2024 NBA Finals: Mavericks finally find their confidence in Game 4 romp over Celtics

The Larry O’Brien Trophy was hidden somewhere in the bowels of American Airlines Center on Friday, being carefully polished and waiting to be claimed by the Boston Celtics.

Entering the night up 3-0 in the NBA Finals, the Celtics were supposed to complete their series sweep of the Dallas Mavericks and claim their 18th NBA title. Green and white confetti was supposed to fall from the rafters while analysts argued about who was more deserving of Finals MVP between Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and what a 25-year-old Luka Doncic had to do going forward to return to this stage — and ultimately get Dallas over the hump.

Boston’s coronation would have to wait, though, as Dallas finally proved it could rattle the best team in basketball, annihilating them by 38 points in Game 4 and successfully staving off elimination. That final margin was the third largest in Finals history, effectively flipping the pressure back on Boston — a team that had only known defeat twice this postseason before Friday’s loss — to close out the series out in five games on Monday.

It was an unbelievable effort from the Mavericks across the board, so much so that Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla was forced to pull his starters late in the third quarter.

“You have to give Dallas credit,” Mazzulla said. “They played well. They played really, really well. And that’s the reason why that they’re in this, because when they play like that. So, I thought they just outplayed us.”

That may be an understatement.

Something must have clicked for the Mavericks in the fourth quarter of their Game 3 loss on Wednesday, a night where their rally from a 21-point deficit fell just short as Doncic fouled out with 4:12 minutes left. While the game resulted in a loss for them, they saw the best version of themselves in stretches, which bred confidence and something to build on entering Game 4.

Some figured Game 3 would prove to be the Mavericks’ best effort in these Finals, this writer included. But as it turned out, they saved their best performance so far for when it mattered most. They flew around defensively, limiting Boston to just 35 points in the first half and a series-low 84 points for the game. Their multiple efforts defensively created indecision among Celtics players regarding whether they should shoot it or drive to the rim.

The Celtics, who shot 36.2% from the field and 34.1% from deep, clearly did not do either well in their most lopsided loss of the season. They also coughed it up 14 times, which led to 17 points for Dallas. Tatum and Brown were limited to just 25 points combined on 7-of-22 shooting, and this time, Boston’s bench was not good enough to make up the difference.

Doncic, who was heavily criticized for his efforts in Game 3, responded with a game-high 29 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals in just over 32 minutes, while Kyrie Irving added 21 points, four rebounds and six assists.

Dallas shot a blistering 50.5% from the field, made 15 treys and dominated the glass 52-31. Thirteen of its rebounds came on offense — seven of which were secured by rookie center Dereck Lively II — which helped create 16 second-chance points. The Mavericks’ largest lead of the night was 48 points, an outlandishly exceptional advantage no one saw coming.

“We had to play our A game,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said. “It was this or we go on vacation. I thought the group did a great job of not pressing, letting the game happen. The flow was there.

“We’ve done this in the first three games. It’s just we haven’t been able to capitalize. We made the mistakes, and they’ve capitalized on it ... I thought they did a really good job of being able to execute the game plan and let the game come to us.”

The type of defensive effort the Mavericks showcased on Friday is what had carried them past top seeds in the Western Conference and into the Finals in the first place. However, what had been missing so far this series has been offensive production from their bench, and that group finally delivered in Game 4.

Lively, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dante Exum all reached double figures in scoring, with Hardaway scoring all 15 of his points in the fourth quarter to keep the game well out of reach for Boston. And if the Mavericks hope to force a Game 6 back in Dallas, a similar effort will be required in Game 5.

Lively, a rookie who has looked like a longtime NBA veteran at times this postseason, understands this.

“I wouldn’t say we’re overly happy,” Lively said. “We enjoyed this win. But we’re not jumping for joy. We got to win. We do what we need to do for this game. Now it’s getting into Game 5. We’re going into another hostile environment. Now we just got to take from what we did this game, learn to how they’re going to adapt to this game, do whatever we can to emulate, make this happen again.”

No NBA team has ever won a playoff series after going down 0-3. On the other hand, no NBA team has ever won a series after losing by 38 points or more in the Finals. So, appears history will be made in the coming days either way.

Will Boston take care of business, or will Dallas do the unthinkable? The Mavericks found their confidence in Game 4, but is the hole they currently find themselves in too deep to overcome?

“Like I said at the beginning of the series, it’s first to four,” Doncic said. “We going to believe until the end. So, we just got to keep going. I have big belief in this team that we can do it, so we just got to keep believing.”