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NBA finals predictions: Mavericks or Celtics? Our writers share their picks

In Sports
June 06, 2024
<span>The <a class=Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, left, defends the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic during the third quarter of a March game at Boston’s TD Garden.Photograph: Brian Fluharty/Getty Images” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/SGBNt28Ds9uJcJg4QHp6dA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_guardian_765/fd7e2b8124ad999d1da15672cf507f9c” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/SGBNt28Ds9uJcJg4QHp6dA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/the_guardian_765/fd7e2b8124ad999d1da15672cf507f9c”>

The Mavs are here because …

Their trade deadline moves. The Luke Dončić-Kyrie Irving axis is what makes the Mavs go. But acquiring PJ Washington and Daniel Gafford transformed this team. The pair beefed up the team’s frontcourt and helped ratchet up the defensive intensity, covering up for any flaws in Dončić and Irving. OC

The Mavericks made some very shrewd deadline moves, and Irving’s rebirth as a leader and dependable No 2 option has been impressive. But this is The Luka Dončić Show – he entered the postseason as the MVP runner-up to Nikola Jokić, who is considered by many to be the best player alive. But it’s Dončić’s time, and he’s coming for the throne. CDL

Was it only 14 months ago when Dallas were tarred as a national punchline in these pages after tanking in order to keep a top-10-protected draft choice they owed New York? That chicanery earned the Mavericks a $750,000 fine and a public tut-tut from Adam Silver, but the pick turned into Dereck Lively II, the 7ft 1in rookie center who’s made an outsized impact during the Mavs’ finals run. Who’s laughing now? BAG

Donnie Nelson, in one of his last gasps as GM, made the trade A-Town never forgot: Restless over the team picking fifth in the 2018 draft, Nelson shipped Dallas’s first-round selection in 2019 to Atlanta to take Dončić third. The Hawks drafted Trae Young, a fine but streaky long-distance shooter whose middling teams have managed just two playoff series wins since his arrival. In some corners of Atlanta, you’ll spy a No 77 Dončić jersey in red and white. AL

Schedule

Best-of-seven series. All times US eastern time (EDT). 

Thu 6 Jun Game 1: Mavericks at Celtics

Sun 9 Jun Game 2: Mavericks at Celtics

Wed 12 Jun Game 3: Celtics at Mavericks

Fri 14 Jun Game 4: Celtics at Mavericks

Mon 17 Jun Game 5: Mavericks at Celtics*

Thu 20 Jun Game 6: Celtics at Mavericks*

Sun 23 Jun Game 7: Mavericks at Celtics*

*if necessary

The Celtics are here because …

They’re the best team in the NBA. They have (statistically) the No 1 offense in league history and a flexible, elite defense. The Celtics obliterated the league in points per possession on offense and ranked second only to the T-Wolves defensively. They aren’t as flashy as the prime Durant Warriors or as star-oriented as the LeBron-Kyrie Cavaliers, but they’ve been equally as effective. OC

The term “championship or bust” is an NBA cliche, but it holds true for Boston. They’ve made near-perennial appearances in the conference finals since the inception of their core, lost as finals favorites in 2022, and were the best team in basketball with a bullet all season this year. They’re supposed to win. CDL

Even if the rest of the Eastern Conference hadn’t fallen apart (which certainly didn’t hurt), a historically efficient offense almost certainly would have carried Boston this far. Their 122.2 points per 100 possessions during the regular season was the highest in NBA history, while the top six in their rotation have shown no exploitable weaknesses that opponents can scheme for. BAG

They are maybe the best run organization in sports. You could argue they had a better team six years ago when it was Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Brad Stevens on the sideline. The fact that they’ve only gotten better and are back in the finals after surviving the PR nightmare that was Ime Udoka (you know, Joe Mazzulla’s old boss?) is a testament to their winning culture. AL

Dončić and Irving are the best duo since …

Like LeBron, Dončić is an on-court chess master. And now that Irving has returned his energy full-time to basketball, he’s rolled back the clock, playing his best all-around ball since Cleveland’s 2016 title run. They are two of the deadliest closers in the league. A hand in the face. A busted possession. The shot clock winding down. It doesn’t matter. OC

I think there have been sensational duos pretty much every year in NBA history – Jokić and Jamal Murray and LeBron and AD come to mind as recent ones. But as far as backcourt duos, I’d say Irving and Dončić are easily the best since Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s heyday, easily. CDL

Besides Stewart and Bird? You’d have to go back to Steph and Klay. Though by the end of this series, I suspect we may be saying Tatum and Brown. BAG

Abbott and Costello – except with a much better feel for who’s on first. AL

The coaching advantage goes to …

Joe Mazzulla. The Celtics coach has his flaws: erratic timeout usage; wonky rotation choices late in games; sitting idly by, with a faraway look in his eyes, when things seem as if they’re running away. But great coaching isn’t about the small moments that leap off the screen. It’s about sharpening habits throughout the season. Jason Kidd may be the savvier in-game tactician, but Mazulla’s edges it thanks to the suffocating defense he’s built over two years. OC

