Lockdown defense, 3s and a unicorn: Game 1 revealed Boston's blueprint

BOSTON — As Jayson Tatum sat on the podium early Friday morning, a little more than an hour after the Boston Celtics’ defense had suffocated the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, he was asked about Boston’s ability to throw several elite individual defenders at two of the game’s elite scorers in Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

“What makes our team really special is we don’t have guys that we hide on defense,” Tatum said. “Bigs and guards, we switch, we take on the challenge of individual defense, understanding that we have help. … If you want to play on our team you have to be able to guard.

“And everybody knows that.”

So much this season has been made about Boston’s record-setting offense, and the insistence of Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla to lean into shooting as many 3-pointers as possible. But, as Tatum said, the bedrock principle that has driven Boston’s success is its unparalleled versatility on defense. It’s what powered the Celtics to a 107-89 victory over the Mavericks in Game 1 on Thursday night and it’s the same virtue Boston hopes will lead to three more victories and an NBA-record 18th championship banner.

Between Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and the team’s two All-Defensive selections — Derrick White and Jrue Holiday — Boston has four players capable of holding up defensively when switched onto just about anyone, and that includes Doncic and Irving. As a result, the Celtics rarely had to send double-teams, which Dallas’ guards have feasted on throughout the playoffs.

The Celtics blitzed Doncic on only two pick-and-rolls in Game 1, per Second Spectrum’s tracking data. The LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves, meanwhile, blitzed him more than five times per game.

“I think it helps a lot throwing different guys at [Doncic],” Holiday said, “Different guys that play defense differently.”

Doncic and the Mavericks have taken teams apart when they’ve had to send doubles in these playoffs. Dallas entered the NBA Finals shooting 57% off Doncic’s passes in these playoffs, thanks to him hitting both Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford for lobs and spraying the ball to the perimeter for 3-pointers.

In Game 1, however, Dallas went 1-for-6 on shots off Doncic’s passes, and had just 209 total passes as a team, per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, the Mavericks’ fewest in any game (regular season or playoffs) since player tracking began in the 2013-14 season. Dallas also had just nine assists, compared to 11 turnovers. Doncic finished with 30 points and 10 rebounds, but also had just one assist — a career playoff-low.

And, after Dallas had converted 54 lob dunks this postseason coming into the Finals — six times as many as the second-highest team (the Denver Nuggets, with nine) — the Mavericks didn’t pull off a single one in Game 1.

The lack of ball movement led to plenty of struggles for the Mavericks offensively. Boston smothered Dallas’ perimeter shooters, forcing them to go just 7-for-27 from deep; Mavs other than Doncic were a combined 3-for-15. Meanwhile, Boston — which, under Mazzulla, always makes an effort to win the math by controlling the 3-point line — made 16 3-pointers, creating a 27-point edge behind the arc.

Boston also clamped down on Irving. The former Celtic finished the game just 6-for-19 from the floor, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range, and has now lost 11 consecutive games against his former team.

Between White and Holiday, Boston has two of the best on-ball guard defenders in the league, both of whom have the combination of quickness and agility to hang with Irving — who might be the league’s most dynamic ball-handler. And, at least for one game, they had the desired impact, as Boston forced Irving into his worst plus-minus (minus-19) and assist totals (2) of the playoffs, while shooting his second-worst percentage (32%) from the floor.

When Dallas decided to drive into the paint instead, the Mavericks ran into a healthy Kristaps Porzingis, who returned after missing five weeks with a calf strain. Porzingis finished with three blocks and several other altered shots, immediately shoring up the porous rim defense Boston had against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers.

“He’s been great for us,” Mazzulla said of Porzingis. “The reason why we are here is because of what he’s done. It doesn’t matter how long he takes off, the guy is going to make plays because of how talented he is and the work he puts in. What he did for us tonight was big and we need that for the rest of the series.”

In particular, Porzingis held up when the Mavericks tried to pick on him on the perimeter. In the first quarter, the 7-foot-2 big man got caught in an isolation situation against Irving — the kind of spot that would’ve been expected to lead to Irving gaining an advantage. Instead, Porzingis not only blocked Irving’s shot, but corralled the rebound and started a fast break the other way that resulted in a score against his former team.

Sam Hauser, meanwhile, was plus-17 in 16 minutes off the bench and helped the Celtics’ defense limit Doncic to 4-for-12 shooting from 3. Other teams might have thrown double-teams at Doncic or Irving to alleviate potentially problematic situations. Boston, though, is a team that is committed to sticking to its principles — at both ends of the court — and it paid off in a big way in Game 1.

“I thought our defensive mindset, our defensive execution, our defensive game plan, our positioning, we had the right intentions and I thought we played really physical, for the most part, defense without fouling,” Mazzulla said.

Boston won 64 games in the regular season, and had a historically dominant plus-11.7 net rating, proof enough this was an elite team with few holes. Still, coming into this series, the consensus belief was that Doncic was the best player in the series.

However, throughout this season, Boston has talked about how on any given night a different player could be the one to step up. And, at different points in these playoffs, each of their key players — from Tatum to Brown to White to Holiday to Horford to Porzingis — has taken his turn making an impact on both sides of the ball.

And, in doing so, Boston showed how it plans to get three more victories, and end its 16-season championship drought.

“Every game has its own story,” Brown said. “We just got to stay ready, stay composed, and take it one game at a time. …

“Next game, I’m sure they will make adjustments. We got to be able to read it on the fly and make plays. Guys got to step up. We need guys like Sam, Payton [Pritchard], to come in and step up, JT. Everybody got to be ready to go.”

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