2024 NBA Finals

NBA Finals: 4 things to look for as Celtics try to close out Mavericks

Boston will need to resist the urge to relax in order to close out the NBA Finals presented by YouTube TV.

Jaylen Brown has scored 21 or more points and shot better than 53% in each of the first 3 games in the Finals.

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DALLAS — Ask any former NBA champion and they’ll confirm the high degree of difficulty of closing out another team on its home court.

The Boston Celtics haven’t faced many challenges in a 2024 postseason where they’ve lost only twice — a superb run made possible by superior depth, solid production at both ends and yes, key injuries on other teams.

Beating the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 (8:30 ET, ABC) of the NBA Finals presented by YouTube TV to complete a sweep Friday? That could be quite the task, maybe their biggest.

Here’s what could go against the Celtics:

  • A vengeful Luka Doncic
  • Kyrie Irving regaining his touch
  • The chance that the Mavs’ supporting cast might show up in this series
  • The rarity of a sweep in the Finals

Of course, the Celtics also have many reasons to flex, namely with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and a team that once again may have to compensate for the loss or limitations of an injured Kristaps Porzingis.

Here are four things to look for in a do-or-die situation facing the home team, and the visitors’ quest for championship No. 18:

1. The hunger game for the Celtics

It’s human nature to ease your foot off the gas when it appears the inevitable is near. And if you doubt this, then you have a short memory. Didn’t the Celtics nearly blow a 21-point fourth-quarter lead Wednesday?

If Boston can’t resist the urge to chill and lapse into relaxation, then Game 4 could work against them and give the Mavs a morsel of life and send this series back to Boston.

Crashing hard for rebounds, tightening up defensively, working for easier shots, the Mavericks will be — or at least should be — hell-bent on winning those energy plays. They have the personnel for that. The problem is that Dereck Lively II, Daniel Gafford and others have been neutralized so far.

“Just because we’re down 3-0, it’s not finished,” Lively said. “It’s only going to come down to us putting all we can on the floor, trying to come out and win little battles because that’s what’s going to get us the game. Winning the rebounding game, the transition game and then just trying to stop them from what they’re trying to do.”

If the Celtics meet the Mavs’ projected intensity, then it’s probably a wrap given Boston’s obvious talent advantage. But again, human nature …

“We’re just locked in,” said guard Derrick White. “We know what’s at stake. We understand that close-out games are the toughest, and we just come with an extra edge.”

2. Jaylen Brown securing another bag

Let’s get to the so-called downside of Brown’s last 12 months. Don’t worry, this will be quick:

  • He didn’t make any of the All-NBA teams
  • He wasn’t chosen for the 2024 Olympic Team

That’s it. Otherwise, life’s been good. Great, actually.

Last summer, Brown signed the richest contract in NBA history. Last month, he was voted the most outstanding player of the Eastern Conference Finals. And he’s a good performance away from being named the Finals MVP, where he finds himself the current favorite.

What a life-changing run by Brown, long overshadowed by Tatum, now pushing to be considered one of the league’s better players.

He seems built for a strong finish to this series. Not only is he blessed with obvious all-around skills and causing major problems for the Celtics, but he’s very likely picking up the scent of two trophies: the Larry O’Brien and Bill Russell.

Brown has been the Celtics’ most consistent, reliable and best player in this series. And he isn’t showing any signs of slippage.

3. Kyrie Irving’s leadership

He once helped a team rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a championship. He hit one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history. Throughout this season, he has presented himself as a changed player who is mature and wise.

If your team is one defeat away from losing the NBA Finals, it’s best to have Irving on it.

Who would’ve guessed it would be Irving, not Doncic, as the calmer presence among the Mavs’ star backcourt? While one has battled an aching body and the referees, the other has shown accountability and remorse followed by a pledge to be better.

And Irving said Thursday he’ll offer advice if asked by Doncic on how to handle the moment facing them.

“There are a lot of first-timers on this stage,” he said. “I’ve said it over the past week or so, it’s a new space for me, too, just being with these guys and being tested at this level.

“But my message to him is he’s not alone in this. He’s played as best as he can despite the circumstances, just injuries and stuff. He’s been giving it his all. It’s not all on him. Being under the microscope in this business is a lot different for me now because I’m able to put the big picture of life in perspective and also the game in perspective. It comes easier.”

4. Potential X-factors

White has this on lock — his play at both ends and especially his willingness to gravitate to the moment, has been a massive advantage for the Celtics. If he’s open in a tight game, he’ll shoot (see his big 3-pointer late in Game 3).

“It’s playing with great players,” he explained as the reason. “They put me in a position to be in those moments, and they trust me. I just try to be confident throughout it all and just trust the work that I’ve put in.”

Other candidates for Game 4?

Derrick Jones Jr. is due. It’s a quiet series so far for a player who lives on corner 3-pointers, lob passes for dunks and defense. All of that was on display throughout the playoffs, then vaporized during the Finals. Jones bet on himself last summer when he signed a minimal one-year contract with Dallas. With a summer of free agency approaching, it’s time he tries to win that bet.

Lively could rebound. And dunk. And make it hard for the Celtics in the paint if Porzingis is an injury scratch. Lively had his best game of the series Wednesday with an 11-13 double-double. His energy and ability to coax Al Horford into foul trouble would loom large.

Sam Hauser can shoot. The Celtics know that, or at least rediscovered it after Hauser erased a chilly Game 2 (0-for-5 shooting) by scoring nine points in 14 minutes in Game 3. His ability to stretch the floor and allow Tatum and Brown to go iso makes a big difference on a team that feasts on 3s and spacing.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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