NBA Finals roundtable: Can the Celtics close it out? The biggest X factor for the Mavs?

NBA

With the Dallas Mavericks avoiding a sweep in the 2024 NBA Finals by winning Game 4 over the Boston Celtics 122-84, their next task will be once again staving off elimination — this time on the road in Monday’s Game 5 at TD Garden.

Friday’s win at American Airlines Center ensured the Mavs can still become the first team ever to overcome a three-game deficit in a postseason series. However, the Celtics still hold a 3-1 advantage and can clinch a record 18th NBA championship on their parquet court.

What must Luka Dončić and Co. do in another must-win scenario? Has there been a clear choice for Finals MVP through four games? Do the Celtics need Kristaps Porziņģis back, and what will be the ultimate X-factor?

Our NBA Insiders break down these questions ahead of a critical Game 5 (ABC, 5:00 p.m. ET).


Surprised there’s a Game 5 after the Celtics’ three-game lead?

Tim MacMahon: Not stunned. Dončić is far too ruthless of a competitor to go out without a fight. He was embarrassed by his petulant Game 3 performance and fulfilled his promise to bounce back the right way, particularly by not allowing frustration with officiating to affect his focus. When Dončić is locked in, the Mavs can beat anybody, anytime.

Tim Bontemps: The series certainly had an air of finality to it heading into Game 4, with Dallas doing a lot of reflecting on the season and Boston saying it was going to be focused on the task at hand. Naturally, the Mavericks jumped all over the Celtics and ran away with the game. It wasn’t surprising that Dončić — backed by the tremendous atmosphere at American Airlines Center — would make sure his team wouldn’t get swept.

Dave McMenamin: Surprised, not shocked. Similar scenarios happened in the Lakers-Nuggets first round series and the Mavericks-Timberwolves conference finals, so it’s not exactly a rarity this postseason. When there’s a proud, talented team trailing, the players are going to exhaust their energy to find a way to extend the series to avoid the misery that comes with a sweep.

Kevin Pelton: Mildly surprised. I think the Celtics’ three-game lead overstated the degree to which Boston dominated with a combined point differential of plus-32. In a series where the differential through three games was between 25 and 40 points historically, more often the leading team has been up 2-1 than 3-0. Add in the desperation factor for Dallas, and I thought there was a good chance the Mavericks would extend the series.

Brian Windhorst: The nature of Game 4 was unexpected but this series being 3-1 in favor of the Celtics, no matter how it got there, isn’t stunning. The thing that we will never know is what happens if Dončić doesn’t foul out of Game 3 with four minutes to play in a three-point game. Dallas, at home, could have still won in that scenario. There’s no way to guess how Game 4 would play out had the Mavs won Game 3 and at the moment, that’s all I can think about.


Through four games, who is your Finals MVP?

Pelton: The reality is Dončić has been the most valuable player in the series thus far, shouldering an enormous offensive load (38.5% usage) with Boston limiting the easy looks Dallas’ role players need to thrive. Given his defensive shortcomings in the first three games, Dončić hasn’t been good enough to strongly consider joining the late Jerry West as the second Finals MVP from a losing team.

That puts Jaylen Brown in pole position, but let’s not forget about Jrue Holiday. Holiday has been more efficient than either Brown or Jayson Tatum as a scorer, making 62% of his 2s and 44% of his 3s on lower volume, while playing elite defense.

Bontemps: Game 4 muddled things a bit, but I think Brown has the edge over Tatum. The two have virtually the same points per game, with Tatum grabbing more rebounds and dishing out more assists. Brown, however, is shooting a far higher percentage, and his defense against Dončić and Kyrie Irving has been impressive. A huge Tatum game to close the series, however, could still tip things in his direction.

Windhorst: Brown probably, but it’s close because none of the Celtics played well in their first attempt to seal the series.

MacMahon: I’d pencil in Brown at this point, but there are a handful of scenarios that would call for an eraser. Holiday and Tatum could both make a case with dominant Game 5 performances. If the Mavs extend the series, Dončić could become a legitimate candidate, even if Dallas doesn’t make history by becoming the first to overcome a three-game deficit in the postseason.

McMenamin: It’s a good thing the MVP is decided until a team wins four games. There are several names to this point, which means it’s totally up in the air until the championship is clinched.


What trend has defined this Finals?

MacMahon: For all of the focus on Dončić’s defensive struggles — most of it fair — Dallas isn’t facing elimination because of its failures on that end of the floor. In fact, the Mavs’ defensive rating in this series (106.9) would have ranked No. 1 in the league in the regular season. And Dallas has actually been better defensively with Dončić on the floor, allowing only 102.4 points per 100 possessions. The Mavs’ major problem has been putting the ball in the basket. Dallas failed to crack triple digits in all three of its losses.

Windhorst: Boston’s defense. Despite not having shot the ball as well (their shooting percentage has dipped from 48.7% in the regular season to 43.9% this series), the Celtics are ahead because Dallas couldn’t score for the first three games.

Pelton: The 3-point differential, and specifically how the Celtics were able to limit the Mavericks’ catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts over the first three games. Dallas only had one game all playoffs prior to the Finals attempting fewer than 28 3s, and then never reached that mark in any of the three losses. On Friday, the Mavericks got up 37 3s, tied for their third highest total of the playoffs. If Dallas can keep generating the kind of kickout 3s we saw Friday, it’s realistic this series could extend to a sixth game.

