2024 NBA Finals

NBA Finals: 5 takeaways as Celtics hold off Mavericks in Game 3

Boston's star duo comes up big to help make up for Kristaps Porzingis' absence and put the Celtics 1 win from a title.

The Celtics hold off a fourth-quarter rally from the Mavericks to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.

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DALLAS — The NBA Finals presented by YouTube TV lacked drama until suspense finally entered the arena with a blast Wednesday, not once, but twice in a frantic fourth quarter and threatened to shake up the series.

The first time: The Dallas Mavericks, down 21 points, turned tornado and ripped through a 22-2 run. Would they actually take the lead?

(They didn’t.)

The second time: Luka Doncic was whistled for his sixth and final foul after colliding with Jaylen Brown with 4:12 left. Would the call be overturned on review?

(It wasn’t.)

And because of that, history now asks this suspenseful question:

When will the Boston Celtics finish the job and make the 18th championship in franchise history official?

No cigars have been lit back in Boston, but the Celtics can smell the aroma from Dallas. Because teams that lead 3-0 in a best-of-seven series are 156-0, including 14-0 in the Finals. Because, aside from that Game 3 fourth-quarter sizzle, the Mavericks haven’t dropped many hints that history will be proven wrong.

Here are five takeaways from the Celtics’ 106-99 win in Game 3 and why the ending is perhaps inevitable:

1. The return of the J in Jayson

The once familiar sight of a high-arching trajectory finishing with a splash finally — and consistently — came to the rescue of Tatum, who until Game 3 couldn’t find a rhythm.

His jumper was good enough to give him a jolt of confidence, to help the Celtics assume early control of the game and to give Boston one more weapon to throw at Dallas.

The Celtics had plenty of help and didn’t need Tatum to score efficiently in the first two games, and a good thing, too, because he was faulty. Not so in Game 3. With the series shifting to Dallas, the Celtics missing Kristaps Porzingis and the Mavericks desperate, a return to form by Tatum would be most welcome by Boston.

Tatum responded. He scored 20 of his 31 points in the first half and constantly countered each overthrow attempt by the Mavericks to assume a big lead. Despite Doncic and Kyrie Irving (combining for 37 points) punishing the Celtics in the half, once the buzzer sounded at the break, the Mavericks had just a one-point advantage, mainly because of Tatum.

By setting the tone, Tatum also set the table for the player who might win Finals MVP …

2. Brown put Dallas (and Doncic) down for the count

The 1-2 punch was complete when Brown took the cue from Tatum and finished the job. Brown was sensational in the second half, and not just because that’s when he scored 24 of his 30 points.

Two plays put it in perspective:

His dunk put the Celtics up 15 near the end of the third quarter and (temporarily) put the Mavericks and American Airlines Center to sleep.

Then, realizing Doncic was one foul away from disqualification, Brown attacked and wisely beat Doncic to the spot, causing the contact that sent Doncic to the bench for good.

Brown also demonstrated what this series has revealed: he’s a tough assignment for Doncic.

Or anybody in that second half (and especially the fourth quarter).

“I think this team has trusted me, especially in this playoffs and those moments to just be who I am,” Brown said. “I felt like I’ve been able to just deliver just by being patient and being poised. Those opportunities have presented themselves, and I’ve been able to take advantage of them.

“But we were able to make plays and find a way to win. And we’ve been in those positions, and we’ve lost. It was great to overcome that with my brother, Jayson, and with our team. That was special.”

So Tatum and Brown, as they’ve done all season, and pretty much through much of their careers together, were two much — 61 points combined.

3. It was all in vain for Irving

After a week of owning up to the obvious — that his impact in this series was lacking — Kyrie Irving turned back into the punishing point producer that everyone saw throughout the postseason.

He had 28 points combined in Games 1 and 2. He had 35 in Game 3. Shaking defenders, reaching his sweet spots on the floor and dropping step-back jumpers, Irving was at times impossible to keep in check.

And in the end, it meant nothing for Dallas — just as Tatum’s poor shooting meant nothing in the first two games for Boston.

The crucial moment for Irving came when Doncic fouled out with four minutes and change remaining. Could he be the savior, compensate for the big absence and give the Mavs a chance in this series?

Irving did bring the Mavericks within a point on a layup moments later. But it was the closest they would get, and Irving never scored another basket, just a pair of free throws, because the Celtics forced him to pass.

“Jrue (Holiday) was picking me up full court,” he said. “They knew they were going to pressure me to get the ball out of my hands.

“I just tried to make the right plays, make sure guys were in the right spots, have them understand that we still have a chance to win this basketball game. That was all I was thinking.”

4. Mavs’ support still lacking

In a decision that could only be described as desperate, Mavs coach Jason Kidd blew the dust off Tim Hardaway Jr. and gave him extended Game 3 minutes. Hardaway fell out of the rotation months ago and only saw 27 minutes in this series.

But Kidd was grasping for answers, which happens when, once again, the roll call for the role players mostly came up empty.

Daniel Gafford, P.J. Washington, Dereck Lively II, Derrick Jones Jr. — players who constantly stepped forth in the postseason and made Doncic’s life easier — were mild at best.

This is their first taste of mid-June hoops, so their struggles are somewhat understandable. They’re clearly no match for what the Celtics are bringing to help Tatum and Brown.

5. No Porzingis, no problem

Porzingis was a scratch due to his latest injury, which was ironic, considering that injuries were what spoiled his time with the Mavericks. What it didn’t do was spoil the Game 3 outcome for the Celtics.

Al Horford and — surprise — Xavier Tillman were enough to keep the Mavericks from taking advantage. Porzingis was especially effective as a rim protector in Games 1 and 2, thwarting the Mavericks with timely blocks and making them think twice before attacking the rim.

There were no abundant dunks off lobs by Lively and Gafford and the rest, once again, even without Porzingis. Horford had a pair of steals and a block.

And Tillman, who was quietly acquired midseason from Memphis, was pressed into duty and responded with a pair of blocks — and his first 3-pointer of these playoffs — in 11 minutes. It was the most important 11 minutes of his career, considering the stakes and the situation.

“Obviously, I was probably going to play some more,” said Horford. “Then we needed somebody from the bench to come in and give us minutes, and Xavier was amazing tonight. His energy, defensively he held his own, time and time again. He was just ready for the moment.

“It’s not easy being in that position. He came in and he knocks down that big three as well. But defensively he was special. He didn’t get an opportunity the first two games and he has stayed with it, really took advantage of it.”

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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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