Finals Film Room: Can the Celtics Counter the Mavs’ 1-2 Punch?


It’s the 2024 NBA Finals, between the No. 1 seed Boston Celtics and the No. 5 seed Dallas Mavericks.

Some of the notable storylines in this series include:

  • Kyrie Irving facing off against one of his former teams
  • Former teammates Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis meet again, this time in the Finals.
  • Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd has the opportunity to win an NBA championship as a player (2011) and as a coach for the same team.

As we wait just a few more hours for Game 1, let’s take a look at the film.

The Celtics have been one of the heavy switch defenses over the past couple of seasons.

They have the personnel in a pair of All-NBA defensive guards, Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, to guard Luka and Kyrie on an island.

The big question for Boston is if they will switch everything or have Holiday and White navigate screens to stay in front of the star duo.

The Doncic riddle – and his robin, Irving

When it comes to guarding a talent like Doncic, the key for Boston will be to stick with one or two primary pick-and-roll coverages, because he has an answer to every coverage. If the Celtics throw a bunch of different coverages at Doncic, it will open up the floor for the entire Mavericks offense to generate points.

If the Celtics switch everything, they will prevent ball movement, but will have to live with Doncic hunting mismatches.

Here, Doncic hunts Al Horford on a switch, leaving the big man on an island. Doncic pulls up for a 3-pointer and misses it.

The Mavericks can beat the Celtics’ switching defense with slip screens.

On this play, Maxi Kleber sets a high ball screen and then gets Jaylen Brown stuck on his high side. From there, Kleber rolls where there is no rotation to protect the rim, and he scores a layup.

If the Celtics play drop coverage, they will prevent lobs to Dereck Lively and Daniel Gafford, but on-ball defenders will have to navigate screens and keep Doncic off his spot while off-ball defenders stay home on shooters.

On this play, Holiday navigates the screen while Luke Kornet sits in drop coverage. Doncic gets to his spot and misses a shot.

One interesting thing to note:

Doncic shot 9-for-18 when Holiday or White was the closest defender. Against a more favorable matchup in Horford and Payton Pritchard, Doncic shot 5-for-17.

There are consequences to every coverage thrown at Doncic, but the Celtics will just have to live with it and execute their gameplan.

Now to Irving— one of the best one-on-one players in the game.

Here’s an isolation clear-out for Irving against White.

Irving uses a jab step, gets to his spot and knocks down the jumper.

The Celtics sent no help to White. White does a great job sliding his feet and getting a hand up— just a better shot by Irving.

Same play here:

Irving jabs steps, leans into White to create space and hits a shot off the glass. Help is shown, but no real commitment to helping White, who again stays in front and challenges the shot.

Celtics’ five-out offense

In the regular season, the Celtics’ offense was number two in points per game, (120.6) first in 3-pointers made (16.5) and attempted (42.5) while converting 38.8 percent— second in the league.

In this matchup, because of the Celtics’ five-out offense, the Mavericks will have to be crisp in their rotations if they choose to funnel the basketball to certain areas.

On this play, Doncic funnels the basketball baseline to his help, Kleber. Tim Hardaway Jr. has to help the helper and watch Horford in the dunker spot.

The Mavericks are in rotation and that leads to a Brown 3-pointer. Hardaway also did a great job closing back out on the perimeter— just a better shot by Brown.

The Celtics’ five-out offense has the ability to neutralize Dereck Lively and Daniel Gafford‘s rim protection.

On this play, Porzingis sets a pindown screen for Brown and then pops out to the perimeter. Lively respects Porzingis’ perimeter shooting and does not sink on Brown’s drive to protect the rim. Brown drives to his strong hand and gets an uncontested layup at the rim.

Another big question for Dallas is how much nail help will they provide.

This is an isolation play for Tatum with a matchup that he likes.

Lively sits at the nail and doesn’t fully commit to helping because he has to be ready to recover back to Porzingis on the perimeter.

Tatum relentlessly attacks Josh Green on the post up and scores through contact.

X-factors: Derrick White, PJ Washington, Derrick Jones

For Boston, White will be their primary X-factor as the Celtics do run plays for him.

On this baseline-out-of-bounds play, White sets a brush screen for Brown, then slides to the top of the key. The Mavericks do not communicate on the screen action and White makes them pay on a 3-pointer.

On the defensive end, White has the capabilities to blow up the play like these that are difficult to guard.

Tatum and White switch the Doncic matchup as Green sets a brush screen. Doncic takes the dribble handoff as PJ Washington slips the screen. With Porzingis out of position, White helps off the strong side and gets a great contest on Washington.

This is a play that should be an easy basket, but White is excellent at preventing free plays like these. If he can blow up free money plays, it can swing momentum. Also note— the help should probably be off Lively, who is camped in the corner, but Brown stays home on him.

For Dallas, their top two X-factors are Washington and Derrick Jones Jr.

This postseason, Washington has been incredible, especially on corner 3-pointers. He’ll have to come up with a few more plays to boost the Mavericks’ offense.

Washington attacks Porzingis, drives by him and smokes the layup. If Washington can negate Porzingis’ shot blocking as a weakside defender and finish plays like these, that will help the Mavericks tremendously.

The other Mavericks key role player, Jones, has been terrific on spot-up shooting. He’s also done the little things— being used as a screener in the Mavericks’ offense.

Jones sets an on-ball screen to free up Irving. The screen gives the Mavericks a 4-on-3 advantage and that leads to Irving dumping the basketball off to Gafford for the slam.

Now here’s Jones as an off-ball screener.

Jones sets a step-up screen and then slips out to the perimeter. The screen allows Doncic to get by the big and also gets Gafford rolling to the rim with a numbers advantage.

A final thought

It’s going to be a game of chess. Don’t expect adjustments from either coach right away. Expect adjustments once the series shifts to Dallas. Or expect Kidd and Joe Mazzulla to stick with their gameplans.

Finals predictions: Mavericks in six.

About Mac Pham

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