2024 NBA Finals: Luka Dončić and the Mavs must find answers on offense — and quick

These baskets that Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving made in Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals? Brother, these are some cool baskets:

They are also, though, mostly tough baskets: difficult shots made over tight contests from one or multiple defenders, through contact, fading away from the basket, more likely not to clang clear than to fall through the net.

You know what kind of baskets are easier? Lobs to soaring 7-footers for extremely loud slam dunks, and drive-and-kick feeds to 3-point shooters waiting to cash out from the short corners. The Mavericks have been elite at creating those shots throughout the 2024 NBA postseason, with Dončić, Irving and the rest of Dallas’ playmakers (but, really, mostly Dončić and Irving) setting up 54 alley-oop dunks through the first three rounds, by far the most of any team in these playoffs, and generating corner 3-point tries on 13% of the Mavs’ shot attempts, the highest rate of any postseason participant.

Against Boston in Game 1, though? Just three total attempts from the corners — and one of those came in the final minute, with both teams’ stars off the court and the Celtics having long since salted away a blowout win — and only one look at a lob … which Jaylen Brown, in the midst of a stellar two-way performance, promptly snuffed out:

From the opening tip, the Celtics sold out to take away the easy stuff and force Dallas to subsist on hardtack. They pressed up tight on the Mavs’ corner shooters, at times even face-guarding them, even if it meant letting a dangerous creator like Dončić or Irving attack in isolation:

The Celtics refused to put two defenders on the ball, refused to put themselves in rotation. With Al Horford starting at center, they switched ball screens, trusting the ageless wonder to move his feet, contain the ball and force a contested shot, which — even coming off the fingertips of Dončić or Irving — Boston vastly prefers to an open one coming from someplace else.

And when Kristaps Porziņģis checked into the game, they leaned into drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, trusting that whoever was guarding Dončić or Irving — chiefly Jaylen Brown, Jrue Holiday and Derrick White — would chase over the top of the screen, stay connected, take away the space for a rhythm pull-up and force the ball-handler into trying to loft one over the top of their 7-foot-2 eraser.

Even when the drop briefly turned into two-on-the-ball, though, the Celtics did a great job of rotating out of it and still funneling the ball to a place they felt comfortable with it — like they did on this late first-quarter possession, for example:

Dončić stares down Brown, who — as he did during the regular season — saw the bulk of the initial defensive responsibility on Dallas’ MVP finalist, locking up with him more than 56% of the time they shared the floor, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. Dončić wants to involve Porziņģis in the action, eager to make his former running buddy prove that he’s all the way back from that soleus strain by forcing him to dance 30 feet away from the rim.

Boston expects this. That’s why, instead of guarding his opposite number — Dallas center Dereck Lively II — Porziņģis is guarding 6-foot-5 swingman Josh Green, while All-NBA Swiss Army knife Jayson Tatum takes defensive responsibility for the Mavs’ rookie 7-footer.

Now, if Dončić wants to run pick-and-roll with Lively, he’s going to have to do it with Tatum in the play, knowing that the Celtics are comfortable switching those matchups and he’s not going to create much of an advantage on the ball by swapping Brown for Tatum. And if he wants to pull Porziņģis into the pick-and-roll, he’s going to have to use a less experienced and forceful screener who’s also one of Dallas’ lowest-usage, lowest-wattage offensive rotation players.

Still, Dončić wants to pick at Porziņģis, so he opts for Door No. 2. Green hits Brown with the screen, but Brown’s able to chase over the top while Porziņģis retreats in drop coverage, allowing Boston to bracket Dallas’ most dangerous offensive player as he approaches the paint. Luka throws a blind overhead hook pass from the right block to the left wing, because he’s a maniac. White is rotating up from the corner on the flight of the ball; because he’s on the way, Green catches and drives the oncoming closeout, eating up the acre of space in front of him with a live dribble.

Take a look at the floor as Green begins to attack:

White’s closeout was actually just a stunt; after stopping short in front of Green, he’s already on the way back to Jaden Hardy. Skipping the ball to the weak-side corner would be a really tough pass for Green to make at speed under optimal circumstances; with Celtics wing Sam Hauser hugged up on Maxi Kleber in the weak-side corner, though, there’s no angle to make it anyway, and thus no pathway to the corner 3.

Brown and Tatum are blanketing Lively — no chance for the lob. And even if Green’s feeling frisky enough to try it, there’s Porziņģis, in help position and ready to pounce after walling off Dončić’s drive.

The one open look available is a free-throw-line floater by a player who entered the 2024 NBA Finals having made two of those in 74 regular- and postseason games. He didn’t make it three.

