2024 NBA Finals

Celtics-Mavericks: 10 biggest questions surrounding 2024 NBA Finals

Breaking down the key factors in the upcoming clash between the Celtics and Mavericks for the 2023-24 NBA championship.

The performances of superstars Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum will go a long way toward deciding the 2024 NBA Finals.

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BOSTON — Questions about the 2024 NBA Finals have been coming since this matchup between Boston and Dallas was locked in last week. Answers, real answers, will only reveal themselves on the court in the weeks ahead.

Here are 10, however, to serve as placeholders for what we’ll learn about the Celtics, the Mavericks and their dueling pursuit of legacies and hardware, which begins Thursday with Game 1 (8:30 ET, ABC).

1. Do playground-style rankings mean anything?

For some reason, this is an increasingly popular exercise for studio shows and media outlets looking to fill time while everyone waits for the league’s championship series to start. It’s like the briefly-used All-Star player draft, that mechanism that traumatized so many kids who were picked last — and might have ticked off Denver’s three-time Kia NBA MVP Nikola Jokic went it happened to him.

Maybe it’s a clumsy and thoroughly unscientific way of gauging the teams’ relative strengths, based on how many of their players are taken in the first X number of picks. A run through the Celtics and Mavericks rosters this year might go like this:

  1. Luka Doncic
  2. Jayson Tatum
  3. Jaylen Brown
  4. Kyrie Irving
  5. Jrue Holiday
  6. Derrick White
  7. Dereck Lively II

And so on. Which doesn’t tell us much about how they’ll compete with each other, share responsibilities, fight through cold stretches, etc. It certainly wasn’t helpful the last time Dallas got to this round. That’s when the 2011 Miami Heat had three of the top four talents in the Finals, including prime LeBron James, and still lost. So the answer is no.

2. Do Tatum and Brown get along and, if not, will that derail Boston?

This is a gossipy question straight out of a high school cafeteria, sillier than the far more meaty “Does Kyrie Irving regret stomping on the Boston logo with mascot Lucky at TD Garden court three years ago?”

The Celtics’ set of wings have achieved so much together, combining for five conference finals, two trips to the NBA Finals and eight All-Star selections in their seven seasons as teammates. Brown became the highest-paid player in the NBA last summer and Tatum is poised to top him with his next deal. Together they drain the options and energy right out of opposing defenses, and they have led Boston to a 76-20 record since the season began in October.

It’s not ideal to answer a question with a question, but it is effective: Are you best friends with everyone you work with? Does it stop any of you from doing your best job?

3. What does this series mean to the coaches?

There’s a trivia aspect to Boston’s Joe Mazzulla and Dallas’ Jason Kidd working the sidelines in the first Finals to feature two Black coaches since 1975 (when Golden State’s Al Attles matched wits with Washington’s K.C. Jones).

That doesn’t mean as much as what getting here, and for one of them winning here, says. Mazzulla had a bumpy first season when abruptly thrust into Ime Udoka’s vacated role in 2022-23. Kidd is on his third team in eight seasons as a coach.

Both have learned while sticking to their beliefs and systems. Mazzulla’s use of a deep roster and his connection with newcomer Holiday this season has stood out. Kidd adapted to midseason acquisitions, leaned on defense and managed the sizeable egos of Doncic and Irving.

One of the coaches will win. Both have been validated.

4. Who guards Luka?

TV graphics will line up five players per side, by position, and imply that’s how they’ll battle all series. Real NBA competition is far from that, of course.

Holiday and White will get isolated on Doncic at times, with Holiday’s strength a better fit for the matchup. But pick-and-rolls and switching means plenty of Boston players will get turns in the tank. The guy best equipped at this point might be Brown, who seemed to roll up his sleeves for the challenge when the teams played March 1 (a 138-110 Celtics victory).

Team defense matters, too, which in this case means taking away Doncic’s lob targets Lively and Daniel Gafford as much as possible. Not that turning the Slovenian multi-threat into a shooter/scorer is any sort of goal.

