NBA Finals preview: Biggest storylines to watch in Mavericks vs. Celtics
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NBA Finals preview: Biggest storylines to watch in Mavericks vs. Celtics

The NBA Finals will tip off Thursday night with the Boston Celtics hosting the Dallas Mavericks, a matchup pitting two of the league’s top duos against one another.

Dallas is led by a backcourt of the do-everything Slovenian guard Luka Doncic and resurgent eight-time All-Star Kyrie Irving. Boston uses the incredible versatility of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, two young stars entering their prime.

Who has the edge heading into Game 1? Let’s break down the biggest storylines.

NBA Finals schedule

  • Game 1: Mavericks at Celtics, Thursday, June 6 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
  • Game 2: Mavericks at Celtics, Sunday, June 9 (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
  • Game 3: Celtics at Mavericks, Wednesday, June 12 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
  • Game 4: Celtics at Mavericks, Friday, June 14 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
  • Game 5: Mavericks at Celtics, Monday, June 17 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC)*
  • Game 6: Celtics at Mavericks, Thursday, June 20 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC)*
  • Game 7: Mavericks at Celtics, Sunday, June 23 (8 p.m. ET, ABC)*

Celtics’ balance key to championship run

The Celtics (64-18) were arguably the most well-rounded team in the NBA this season. They finished with an offensive rating of 123.2, not only the best in the league but in league historyBoston’s defense wasn’t shabby either, ending the regular season with a 111.6 rating, third best in the NBA.

Tatum has been the catalyst all season for the Celtics, but particularly in the postseason. He leads the team in points (26), rebounds (10.4) and assists (5.9) per game. Brown is just a notch behind him statistically, averaging 25 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists a game. He earned Eastern Conference Finals MVP following Boston’s sweep of the Indiana Pacers after making big play after big play, either as a scorer or facilitator.

The X factor for this series could be guard Jrue Holiday, a veteran acquired last offseason in a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers. Boston gave up a lot to get him — Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams and two first-round picks — but he’s been worth it.

Holiday, who won an NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021, is averaging 12.7 points and 4.6 assists in the playoffs while playing his typical lockdown defense. How Holiday guards Irving could determine whether the Celtics claim the NBA championship for a league-leading 18th time.

Speaking of which…

Irving’s contentious history with Boston

The Mavericks’ 32-year-old point guard didn’t have the best time in a Celtics uniform, to say the least. In fact, he’s known as one of the biggest villains of Boston’s fan base. Irving played two seasons in Boston, from 2017-2019, averaging 24.1 points and 6.1 assists a game, and led the franchise to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018.

However the following season he struggled mightily in the 2019 playoffs, most notably in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee. Irving shot a dreadful 37 for 104 from the field and 7 for 32 from 3-point range as the Celtics were eliminated in five games.

He wasn’t much better off the court.

Irving told fans at a season-ticket holder event ahead of the 2018-19 season that he planned on re-signing with the franchise. The next February, when asked if he was set to return to Boston, he famously said, “I don’t owe anybody s—.” After the season he left to join Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets.

This will be Irving’s third playoff series since leaving Boston.

He told members of the media this week after practice that he is a changed man.

“I’m built for these moments, to be able to handle circumstances like that, and I’ve been able to grow since then,” he said. “So of course it’s going to be a hectic environment, but I’m looking forward to it and I see it as a healthy relationship that I have with the fans. I almost think about ‘Gladiator,’ just winning the crowd over. It is good to hear the TD Garden silent when you’re playing well. They still respect great basketball.”

And great basketball is exactly what Irving is playing.

Is Irving and Doncic the best offensive backcourt in NBA history?

Irving averaged 25.6 points, 5.2 assists and 5 rebounds per game for the Mavericks (50-42) during the regular season, but he has stepped up his production in the playoffs. In the Western Conference Finals against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he poured in 27 points a night on 49 percent shooting from the field. This includes a 36-point performance on 14-of-27 shooting in Game 5 that sent Dallas to the NBA Finals.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, who along with Irving brought a championship back to Cleveland in 2016, said the guard is unlike any teammate he’s had in his career.

“To have a guy like Kyrie Irving as the ultimate wild card,” James said on his “Mind The Game” podcast this week. “That’s like having a ‘draw four’ in your hand every time someone deals you cards in Uno.”

Irving complemented James earlier in his career. Now he has Doncic.

Since entering the league in 2018, Doncic has been utterly dominant offensively. The 25-year-old led the NBA in scoring (33.9 points per game this season) and was second in assists (9.8). Like Irving, Doncic has continued his tear in the postseason. He sliced through Minnesota in the Western Conference Finals with an array of moves and shooting from every spot on the floor, averaging 32.4 points a game in the series.

Former NBA coach and broadcaster Stan Van Gundy publicly called Irving and Doncic the “best offensive backcourt in the history of the NBA.”

He might just be right.

What Kristaps Porzingis’ return means for Celtics

Porzingis, who spent three seasons in Dallas, from 2019-2022, is expected to return from a calf injury just in time to face his former team. The 7-foot Celtics center has not appeared in a game since April 29 in Boston’s opening-round series against the Miami Heat.

While Porzingis’ services haven’t truly been needed — the Celtics went 9-1 in his absence — he will add another dynamic piece to pair with Brown and Tatum. Porzingis is a great finisher around the rim and despite his size can hit shots from both midrange and beyond the arc.

He’s also expected to bolster Boston’s defense by blocking or altering shots. Porzingis swatted nearly two attempts a game this season.

“He does a great job of just making things difficult,” Celtics guard Derrick White said at practice this week. “It’s always nice to know that he’s back there, whether he blocks or he doesn’t block. He makes them think about it. That’s been really great having him on our side, just doing the things he did day in and day out. Once he comes back and gets in the flow, I think it’s going to be nice.”

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