While Mazzulla has had a great year in Boston, what Jason Kidd has done in this postseason with the Mavericks has been nothing short of remarkable. Getting his guys to buy into a defensive identity is, in and of itself, a feat, considering he helms a team buoyed by historically great offensive talent. CDL

Related: PJ Washington: ‘I just hate losing. Even as a kid I was always like this’

Mazzulla has been a steady hand on the tiller for a Boston side that’s been the NBA’s best team for the past eight months. But Kidd has overcome longtime doubts about his coaching prowess – as recently as a 1-6 skid only three months ago – by pivoting the Mavs to a defense-first identity. The same Dallas fans who would have driven Kidd to the airport in March were celebrating last month’s multi-year extension. BAG

It’s a draw for me. Mazzulla has been in this round with this team before (although not as first chair) and appears to have overcome his early growing pains on the job. Kidd, meanwhile, has tons of experience in this spot as an All-Star player and has managed the Dončić-Irving balance with a deftness he never showed in previous coaching stints in Brooklyn and Milwaukee. AL

Unheralded player to watch …

Derrick Jones Jr, Mavericks. Dallas’ defense was flaky early in the season but turned around once Jones was reintegrated into the starting lineup. Much of that remodeling came thanks to a rotating cast of springy bigs protecting the paint, but it’s Jones who is the difference-maker on the perimeter. The Celtics lead the playoff field in attempted threes and rank dead-last in free-throw rate. If Dallas are to slow down Boston’s record-breaking offense, it will be thanks to Jones flying out to close down shots outside. OC

PJ Washington, Mavericks. While Dončić/Irving rightfully will garner most of the hype, Washington is going to be the X-factor for Dallas. His ascension from a nice player on a bottom-dwelling Charlotte Hornets team to pivotal piece of a championship contender has been a marvel to behold, and his preternatural ability to make corner threes that crush the opposing team’s momentum will be crucial. CDL

Sam Hauser, Celtics. After shooting 42% from three-point range during the regular season, the third-year reserve wing has gone frigid since the Miami series. Look for the rollicking TD Garden crowd to get him going in the opening two games in Boston. BAG

Maxi Kleber, Mavericks. Kleber is the Mavs’ secret sauce and makes himself easy enough to spot. He’s the one hustling off the ball and telling his teammates where it should go next. AL

The finals MVP will be …

Jayson Tatum, Celtics. This is Tatum’s time. He has evolved over the past two years from a Kobe-like gunner into more of a Tim Duncan: all smart decisions, craft and efficiency. Brown has been Boston’s best player this postseason, but to knock off the Mavericks they will need Tatum to be at his apex. OC

Luka Dončić, Mavericks. While, in years past, the finals MVP has occasionally been awarded to a role player for the plot, now is not the time to get cute. The Mavericks wouldn’t be in the finals without Dončić, and everyone knows it. It’s his time to shine and his time to be awarded some hardware. CDL

Jaylen Brown, Celtics. This trophy has a funny way of going to the presumptive face of the winning team regardless of numbers, which explains why Tatum is the odds-on favorite. But Brown, who won this year’s (relatively new) Eastern Conference finals MVP bauble, has posted similar numbers to Tatum throughout the postseason with much better percentages – including 50% or better from the floor in 11 of 14 playoff games so far. BAG

Luka Dončić, Mavericks. He’s thirsty for that celebration brew … AL

Your winner will be …

Celtics in six. The Mavericks have the star power but the Celtics are the better all-around team. Dallas’ defensive shift doesn’t match up as neatly with Boston’s offensive style as it did against the teams they knocked off in the West. Dončić’s sprained right knee looms large, too. Give him long enough, and Dončić can solve any defense. But is there any solution for the most athletic, smartest, switchable group in the league? And if Dončić is slowed any amount with an injury, the Celtics’ defense will close any potential openings. To push this to six or seven games, Dallas will have to make an unusual number of contested shots. Irving and Dončić can deliver, but they will need two other shooters, at least, to step up. OC

Mavericks in seven. Conventional wisdom says that the Celtics, who have been the best team in basketball all year long, should win the championship. But conventional wisdom has never come face to face with Dončić in clutch time. The Mavericks are firing on all cylinders, their role players are rising to the challenge, and having to deal with Irving on top of Dončić is a handful, to say the least. CDL

Celtics in four. Boston have been the best team in the league all season long. And while the Mavericks’ defense has reinvented itself since the deadline, they haven’t been in with an offensive monster like the Celtics. Tatum and Brown are right there with Dončić and Irving as an elite backcourt tandem. But Boston’s superior if not deeper supporting cast, who have been together longer, can light it up from anywhere and have no weak link on defense, will make the difference as Luka and co run out of pixie dust. BAG

Mavericks in seven. The Celtics are the better, more experienced team. But their nasty habit of playing with their food leaves the door open long enough for Dončić to dazzle and Irving to exact sweet revenge. Their Mavericks supporting cast, also a few shades greener than the C’s, continue to step up behind Washington and Gafford. It’s a fun series that ends in Boston tears, a few memes and, perhaps slightly further down the road, a roster reset around Tatum. AL

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