Luka Doncic demands multiple defenders, but the Celtics' defense must not lose track of his lob options.

5. So what about Kyrie going back to Boston?

Irving’s two unsatisfying seasons with the Celtics (2017-19) will provide a backdrop to this series, with fans in Boston still cranky about the point guard’s lack of commitment and leadership. He left for Brooklyn after pledging to re-sign with the Celtics and has taken his lumps at TD Garden ever since.

We’ll focus on the sideshow it provides, but this won’t have much to do with any outcomes. The fans won’t be poking any bear, not with Irving as the most Finals-experienced player in this series, and presumably, he already will be maxed out on motivation and focus.

6. Will Kristaps Porzingis play for Boston?

A good answer is “yes,” and a better answer as far as the Celtics are concerned is “right away.” There were reports that the 7-foot center will open the series with everyone else in Game 1, which would be his first game action since April 29.

That was Game 4 against Miami, in which Porzingis suffered a strained right calf. That suggests a lot of rust, but it also has provided him with nearly seven weeks of rest and rehab on an injury that spooks an NBA medical staff these days. It was, after all, the immediate precursor for Kevin Durant that led to his torn Achilles tendon in the 2019 Finals.

It seems unlikely Porzingis will play without a minutes restriction, and the Celtics’ 9-1 flow since he went down could get disrupted. But they welcome him back, particularly his pick-and-pop spacing and his presence defensively in the paint.

7. Who are the X-factors for each team?

White for the Celtics, P.J. Washington for the Mavericks. White can earn redemption for a disappointing experience in the 2022 Finals. That’s when he scored 21 points in the opening victory, then managed just 38 points and a minus-87 in the final five games against Golden State. That was his first postseason with Boston and now, he’s established and often their most quietly valuable playoff performer.

Washington will have to blink through the bright lights because all 17 of his playoff appearances have come this spring. But he has scored in double figures in 15 of them, with the size (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) to get physical with Boston’s wings.

8. How did Dallas nail this Doncic-Irving pairing?

For a sport played with just one ball, teaming two of the NBA’s most ball-dominant guards struck many as sheer folly. Irving showed up in February 2023 dragging his unreliable reputation and obstinate off-court history with him. That made the trade look like a big-name grab to prove the franchise wasn’t hanging Doncic out there by himself.

But Irving began to thrive away from Brooklyn and COVID-19. He seemed more willing to show his love for the game and, most importantly, he and Doncic talked, built mutual respect and made room for each other.

Now he appears to be in better shape physically and emotionally. He shows more energy defensively than in the past. And he and Doncic are the same handful for opponents that Irving and past star teammates have been for their organizations.

9. Would Boston’s ‘easy’ road toward a title taint it?

It’s true that each of the Celtics’ foes in the East’s three previous rounds played without stars for all or some of the games. The Miami Heat were without Jimmy Buter, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost Donovan Mitchell for the final two contests and the Indiana Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton missed two in the conference finals.

Big deal. If the Celtics snag the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy this year, time will erase any asterisks. Do we know off the top of our heads which NBA championships have been won thanks to missing stars?

And if the Celtics don’t win, that outcome will mar and largely define their season, but who was or wasn’t around to face them in the playoffs won’t much matter. Which leads to the next question:

10. Is this championship or bust for Boston?

In a word, yes. Six trips to the East Finals in eight years, with an NBA Finals appearance in 2022 against Golden State to whet appetites for this one is some serious door-knocking. Tatum (26) and Brown (27) still are young as the two pillars of this team, and there would be nothing wrong tactically with running it back.

But the belief might not be there, for the fans and perhaps even for the players. Al Horford at 38 could be crushed, and losing to this insta-contender from Dallas wouldn’t be as palatable as, say, losing to defending champion Denver might have been.

Fans in Boston are fired up as the Celtics move closer to their 18th title, which would break a tie for the most in NBA history.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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