(Dallas does wind up getting a decent look, after the tap-out on the offensive glass finds Dončić in the corner. But Porziņģis rushes out to contest, Dončić misses badly, and Boston clears.)

The Celtics were willing to live with those outcomes — even knowing that a lot of NBA players can make wide-open floaters, even knowing how lethal Luka and Kyrie can be at turning tough looks into Cool Baskets — because Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was betting on two things.

Jun 6, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) controls the ball against Boston Celtics guard Derrick White (9) in the first quarter during game one of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Dallas' ball movement was a struggle in Game 1. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

First: that his league-leading offense — particularly with the reintroduction of Porzingis — would be able to generate enough long-range looks that Boston would effectively be trading 2s for 3s, the kind of math problem the C’s have expertly posed to opponents throughout their dominant season. Nailed it. Boston took 48% of its shots from beyond the arc compared to 29% for Dallas, and went 16-of-42 from deep compared to 7-of-27 — a 27-point edge in one of the series’ biggest swing factors.

Second: that his No. 2-ranked defense would be able to consistently contain Dončić and Irving’s dribble penetration well enough, and force enough contested looks, that it wouldn’t get gashed by not sending additional help — and that, by inviting the Mavericks’ stars to attack one-on-one so often, even against perceived weak spots like Horford, Porziņģis, Hauser and Payton Pritchard, it’d bog down their whole attack.

Mazzulla nailed that one, too. The Mavs produced just 13 points on 24 possessions finished with an isolation, according to Synergy Sports — barely a half-point per trip and barely half of their elite regular-season mark. And by staying at home on shooters, almost never sending additional help on the ball — Boston switched on 14 of Dončić’s 38 pick-and-rolls in Game 1, according to Jared Dubin of Last Night in Basketball, and blitzed him only twice, according to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps — but showing plenty of help off it, the Celtics were able to completely dismantle Dallas’ ball movement.

The Mavericks made just 203 passes in Game 1, according to Second Spectrum tracking — 48 fewer than their average through three rounds, and 56 fewer than their regular-season average. They generated just 13 catch-and-shoot attempts — eight fewer than their average through three rounds, and nearly 12 fewer than their regular-season average. And, as you’ve probably heard, they produced just nine assists — by far a season low.

Force Dončić to take 26 shots to score his now customary 30 points, keep Irving from locating any kind of shot-making rhythm, force the likes of P.J. Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. to launch their 3-pointers from above the break rather than the short corners, and suddenly the mighty, flowing river of offensive production that washed away the Timberwolves starts to slow down to trickles and rivulets. The Mavs scored a microscopic 75.3 points per 100 possessions in the half-court in Game 1, according to Cleaning the Glass — their worst half-court scoring game of the 2024 playoffs and fourth-worst of the season overall, a whopping 27.8 points-per-100 below their regular-season average and 32.5 points-per-100 fewer than they managed against Minnesota.

At the risk of going out on a limb: I don’t think Your Worst Scoring Games of the Season are going to be enough against this Celtics team. To have a shot at taking four of the next six, Dallas has to find some offensive answers, and quick.

The path starts, to some degree, on the defensive end. The game is connected, as Mazzulla is fond of saying; the difficult job of beating this Celtics defense becomes much harder when you’re taking the ball out of the basket over and over again. The Mavericks’ only real run in Game 1 came early in the third quarter, when the combination of their defensive effort and some less-than-locked-in Boston offense resulted in a string of empty Celtics possessions. Get some stops, and you can inject some more pace into the game, find some opportunities to run a little more early action before Boston’s defense is set, and manipulate the chessboard more to your liking to generate better scoring chances:

Some double-drag screens in transition, or staggered screens high on the floor, could get multiple Celtic defenders moving — and, more importantly, force one of Boston’s bigs onto Dončić or Irving’s preferred screeners, lifted away from the basket. Dealing with the way Boston’s wings and guards shrink the floor and swarm to protect the rim still isn’t exactly a picnic. But navigating a packed lane is a little bit easier, at least, without a 7-footer in the mix.

Jason Kidd’s chief task heading into Game 2: getting Irving untracked. More pace would help here, too; if Irving’s consistently sprinting into catches and making a beeline for a basket, as he did in Game 1 against Minnesota last round, it makes the project of defending the Mavericks much tougher. Maybe Kidd dials up some higher ball screens, up near half-court, to give Irving a runway to the rim; maybe, if he gets a couple of finishes to go early, he can lock into the rhythm that eluded him Thursday.

And at the risk of being Captain Obvious, maybe most important of all: Dallas’ shotmaking has to be much, much better than it was in Game 1.

When the Mavericks actually can create a clean look against this Boston defense, they’ve got to take advantage. Because if the Celtics stay as locked in on that end as they were in Game 1, they might not get too many more.