2024 NBA Finals

Celtics-Mavericks: Which duo will perform best in NBA Finals?

Tatum and Brown or Doncic and Irving? Breaking down which superstar pairing is poised to dominate the NBA Finals.

Kyrie Irving & Luka Doncic averaged 51.6 points, 14.0 assists and 13.5 rebounds through three rounds this postseason.

It’s an easy script. One that writes itself. One that should entertain and captivate the basketball audience before ultimately deciding who wins the 2024 NBA championship.

One script, two duos.

Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Everyone and everything else about this upcoming NBA Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics is filler, the side dish. No disrespect to those trapped in the shadows, but this pair of duos, these four players, carry so much clout and cache and eyeballs for this not to be the case.

They will be the cause for celebration in two weeks, or the reason for defeat.

Here’s a look at the duos and the challenge ahead, both for them and the team faced with stopping them, starting Thursday, June 6 in Boston (8:30 ET, ABC):

Kyrie and Luka

This postseason: They have averaged 51.6 points, 14.0 assists and 13.5 rebounds through three rounds, creating insurmountable matchup problems for the Clippers, Thunder and Timberwolves along the way. With the exception of Game 1 against Minnesota when Kyrie opened with a flourish, they continued a 1-2 punch pattern — Luka setting the tone, Kyrie finishing.

What they’re bringing: Kyrie and Luka turned an entire basketball audience into prisoners of the moment. Suddenly, conversations about the two are taking on a historical nature: Could this be the most skilled, or even best, backcourt duo ever?

Again, hard to compare eras. Guards in the past dealt with a far more physical game. Meanwhile, Kyrie and Luka enjoy vastly more offensive freedom — rules against “creative” dribbling are relaxed — and the emphasis on floor spacing and the 3-point shot make those two much harder to defend, especially with no hand-checking.

Also: Are Kyrie and Luka better on defense than Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars? Those who saw the Pistons pairing win two titles or place a high value on two-way players will shut that conversation down real quick.

Finally: Didn’t Steph Curry and Klay Thompson just splash their way to four championships? Shouldn’t a Kyrie-Luka ring be required before getting all gushy?

That said … the craftiness, command of the floor, confidence, amazing skills, shooting range and crunch-time courage cannot be denied. Kyrie and Luka have all that, along with mutual respect and magnetic chemistry.

You’ll be pressed to find a pair of elite guards who feed off one another like these two. When Kyrie arrived two years ago, he was told by an MVP contender to be himself, to take over games when he so desired, to be the closer if necessary.

And Kyrie, coming off failed partnerships with Kevin Durant and James Harden in Brooklyn, once unwilling to be the little brother to LeBron James, took Luka’s advice to heart.

“I’m so glad he’s on my team,” said Luka.

Kyrie has longed to feel wanted. And Luka wanted him. That was enough.

Against the Celtics: Here what Luka and Kyrie have in their favor — Luka was a problem for the Celtics during the regular season and Kyrie, wounded during his unfulfilled two-year stint in Boston, is bringing motivation.

Luka averaged a triple double in two games: 35 points, 15 rebounds, 12 assists. And the players who’ll likely guard him, Jrue Holiday, Tatum and Derrick White, were healthy.

Of course, that was then, this is now. Until the closeout game against the Wolves, Luka was shooting 32% from deep in the playoffs. Also, keep in mind that Holiday, one of this generation’s better defensive guards and a player who has the size to combat Luka, elevates in the postseason — see Holiday’s 2020 Finals clinic against the Suns and Devin Booker.

This series will be emotional for Kyrie. He harbored resentment from what he termed unfair criticism, mainly from Celtics fans, who booed him relentlessly after he reneged on a promise to sign an extension in 2019.

Kyrie seems more mature since then — he’s no longer stomping on the leprechaun located center court at TD Garden — but you’d be a fool to think he wouldn’t take satisfaction in torching his old team.

The Celtics need White to keep Kyrie from scoring efficiently, and though Irving is capable of dry spells, it’s not going to be many, and none for long.

Jayson and Jaylen

Now in their 7th season together, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to mature for Celtics.

This postseason: They’re averaging a combined 51.0 points, 16.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists and their constant attack put a strain on the Heat, Cavaliers and Pacers. Brown won the Larry Bird Trophy for best player in the Eastern Conference Finals … getting just one vote more than Tatum, proof of how equal the two have been.

What they’re bringing: After years of outside chatter questioning their chemistry — some of it legit, some not — Tatum and Brown have put that to rest. They seem quite cozy on the court and happy with each other’s success. And that’s all that counts.

As for the impact of these swingmen? Remarkable. They have similar skill sets and size and athletic ability. Tatum tends to take over games with more frequency; Brown is probably the better finisher — see his Game 1 corner 3 against the Pacers to force overtime in a series-opening victory.

Tatum and Brown eventually understood that they need each other to win a championship, so if there was ever any on-court conflict, that’s ancient history.

Brown signed the largest contract in NBA history last summer, but Tatum is First-team All-NBA this season as well as the more accomplished and all-around player. So this attempt at a title is more his burden to bear. Tatum averaged 30.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals in the East Finals, evidence of his anxiousness to reach the championship round.

Also, Tatum is hell-bent on erasing the stinging memory of his last, and only other, trip to the Finals, when he was buried by inefficiency against the Warriors in 2022 and crumbled.

Brown wasn’t much better in that series, either. But his growth in these playoffs was steady and solid — 22.8 points in the first round, 23.8 in the semis and 29.8 in the East final, not bad for a second option.

And one more thing:

“We kind of glorify guys that can play one side of the ball,” Brown said. “But we really don’t pay respect to people who guard and play defense.”

He was speaking of him and Tatum.

Against the Mavericks: The Celtics are bringing more proven defenders against Luka and Kyrie than the Mavericks will throw at Tatum and Brown.

The assignment will go to Derrick Jones Jr. and P.J. Washington. Jones is athletic and springy but is at a strength disadvantage. Washington, trapped in Charlotte for his career until now, has never been in a spot this big in his life.

And if either player gets in foul trouble — which is certainly possible — the Mavs would turn to Josh Green and Dante Exum, a pair of untested guards. As for using Luka? That would be a gamble because foul trouble would spell doom for Dallas.

Anyway: Tatum and Brown are more singular offensive threats than Kyrie and Luka because they’re finishers, not necessarily creators for teammates. Tatum and Brown are most dangerous when they’re scoring, not passing — actually, the Mavericks would prefer seeing Holiday, White and Al Horford taking shots.

Brown is making 54% percent of his shots in the postseason; again, this is the best he has ever looked as a Celtic. But neither he (37% this postseason) or Tatum (29%) are as lethal from 3-point range as Luka and Kyrie, even though the Celtics are a 3-point heavy team.

The biggest potential issue for the Celtics is what Tatum does in a close game — and there might be a few such fourth quarters in this series. He was problematic all season in these situations, shooting poorly and making errors. He missed a pair of crunch-time shots in Game 1 of the East Finals until Brown bailed him out. In overtime, Tatum went ballistic.

And here we are.

Kyrie and Luka.

Tatum and Brown.

Which two will be terrific?

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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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