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Celtics Defense Giving Them NBA Finals Edge Over Mavericks

DALLAS — Jaylen Brown chased Luka Dončić behind mid court, the Mavs star struggling for a moment to cross half court, losing the ball, then regaining control of it as he got over the line only to bump into Brown’s chest two more times. He turned and stared at Brown, Dallas trailing 71-65 midway through the third quarter, before Dereck Lively finally pulled him off Dončić with a screen. Little relief for Dončić, who met Xavier Tillman Sr. and tried, unsuccessfully, to score on him in the post.

“I made that pledge before the season even started,” Brown said. “I told myself I wanted to maximize my defensive potential, and I wanted to make First Team All-Defense going into the season. That didn’t happen, but to be able to be in these moments and show your defensive versatility, picking guys up, guarding guys in the post, blocking contested threes, it’s been big for us. We got a lot of great defenders on this team, so it’s been a full team effort.”

Just over one year after several Celtics players and Joe Mazzulla admitted that Boston lost its defensive identity, it became the rock for the Celtics when their offense became stagnant late in Game 3. Boston held Dallas to 44% shooting, 25 three-point attempts and did so by rarely sending help. The Celtics switched everything and guarded one-on-one, taking away kick-outs to shooter and allowing Boston to gain a massive three-point advantage. Dallas, who has created only 14 corner three attempts total in the entire series, flatlined with a 102.1 offensive rating that would’ve ranked last in the NBA this year.

Every player on the Celtics contributed to that end, allowing for a straightforward game plan against an opponent Joe Mazzulla noted before the series will likely require multiple defensive coverages to solve. That came into play when Kristaps Porziņģis returned early in the series, Boston hedging some Dončić pick-and-rolls with help along the perimeter to keep Porziņģis dropped near the rim. But Porziņģis came off the bench, then missed Game 3, mostly forcing Al Horford to defend 1-5 along the perimeter against Kyrie Irving and Dončić.

The Celtics’ defensive numbers against the Mavs stars are hard to believe. They’ve shot 4-for-13 against Payton Pritchard, 5-for-10 against Sam Hauser and a staggering 8-for-29 against Horford. Tillman’s spot minutes on Wednesday saw him hold them to 3-for-6.

“For me personally, Kyrie was going at me today and you saw it,” Holiday said. “That’s what we play for, but individually, I think everybody takes pride in getting stops and being able to play defense, because we know how hard this game is and how hard it is to win, and then as a team I think we all look our for each other. Sometimes, I might make a play or do something, and guys might as me, how’d you do that? And I try to describe it but my teammates have great instincts on defense, whether to go for the steal, body somebody or whatever it is.”

Brown and Tatum, along with Holiday and Derrick White, have done the heavy lifting at the point of attack against Dallas’ guards. Dončić is shooting 47.3% from the field in the series, but is 32.1% from three and has 15 turnovers alongside only 18 assists, including one in Game 1, the lowest total in a game in three seasons. When Dallas broke off for a 22-2 fourth quarter run in Game 3, Brown felt the team’s defensive intensity increase, and ahead by three, the Celtics forced back-to-back stops on Dončić and Irving before Dončić fouled out.

Irving improved slightly to 40% from the field with a 13-for-28 showing in Game 3, but missed several important looks in point blank position to score, including a step-back three over Horford to his right with Dallas trailing by four in the closing moments of the game. His shot.

Irving sat back impressed by Boston’s effort the following day at practice. He’s now lost 13 straight games to the Celtics, and it’s not because of Lucky or necessarily even the crowd, Game 3 shifting to Dallas with a raucous crowd supporting the Mavs. While having the personnel to throw length and multiple defenders at Irving and Dončić, Boston never lets either player off the hook on defense — ever.

It’ll go down as the defining characteristic of this championship team whenever they raise the trophy, and for Irving, who was shocked to receive a retirement question, Boston’s defense has revealed a lost step, however small, that’s prevented him from getting the extra one necessary to beat those defensive efforts.

“The frustration is natural because you want to make every shot when you’re in the Finals,” Irving said. “Looking at the first two games, and how some of my shots were a little pressured more than I have had in other series, and the physicality is a little different. These guys on that Boston squad know my game well. They know it well, so they’ve been able to scheme for me for the past few years, so getting over this hump has been something that’s been on my mind for a while watching them, just like everyone’s been watching Boston the entire year be the best team in the league … going against Jrue, Jaylen and JT, and seeing their ability to cover up some of their mistakes, or trust each other to make the right plays on the defensive end has shown me what I have to continue to work on.”

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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