The Boston Celtics Aced Their First NBA Finals Test (2024)

The Boston Celtics faced two big questions entering Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals. First, how would they react to better competition and higher stakes after they enjoyed the easiest path to the Finals in modern NBA history? And second, how would center Kristaps Porzingis look in his first game in 38 days, after he missed the previous two rounds of the playoffs due to a calf strain?

The answers to both questions came early and emphatically on Thursday night in the TD Garden, as the Celtics raced out to the largest lead at the end of the first quarter in any Game 1 in Finals history: Boston was ready, Porzingis most of all.

Thanks to that first-quarter explosion and a tremendous defensive effort across all four frames, the Celtics blew out the visiting Dallas Mavericks in Game 1, 107-89. The Finals are far from over—Dallas has already won multiple series this postseason after dropping Game 1—but the opener did nothing to refute the notion that the 64-win Celtics, with a historically great point differential in both the regular season and playoffs, are the heavy favorite to win their first championship since 2008.

Against what was ostensibly their toughest—and healthiest—opponent of the postseason thus far, the Celtics dictated the flow on both ends, counting on their refined style to cool off Dallas’s hot streak. The Celtics’ intent to play their own game was clear from the opening tip: Seven of their first eight shot attempts were 3-pointers, and their ball movement led to assists on their first seven made shots.

They took off in particular with the arrival of Porzingis, who was coming off the bench for only the second game in his NBA career because of his lengthy injury absence. When Porzingis entered the game, starting his NBA clock for the first time in more than a month, Boston led by one point. By the time the first-quarter buzzer sounded, 11 Porzingis points and multiple Porzingis blocks later, the Celtics led by 17.

In just that brief first stint, Porzingis scored at all three levels: with a deep, quick-release 3-pointer; with multiple midrange jumpers over smaller defenders; and with an explosive slam at the rim. He presents a completely new challenge for a Dallas defense that had protected the paint so well in earlier rounds. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Mavericks opponents shot just 61 percent at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass—but Boston shot a perfect 15-for-15 at the basket in Game 1.

The Mavericks simply had no answers for the Celtics’ drive-and-kick offensive strategy. With five shooters spacing the floor at all times, Boston stretched the Dallas defense past its breaking point, forcing frantic rotations and uncomfortable one-on-one matchups. Relatively egalitarian production ensued, as the Celtics’ top six players all scored in double figures and made multiple 3-pointers.

Porzingis finished Game 1 with 20 points on 13 shot attempts. Jaylen Brown was magnificent, and magnificently aggressive, leading the team with 22 points on 12 shots. And Jayson Tatum served mainly as a facilitator, scoring only 16 points but contributing 11 rebounds and five assists as well. (His six turnovers were too many, and one by-product of that facilitator role.)

But Boston’s offense, on the whole, was roughly average in Game 1. With garbage time removed, the victors finished with an offensive rating of 117.4 points per 100 possessions, per CtG—a figure that ranks in the 60th percentile of all games this postseason.

The Celtics were more dominant on the other end, where Dallas scored a playoff-low 89 points and finished with a 95.2 offensive rating, ranking in the 9th percentile this postseason. Luka Doncic finished with 30 points and would have scored more if he hadn’t left the game early due to the lopsided score, but the rest of his team combined for just 59 points on 40 percent shooting (20 percent from distance).

That discrepancy parallels the results in the two regular-season meetings between these finalists, when Boston beat Dallas twice even though Doncic averaged 35 points per game. The Celtics were largely content to let Luka score tough buckets in isolation while shutting down his teammates—especially costar Kyrie Irving, who averaged only 21 points on 21.5 shots per game in those meetings.

Irving’s impotence against his former team continued in Game 1; he scored just 12 points on 6-for-19 shooting and tallied more turnovers (three) than assists (two). Some of his struggles are unlikely to recur going forward—he missed several wide-open 3s that he’d normally make—but they are largely attributable to the defense of Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, Boston’s pair of All-Defensive guards who are ideally suited to slow down a scorer like Kyrie.

Meanwhile, none of Dallas’s role players were able to pick up Irving’s slack, which left Luka alone on his productive island. Wings P.J. Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. didn’t exceed their averages like they did in the second round against the Thunder, when they were able to compensate for fewer points from Irving. Rookie sensation Dereck Lively II—arguably Dallas’s third-best player through the playoffs thus far—looked lost in his first Finals game, scoring only two points while picking up five fouls in 18 minutes. And Boston’s rotations cut off the Mavericks’ lobs and corner 3s—plays that have fueled their run to the Finals but were almost nonexistent in Game 1.

Boston's defensive mentality coming into this series was "limit lobs and corner 3s"

In the first half, Dallas had 0 lobs and 0 corner 3s

— Michael Pina (@MichaelVPina) June 7, 2024

Perhaps the most telling statistic from Game 1, though, is that the Mavericks tallied just nine assists. Their 26 percent assist rate was the lowest for any team in any Finals game since the NBA-ABA merger in the mid-’70s, and the lowest for any team in any game in the entire 2023-24 season. Doncic, one of the best passers in NBA history, recorded just one assist because Boston was so devoted to preventing any of his teammates from scoring.

Even against that contextual limitation, Doncic still did his best to make Game 1 competitive. In the third quarter, a flurry from the Dallas star combined with some stereotypical Celtics lollygagging to cut Boston’s lead—which had climbed as high as 29 points earlier in the game—down to eight points. But the Celtics responded by renewing their focus, getting downhill on offense, and retightening the clamps on the defensive end, and they surged on a 14-2 run to close the third. The lead was 20 points again, and the TD Garden crowd was bouncing. The final quarter was academic from there.

The Boston Celtics Aced Their First NBA Finals Test (2024)
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