The Boston Celtics are very much for real. There wasn’t really much doubt of that — their 64-win regular season and 12-2 sprint through the Eastern Conference playoffs were pretty strong indicators of their championship-worthiness.

But the Celtics were just a season removed from losing in the first round to Miami, including getting blown out in Game 7 at home. They are just two years removed from surrendering a 2-1 lead to the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals. All the opponents they faced on the road to the Finals this year were missing key players due to injury. It left room for doubt.

Plus, it was the Dallas Mavericks who arrived in the Finals looking like a team firing on all cylinders. Well, after two games in Boston, there’s no question which is the better team for now and it’s the Celtics as they took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 105-98 win that was in some ways even more impressive than their blowout win in Game 1.

On Sunday night Dallas played well, had an early lead on the road, got a huge effort from Luka Doncic (32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists) and were lucky to have Boston shoot just 6-of-30 from three through the first three quarters. But none of it mattered. Boston is the better team and is playing like it. They held Dallas to just 6-of-26 from three, forced them into 15 turnovers, held Kyrie Irving (16 points) in check and benefitted from the Mavericks shooting just 16-of-24 from the free throw line (Boston shot 19-of-20).

The Celtics will head to Dallas for Game 3 on Wednesday in firm control of the series.

Here are some takeaways.

2024 NBA Finals: Celtics vs. Mavericks
Keep up with the latest news and analysis from the NBA Finals as the Boston Celtics clash with the Dallas Mavericks and watch select games on Sportsnet and Sportsnet+.

Holiday in middle of all the action for Celtics

The biggest trade of the season in the NBA was when the Portland Trail Blazers finally broke up with Damian Lillard and traded him to the Milwaukee Bucks. But it wasn’t because of anything that Lillard ended up providing to the under-achieving Bucks. Instead, the move triggered a bidding war of sorts for Jrue Holiday. The veteran guard who had helped Milwaukee win a title in 2021 was sent to Portland for Lillard and was not going to be part of the Trail Blazers’ rebuild.

Boston lined up their ducks and were able to acquire Holiday from Portland for Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams and two first-round picks. It was a brilliant trade from the minute it was made, but the dividends are being paid in full during the playoffs and especially during the Finals.

Unlike Dallas, who struggled to find offence outside their big two, the Celtics have been able to thrive even when their leading scorer, Jayson Tatum, has struggled shooting. In particular, Holiday played nearly perfect basketball in Game 2. It was nothing for him to wrestle with seven-foot-one Dallas centre Derek Lively for a rebound on one end and then rescue a tied-up Tatum with a late basket cut on the other. Early in the third quarter, with Tatum struggling, Holiday crashed the offensive glass and rather than look to score himself, went out of his way to feed Tatum for an ‘and-one’ to help spark the Celtics’ leading scorer.

Holiday attacked when Tatum or Brown got off the ball early whenever Dallas sent multiple defenders. He lurked near the basket like an under-sized centre and ran the floor like the guard he is. His on-ball defence was superb, as usual. It was fitting that his triple with four minutes left, followed by his contest on an Irving three and then his penetration that led to a Derrick White three gave Boston their largest lead of the game with 3:32 remaining. It was the defining sequence of the game and Holiday was in the middle of it as he was all game long for Boston. He finished with 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds for the Celtics.

Mavericks’ role players not rolling

In contrast to Boston’s depth in quality talent, one of the pressing questions coming out of Game 1 was whether anyone on Dallas other than Doncic or Irving could provide some sustainable offence. Heading into the series, the Celtics pushed their chips in on the answer being no, and so far have made a fairly safe bet.

Boston is built to defend stars one-on-one. In Tatum, Brown, Holiday and White, they have four wing defenders that they feel comfortable guarding Doncic and Irving on switches. It’s an approach that allows — for the most part — their centres, Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis, to stay home against the Mavericks’ two primary lob threats, Daniel Gafford and Derek Lively. They can also flatten out their defence to make sure whoever isn’t guarding Doncic or Irving can cover the corners where the Mavericks love to have spot-up three-point threats waiting to catch fastballs.

But the Celtics haven’t been forced into rotation very often and haven’t had to get their centres helping, so much so that lobs at the rim aren’t an option for the Mavericks. That Dallas had 54 lob dunks in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but only one lob attempt in Game 1 captures Boston’s strategy nicely.