Bontemps: There is no clear answer, which is a perfect encapsulation of what makes this Celtics team special. It can win in a variety of ways with different players being the driving force behind victories. This is a deep, versatile team that can match its style of play to its opponent in just about every circumstance, and that is the formula that has Boston on the brink of a historic 18th championship.

McMenamin: Other than the Celtics wearing white in three out of the first four games and not wearing their classic green on the road in a championship closeout opportunity? In terms of impact, it’s been whichever team can get the most out of its players beyond their two biggest stars. In the Celtics’ wins, it was Porziņģis, Holiday and White. In Game 4 for Dallas, it was Dereck Lively II and Dante Exum — with a solid fourth quarter from veteran guard Tim Hardaway Jr. — that makes you wonder if he could further contribute the rest of the series.

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Windhorst: Luka needed to be more and he was

Brian Windhorst discusses how the Mavericks needed more from Luka Doncic on defense, and how he stepped up to the plate to help them to victory.


Do the Celtics need Porziņģis to win this series?

Windhorst: No. But that is because they need to win one of the next three games, and two of them are at home. I’d give just about any team in the league the favorite tag in that scenario, and the Celtics certainly get that even without Porziņģis. But their margin for error is narrowed as already displayed.

Bontemps: They don’t need him, but they could certainly use him. Porziņģis looked like he was prepared to play when he went through a fairly rigorous 25-minute workout ahead of Game 4. If Porziņģis can even give the Celtics a few good minutes in Game 5, that could make all the difference. But Boston showed in Game 3, when it outscored Dallas by 34 points over a 29-minute stretch, that it can win in this series without him.

MacMahon: He sure can help, but it’s hard to say the Celtics need Porziņģis to win a game when they are 10-2 without him this postseason. If he doesn’t play — or if Porziņģis is on the floor but ineffective — the Mavs have to punish the Celtics in the paint like they did in Game 4.

McMenamin: He already helped spot them a 2-0 lead with his contributions to start the series, coming off the calf injury from earlier in the postseason to put up 16 points on 60% shooting, 5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. If anything, his teammates should feel they can get it done if he is unable to return to the court.

Pelton: These teams are fairly even with Porziņģis sidelined. Add in home-court advantage for two of the potential final three games, and Boston is a heavy favorite to close out even if he is unable to return.


Fact or fiction? We’re going back to Dallas for Game 6.

Bontemps: Fiction. Dallas had a tremendous performance in Game 4, and Boston couldn’t have been much worse. And, if the Mavs other than Dončić and Irving get going again in Game 5 and carry over their success on the glass, this could be headed back to Texas. But given how the Celtics controlled the first two games at home (though Porziņģis was fully available for them), I expect Boston to take care of business at home Monday.

McMenamin: Fact. I picked the Mavs in 6 going into this series because I believed in the other-worldly ability of Dončić and Irving to take over when possessions are precious and in late-game scenarios. My faith hasn’t wavered in them to the point I’m switching to Celtics in 5. So, let’s keep it rolling to at least a Game 6.

Pelton: Fiction. There’s no historical precedent for the kind of blowout we saw Friday from a team down 3-0 in the series, but the closest comparisons suggest that momentum doesn’t carry over. During the 2017 Finals, the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers handed the Golden State Warriors their only loss of the playoffs by 21 points to avoid a sweep. The Warriors rallied to close out the series at home in Game 5.

Windhorst: I’ve just seen too much to rule out any contingencies. The Mavericks have the ability to win any game because of Dončić. The Celtics are historically a great home team, and this season is no different (37-4 during the regular season).

MacMahon: Foul. It’s possible that the Mavs can extend this series again, but they’ll need Irving and Lively to perform at the level that they did in Games 3 and 4.


Bonus: Who (or what) is the biggest X-factor in Game 5?

Bontemps: Two things, both for Dallas: Can Irving handle being back in Boston, and can the Mavericks continue to dominate the glass? Irving played much better in Dallas than he did in the first two games in Boston, and needs to do it now at TD Garden to extend this series. And Dallas absolutely dominated Boston in rebounding in Game 4. If the Mavericks can do that again in Game 5, they’ll give themselves a chance to bring this series back home.

MacMahon: If Lively has another big game. He joined Magic Johnson as the only rookies to have consecutive double-doubles during the Finals. The lights might have been a little too bright for the 20-year-old during the first two games in Boston, but Lively got his springy legs under him in the home games and showed how impactful he can be. Did you know the Mavs are undefeated when Lively makes a 3-pointer? (He made his first of the season on Friday.)

Pelton: Doncic’s defense. He responded to the criticism he rightfully took after getting blown by and falling asleep weak-side repeatedly during the first three games. With Irving also playing his best defensive game of the series in Game 4, the Celtics were left without weak spots to exploit and few answers for it.

Windhorst: Boston’s 3-point shooting. They’ve made just 33% in the series after shooting nearly 40% over the past three rounds. When they get going from 3-point range, they’re basically unbeatable. And when they have a hot shooting night, they will knock you out.

McMenamin: Here’s a more ethereal answer courtesy of Celtics play-by-play announcer Sean Grande, who pointed out Monday’s game falls on the the 16-year anniversary of the Celtics’ last championship in 2008. Game 5’s date on June 17 also evokes thoughts of the uniforms of a few of Boston’s greats that have died since that season: Bill Russell (No. 6), John Havlicek (No. 17), Sam Jones (No. 24) and Bill Walton (No. 5).

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