s just not a dynamic dribbler. This series presents a fun contrast, unless you are a Boston fan: In Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic, the Mavs feature two God-tier individual ball-handlers, who can rescue broken possessions, trump sound defense, and create advantages where there should be none; and the Celtics feature no particularly dynamic ball-handlers at all.

So here is what you can expect: At some point, possibly as soon as the opening possessions of tonight’s Game 1, the Mavericks will extend their on-ball defense all the way to half-court or beyond, or start pressuring Boston’s ball-handlers the length of the floor after made baskets, or zone up to negate Boston’s athletic advantages. Any of those will be a bet against the Celtics’ ability to simply dribble the basketball as well as they do any or all of the other stuff: To withstand ball pressure, to navigate traffic jams, to knife into the middle of the floor and draw help. Dribbling is important! — Albert Burneko

Daniel Gafford??? In This Economy???

Daniel Gafford will be the starting center for the Western Conference champions in the NBA Finals. The starting center for the other team will be Kristaps Porzingis. I can’t think of a way of saying this that will not cause great alarm, so I think the thing to do is to just say it: Both of these men were traded to their current teams by the Washington Wizards. There is, in fact, a long and devastating history of frustrating Washington big men leaving town and becoming key contributors on legitimate title contenders, but I don’t think any of us feel like descending into hell today. Let’s just move right along.

Gafford’s an interesting case, in that he was not good as a member of the Wizards. He’s limited in ways that tend to create enormous vulnerabilities for a team with a shitty roster, which for at least 40 years has been the most succinct way of describing the Wizards’ basketball operation. He can’t shoot at all. He can’t pass at all. He can’t dribble at all. I realize that I have just described basically every core skill of the sport. He is an eye-popping shot-blocker but not usually a dominant rim-protector; he is quick and athletic enough to be a defensive disruptor but is also sort of dopey and unsure, so he can be late to assignments and can do a lot of unnecessary fouling. He never even came close to moving the needle defensively for Washington, where over parts of four seasons the Wizards were between one and five points better by per-100-possessions performance when Gafford was off the court. I may or may not at one time or another have said that Gafford stinks, and while that was probably a bit strong, owing to decades of irreversible soul-curdling that comes with rooting for this goddamned franchise, certainly it was defensible. Gafford is a supremely athletic fellow who tries very hard and has gorgeous eyes; by February of 2024, when the Wizards shipped him to Dallas for salary relief and a hysterical pick-swap, I was mostly glad to see him go.

The Mavericks have a good roster. They have at least two ball-handlers capable of running not-insane pick-and-rolls; they have smart veterans who can call the shots defensively; they have an alpha scorer around whom all role-players can fit comfortably into orbit. Gafford’s job makes sense in Dallas: He sets screens at the top of the key, he rolls into the paint, he catches lobs, he dunks the ball. When he is not setting the screens—when the Mavericks do small-small pick-and-rolls in order to hunt favorable matchups—Gafford lurks in the dunker spot, where he is just as dangerous a lob threat and therefore still exerts some small amount of gravitational pull on the orientation of the opposing defense. Step out above the restricted arc to cut off Luka Doncic or Kyrie Irving, and they have the option of tossing the ball pretty much anywhere within arm’s length of the backboard, where Gafford is likely to grab it, and is then likely to pound it down through the hoop with arena-rattling force.

Some of what will happen in this series will be Boston running sets and pet actions for clean looks and open driving lanes, but there has not been a Finals in this millennium that did not eventually resolve at key moments into each team hunting around via screens for favorable one-on-one matchups. There’s a good chance a game or two will be decided by the Celtics picking out some targeted Dallas defender and dragging him into the torture chamber, so that Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown can work them over for isolation buckets. Probably the first choice will be Irving, who is tiny and an obvious physical mismatch, but Irving showed in the Minnesota series that he can at least hold up long enough for the Mavericks to support him with dangerous traps and double-teams and count on razor-sharp rotations and recoveries to stall out the 4-on-3 advantages. Gafford was a large part of that, racing around heroically and then holding up at the rim, the vision of what he could do defensively that describes almost entirely why he was ever drafted into the NBA in the first place. If Irving holds up at the point of attack and the Celtics need to find another bozo to isolate, I expect Gafford to be their second choice. Tatum and Brown will feel like they can rock him onto his heels and then rise up for three-pointers, or blow by him at a sprint and finish through the significantly less impressive rim-protectors around him. This is my favorite part of watching playoff basketball. Who out there has been labeled The Scrub? And how is The Scrub isolated? And how do The Scrub’s teammates try to prevent his exploitation? And how in THE HELL is Daniel Gafford the starting center of a team in the NBA Finals??

What I am saying to you today is the performance of Daniel Gafford could be what decides this series. I know! — Chris Thompson

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