2024 NBA Finals

NBA Finals Film Study: When the Celtics attack, good things happen

Breaking down how Boston has been able to create open shots by attacking the paint.

As the series shifted to Dallas, the Celtics fended off repeated runs by the Mavericks to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.

With 3:50 left in the third quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals presented by YouTube TV, ABC’s “Sounds of the Game” segment had Jayson Tatum mic’d up on the Boston Celtics’ bench.

“We’re getting good shots,” Tatum told his teammates. “But we can get better shots. Don’t settle for the step-back 3 unless it’s late shot clock. That goes for all of us, [including] myself. Every time we drive, we get a wide-open 3.”

The Celtics oscillated between heeding and ignoring Tatum’s words on Wednesday, a big reason they went from down 13 to up 21, before seeing that lead cut to one with less than four minutes left. But there were just enough drives for the Celtics to hold off the Dallas Mavericks for a 106-99 victory that has them one win for a championship.

Here are some numbers and film on how the Celtics got better shots after they got into the paint.

1. Too much settling in the first half

Number to know: The Celtics shot 4-for-16 (25%) on off-the-dribble 3-pointers in Game 3, but were 13-for-30 (43.3%) off the catch.

At first, it seemed like the Celtics forgot how successful they were in Game 2, when they registered 66 drives, eight more than they had in any other game this season. They were consistently able to beat Dallas defenders (with Luka Doncic at the top of the list) off the dribble.

They continued to get good matchups in Game 3, but too often settled for stepback 3s (especially in the first half), rather than attacking the paint and generating better shots.

The Celtics’ first 3-point attempt of the game was a stepback, corner 3 from Jrue Holiday, not the worst shot they took, but it was contested by Daniel Gafford (who’s been beaten off the dribble plenty in this series) and with plenty of time left on the shot clock.

Derrick White missed another off-the-dribble 3 on the next possession and the Celtics were quickly down 9-2. After a timeout, they got a much better shot with Jaylen Brown backing down Kyrie Irving, drawing help, and kicking the ball out for an Al Horford corner 3 off the catch.

But the stepback 3s kept coming. Later in the first quarter, Dereck Lively II switched to Tatum, who had him isolated on the right wing with plenty of time on the shot clock and having not used his dribble. But instead of attacking and drawing help, Tatum settled for a contested step-back that didn’t come close to going in …

Jayson Tatum step-back 3-point attempt

The Celtics had a few really good offensive possessions in the first half and also benefited from some transition opportunities. But, down just one at halftime, they hadn’t been nearly as relentless offensively as they were three nights earlier.

2. Playing with purpose to start the third quarter

Number to know: The Celtics have averaged 66 more passes (281-215), 11 more assists (26-15) and 3.3 more secondary assists (3.7-0.3) than the Mavs in the Finals.

The Celtics have generally (both in the regular season and in the playoffs) been better before halftime than after. But they came out of the locker room on Wednesday with much better intentions offensively. And they went from down one to up seven by scoring 16 points on their first seven possessions of the third quarter.

The first bucket was another pullup jumper from Brown, but it came with both of his feet in the paint. And on the next possession, Tatum made a quick swing pass, allowing Holiday to attack Gafford’s close-out. He kicked it to White, who drove past another close-out and dropped the ball off to Holiday for a layup …

Derrick White assist to Jrue Holiday

The next two buckets also came in the paint. Then Brown drove and kicked it out to Tatum for a catch-and-shoot 3, and then Tatum attacked Doncic and found Brown for another layup.

The Celtics had regained their attack mentality, and they built a 21-point lead as a result.

3. Good and bad down the stretch

Number to know: The Celtics are 6-0 in clutch games in the playoffs, having outscored their opponents by 46.9 points per 100 clutch possessions.

But they again lost the plot, scoring just two points on a stretch of 13 possessions in the fourth quarter as their lead went from 21 to one. The second shot in that stretch wasn’t a stepback 3, but it was an isolation where Brown sized up Lively and chose to shoot over the top instead of attacking, when Kyrie Irving was the only Mav in the paint …

Jaylen Brown face-up 3-point attempt

As noted above, the Celtics were 13-for-30 (43%) on 3-pointers off the catch in Game 3. But four of those misses came after some hesitation from Brown, so they were 13-for-26 (50%) when they shot directly off the catch.

Brown later missed one of those step-back 3s instead of attacking Doncic in isolation. When he got into the paint, he turned the ball over instead of making a simple pass to Holiday, who also took a (rushed) off-the-dribble 3 in that stretch.

After a timeout with 4:38 left, the Celtics finally got back to attacking the paint. They got a great corner-3 look for Horford near the end of the drought, which came to an end when Brown got a tip-in off a Tatum drive.

Holiday then beat Tim Hardaway Jr. off the dribble and made an incredible pass to White for a catch-and-shoot 3 that put the Celtics up six …

Jrue Holiday assist to Derrick White

According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Celtics scored 1.2 points per possession when a drive led directly to the end of a play (shot, turnover or trip to the line) on Wednesday. That was their best such mark of the Finals thus far.

The Celtics have been the best team in the league all season and they have clear matchup advantages in this series. Even having gone through stretches where they settled too much, they still won a road game in which their opponent was nearly as desperate for a win as a team can be.

If they continue to attack in Game 4 on Friday (8:30 ET, ABC), they will be champions.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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