2024 NBA Finals

Can Mavericks re-establish aerial threat in Game 2 of NBA Finals?

By switching their matchups in Game 1, the Celtics never gave Luka Doncic or Kyrie Irving space to find their vertical targets.

The lobs and corner 3s that have been there for the Mavs throughout the playoffs largely disappeared in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Download the NBA App

BOSTON – The Dallas Mavericks’ swagger shows itself not so much when they walk as when they sky-walk.

When Daniel Gafford soars to snag and slam a lob pass from Luka Doncic or when Dereck Lively II beats everyone else downcourt to catch Doncic’s touchdown pass above the rim, those are the plays that jolt the Mavericks’ energy and confidence to peak levels. They strike fear into the hearts of Mavs’ opponents.

And they were absent through the first 48 minutes of the 2024 NBA Finals.

In fact, after attempting 67 lob dunks through their first 17 playoff games this spring and flushing 54 of them, the Mavericks tried only one in their 107-89 loss to the Celtics Thursday at TD Garden. It’s a signature play for the visitors’ offense that needs to return in Game 2 Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ABC) if Dallas wants to avoid an 2-0 hole in the best-of-seven championship series.

“It’s definitely a big play,” said Lively, after practice Saturday. No matter if it’s a dunk, maybe it’s a 3-ball. As long as our team is together, we’re cheering, we’re yelling, we’re connected … it definitely makes the other team question what they’re going to do, question their scheme.”

You can make a case that what a blocked shot is to a defense – saving two points, ideally, but more than that, planting doubts in a shooter’s head – a throwdown dunk is to an offense. It’s pure, it’s primal, exhilarating in the moment and suggesting a dominance of individual and team.

It can ignite a home crowd, extinguish one on the road. It plants seeds, too, warping a defensive shell as players fudge to avoid having it happen again.

“It makes the defense break down a little more,” said forward Derrick Jones Jr. “And they leave our open shooters. That’s when we get our 3s, our corner 3s, and our other shots off.”

Dallas attempted only three corner-3s in Game 1, also well below their average.

So why so little alley and so much oops for the Mavericks in Game 1? Boston wanted it that way and executed defensively up to that ambition.

In the NBA Finals Film Room, Sam Mitchell & Earl Watson explain why the Celtics were able to thoroughly limit the Dallas bigs.

“What makes our team really special is we don’t have guys that we hide on defense,” said Celtics forward Jayson Tatum. “Bigs and guards, we switch, we take on the challenge of individual defense, understanding that we have help.

“If you want to play on our team, you have to be able to guard.”

By switching their matchups at nearly every screen, the Celtics never gave Doncic or Kyrie Irving the space and freedom to find their vertical targets. That kept bodies on Gafford and Lively, making it more difficult to rim-run.

As for Jones Jr., another lob target but also a driving dunker, he was held in check as well. In fact, Jones achieved a dubious postseason distinction with three missed dunk attempts in Game 1. The Celtics’ defensive diligence kept Jaylen Brown and others handy, with 7-foot-2 center Kristaps Porzingis back from a calf injury to contest or clog up the paint.

“They helped off the right people in order for us to not get lobs,” Jones Jr. said. “We’ve got to get out and move the ball a lot more and get on the break a lot more. That’s how we get our lobs and that’s how we can get our space right to get our dunks and our highlight plays.”

The Mavericks shot just 41.7%, including 7-of-27 on 3s, and managed a measly nine assists. Doncic had one, Irving two, though together the pair had seven turnovers.

So they were suffering from the worst of two worlds: Ball stagnation and shoddy accuracy.

Still, that was for one game. This is a series for a reason.

“Yeah, we’ll make some adjustments,” said Mavs coach Jason Kidd. “But Boston is going to give the layup to Luka, so he’s got to take it. They’re not going to give him the lob, and they are not going to give the corner 3. So it’s 2-on-2 [Doncic and Irving vs. two defenders] and we have to take advantage of that.”

Dallas also had relative success when it used backup big Maxi Kleber in place of Gafford and Lively. He is a better shooter, with more range, so he wouldn’t restore the absent alley-oops.

“Because they switch, they take it away a lot, right?” Kleber said Saturday. “We don’t create as much of an advantage to attack the rim because the defender doesn’t come. It’s OK if we don’t have that. We just got to make sure after that we get in the right spots and still create the best shots. We’ve got to get Luka and Kyrie the right space out there.”

Can the Mavericks throw down without their throwdowns? It will take more than strategic adjustments.

“We need to make sure we make ’em uncomfortable from the jump,” Lively said. “I feel like we eased into the game and we shouldn’t have. We should have come out and thrown the first punch instead of taking the first punch.

“Adapt. Learn. If we are the same person we were yesterday, we aren’t getting better.”

* * * 

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.