NBA Finals Preview

The last step starts tonight. The Boston Celtics host the Dallas Mavericks to tip off the NBA Finals at 8:30 PM ET. The Celtics and Mavs have taken different roads to get here. Boston won 64 regular season games, has been the betting favorite to win the championship for awhile now, and continues to be a (-230) favorite to win this series. Dallas didn’t really hit their stride until late in the season, when a hot streak enabled them to avoid the play-in tournament and get the 5-seed. They’ve won all three playoff rounds without the benefit of homecourt advantage.

Betting markets saw something in the Mavericks. In our Tale of the Tape post that opened these playoffs, I noted that oddsmakers had Dallas priced as the third-most likely team to win the championship, behind only Boston and Denver. I wondered what they were seeing. Having seen the Mavs move through the Clippers, Thunder, and especially against a hot Timberwolves team, I wonder no longer.

Dallas is defined by its stars, primarily Luka Doncic, and certainly including Kyrie Irving. What has set them apart from other teams that have star power is that the Mavs have a lot of frontcourt players that relentlessly crash the glass. While Boston is the best rebounding team overall, both in the regular season and so far, the playoffs, offensive rebounding in particular is a different story. The Mavericks are the second-best team in the postseason at getting second chances. And if you want a single focal point to lock in for the Finals, that would be it—can the Celtics keep the Mavs off the offensive glass?

Boston has played without center Kristaps Porzingis since the end of the first round against Miami. Porzingis will be in the lineup tonight. Backup center Luke Kornet will also be a key player. Without Porzingis and Kornet for a single game against Indiana in the conference finals, the Celtics were beaten on the glass, even though they ultimately won the game. Keep an eye on the quality of Kornet’s minutes. If he’s quietly grabbing 8-10 defensive rebounds a game, that can close off any path Dallas has to pulling another upset.

The Celtics look like they’re planning to put defensive ace Jrue Holiday against Kyrie. I agree with the decision. Luka can go off and do his thing, and Boston can still win. It’s when you get Luka going off, Kyrie going off, and the young bucks up front hitting the boards, that Dallas rises to a new level. If Holiday can limit Kyrie’s effectiveness, that can be another big edge for Boston.

Jayson Tatum has faced questions, both nationally and in his home market, about whether he’s tough enough to lead a championship team. So far, Tatum has answered the bell. If you’ve followed this blog throughout the playoffs, you know we’ve emphasized that even though Tatum isn’t hitting his three-point shots, he’s maintained an aggressive posture in driving to the hoop. The result is he still gets his numbers, and he still creates for other players. It’s imperative that Tatum, getting his second crack at playing in the Finals (including 2022 against Golden State), not shrink from the moment and maintain his offensive aggression.

There’s less to say about Tatum’s excellent running mate, Jaylen Brown. Mainly because Brown is simply consistent. He produces with efficiency, he hit this team’s biggest shot of the postseason to date, a double-clutch game-tying three-pointer at the end of Game 1 against Indiana, and he’s just steady and consistent.

If you simply put these teams next to each other statistically, Boston is better. If you start breaking down personnel matchups, Dallas can narrow that gap, but the Celtics are still the favorite. The Mavericks need an X-factor. A good place to start would be power forward P.J. Washington, who was outstanding in the second-round win against Oklahoma City, both rebounding and hitting the corner trey.

A more negative X-factor for Dallas is the health of Doncic. He’s going to play, but he’s dealing with knee and ankle problems. Boston has lived a charmed life in the playoffs. In the first round, Miami didn’t have Jimmy Butler. In the second round, Cleveland lost Donovan Mitchell after a couple games. The same thing happened to Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton in the conference finals. A Doncic injury would be an unfortunate, albeit fitting end to this chain of events.

This looks like its finally the Celtics’ year to win Banner 18 and break the tie they currently are in with the Lakers for most NBA titles. But it won’t be easy. I’ll call it Boston in a hard-fought six-game series.

The schedule for the Finals will be as follows. All games on ABC, and we’ll have a notebook on each one individually the following day:

Game 1: Thursday, June 6 (8:30 PM ET)
Game 2: Sunday, June 9 (8 PM ET)
Game 3: Wednesday, June 12 (8:30 PM ET)
Game 4: Friday, June 14 (8:30 PM ET)
Game 5: Monday, June 17 (8:30 PM ET)
Game 6: Thursday, June 20 (8:30 PM ET)
Game 7: Sunday, June 23 (8 PM ET)