The Celtics can get away with it because Dallas doesn’t have anyone who can create offence outside their big two. Rookie Lively looks lost without the option to throw down alley-oops every few possessions, similar to Daniel Gafford.

Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd resorted to playing Maxi Kleber for long stretches in order to get more shooting but Kleber was 0-of-4 from the floor. P.J. Washington didn’t have much to give once Boston took away his pet corner three, and on and on. Dallas can only hope that playing at home for Games 3 and 4 will help their role players play a role.

Doncic fights through the pain

Doncic showed up. The 25-year-old Slovenian star showed up in Game 1 as well, as he led all scorers with 30 points on 12-of-26 shooting. But in Game 2 Doncic brought it right from the beginning.

On the broadcast they showed a remarkable graphic: In playoff games following a loss, Doncic came into Game 2 averaging 34.3 points a game, compared with Michael Jordan who ‘only’ averaged 33.3 points in games following playoff losses in his career. Out-doing playoff MJ? Amazing.

Doncic didn’t waste any time signalling that he was in Boston with a purpose. Doncic had 13 points in the first quarter to help Dallas to an early lead — a nice improvement given the Mavericks were down by 17 after the first quarter of Game 1. Doncic kept it up too — he had 10 more of his game-high 32 points in the second quarter. He did most of his scoring on a ridiculously tough diet of contested fadeaways, above-the-break threes, and difficult (for other people) contested floaters in the lane.

“Boston is going to give the lay-up to Luka, so he’s got to take it,” said coach Kidd before the game. “They’re not going to give him the lob, and they are not going to give the corner three, so it’s two-on-two, and we have to take advantage of that.”

Doncic did just that, but it wasn’t enough against the multi-headed Celtics monster.

Boston’s ‘Jays’ leading in their own ways

Kidd says he didn’t mean to strike a chord or sow seeds of controversy when he said after Game 1 that Jaylen Brown is the Celtics’ best player. The Mavericks’ head coach swears he didn’t. And the Celtics — where Jaylen vs. Jayson debates have been in the air for years as the two elite wings try to find ways to reach their own goals early in their career while also lifting the team — weren’t going to get dragged into that talk again.

“This is a team sport, right. We understand that. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have JB on our team,” said Tatum. “…We understand that people try to drive a wedge between us. I guess it’s a smart thing to do or try to do. We’ve been in this position for many years of guys trying to divide us and say that one of us should be traded or one is better than the other. So it’s not our first time at the rodeo.”

No, but through the first two games of the Finals, Brown is doing a convincing impression of the best player on a championship team. He was Boston’s catalyst in Game 1 and was excellent again in Game 2, as he finished with 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting while adding seven assists and playing some highlight-worthy defence. Whether playing Mavericks water bug Irving to a standstill or bothering Doncic, to the extent that’s possible, or combining with Derrick White on a chase-down block of a Washington lay-up that could have cut Boston’s lead to three with 50 seconds left, Brown was everywhere on defence.

Tatum had another tough game shooting the ball — he was 6-of-22 from the floor and is now 12-of-38 for the series — but he added 12 assists and cut his six turnovers in Game 1 to three in Game 2. From the Boston point of view it hardly matters if Brown or Tatum is the better player. The Celtics have both of them and that’s what championship teams are made of.

Porzingis limps off

The cloud on what was otherwise near perfect start to the series for Boston arrived with just over six minutes left in the fourth quarter when Porzingis landed heavily and awkwardly on his right leg. He stayed in the game but seemed to be moving gingerly for a few possessions after that before he was subbed out with 4:40 remaining and didn’t return to the game.

Porzingis’ returned to the Celtics lineup in triumph in Game 1 having been missing since the first round with a strained calf muscle.

The Latvian star’s showing in Game 2 wasn’t quite as adrenalized as his 20 points and three blocked shots in 20 minutes off the bench in Game 1 which sparked the Celtics to a blowout win, but he was still effective. Porzingis had 12 points and two blocks in his 23 minutes in Game 2.

After the game Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said he had no concerns about Porzingis’ availability for Game 3. The Celtics can only hope he’s correct, given Porzingis’ level of contribution so far in the series.

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