2024 NBA Finals game three preview: How Dallas can adjust and get back in the series

2024 NBA Finals game three preview: How Dallas can adjust and get back in the series
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Boston has dominated games one and two, but the Mavericks can still make things interesting by implementing some adjustments.

Kyrie, it’s time to start burning sage again.

With Boston forcing the dynamic guard on the White-Holiday Express, the former Celtic has scored just 28 points on 13-37 (35%) shooting and 0-8 from three through two games. In fact, Luka Doncic is the only Mav who’s made more than one three in this series, and Dallas looks dead in the water down 0-2.

But hey, that was also how everyone felt when they trailed by two games in their 2022 series against Phoenix before Luka made things personal.

This Boston team, though, is a different beast — especially considering that the Grant Williams Bowl is at stake — so the Mavs will need to make schematic changes on both ends of the court to give themselves a puncher’s chance to come back.

Let’s begin on offense.

Offense

Use Luka to attack White

Boston’s superpower is that all of their starters are reliable two-way players. Even so, certain matchups can be exploited in Dallas’ favor, such as Luka attacking Derrick White.

Specifically, the Mavs love to iso Luka and Kyrie Irving on one end of the court while all their other players are positioned on the weak side. They ran this set three times in game 2, but when Kyrie didn’t manage to score on his two attempts (one against Brown, and another against White), they tried it with Luka instead, with much more success.

Given that Luka has three inches and 40 pounds on White, he can back him down, shoot over him, or get to the rim with ease. The simplest way of getting this switch would be running pick and rolls with Kyrie, as White and Jrue Holiday have taken turns guarding the latter.

The other scoring option that this P&R could open up is the Mavs playing 4 on 3 with Kyrie controlling the ball. According to my guy Brian Windhorst, Boston sent 13 double teams in game two, which is by far the most they’ve done in any game this season. If they do that to Luka when White’s defending him, he could give the ball up to Kyrie (who should be one pass away) with a man advantage.

More pumps and drives rather than threes

Through the first three rounds, 13% of Dallas’ shots came from corner threes (11.4 per game), which was the highest number among all playoff teams at the time. Unfortunately for them, Boston has completely shut off that faucet, resulting in the Mavs attempting a total of just seven (with one make) corner threes so far through two games.

Given that Dallas’ role players are only reliable shooters from the corner, the Celtics have decided to leave them open on above-the-break threes, which has worked spectacularly: the Mavs have made just 11/44 non-corner triples thus far.

With that in mind, Dallas’ role players should look to pump and drive more, especially since they can take advantage of late closeouts by their respective defenders. Just take a look at the example below, where PJ Washington blew by a recovering Holiday and hit an open floater.

Another advantage of shooting inside the arc is that the Mavs will have an extra player to crash the glass, leading to more potential offensive rebounds and second-chance points.

Run stagger screens

Normally a stable of their offense, Dallas has barely run any stagger screens against the Celtics. Boston’s defensive versatility is preventing the Mavs from getting into their sets easily, but Luka and co. still need to be more deliberate about their offensive positioning.

The possession below is a good example of what such a play looks like when it’s executed flawlessly. DJJ or Washington could set the first screen with Horford/Porzingis as their main defender, while Lively or Gafford sets the second one with Tatum guarding them. As a result, Luka would end up with Tatum on him rather than one of Boston’s bigs, so he’d have an easier time throwing a lob.

The downside for Dallas, though, is that one of the Celtics’ bigs would be at the rim, making it more difficult for Lively/Gafford to catch the lob. Regardless, I trust Luka to make the right read given that this is much more of a traditional pick-and-roll. Even if the lob isn’t there, this play would result in Boston’s big switching on to Dallas’, and the Mavs could then reset and run another pick-and-roll with more conventional matchups.

Defense

Stop conceding easy switches

Luka and Kyrie punched above their weight defensively through the first three rounds, but have been hunted on relentlessly in the finals. Tim “Banned” MacMahon shared that the Celtics have scored 27 points on 11-16 shooting with Kyrie as the primary defender, and Luka was also blown by an astounding 13 times in game two — the most by any player this season.

Dallas as a whole isn’t helping much by giving up soft switches and conceding exploitable matchups for Boston. Just look at the following play, where Kyrie is left on an island against Brown, who easily blows by him and makes a floater.

The most egregious part of this example is that White slipped the screen instead of actually setting it, and yet the concept of switching is so instilled in the Mavs that they conceded the mismatch anyway.

Dallas could counter by fighting over screens, trapping some of Boston’s weaker passers, or hedging and recovering. They just can’t give up easy switches, especially with Luka compiling the greatest mixtape of blow-bys in human history.

Reset the matchups in transition

Boston’s ability to put Tatum on Dallas’ centers has screwed up the Mavs’ offensive matchups, and it’s led to the Celtics getting advantageous cross-matches on the other end, too. Lively/Gafford is often left on an island to guard Tatum, which leads to blow-bys and easy shots for Boston around the rim.

The Celtics, though, aren’t an elite transition club: among the 16 playoff teams, they rank 15th in transition frequency (10.7%) and 14th in transition offensive rating (118.7). Simply put, when they’re running back on D, the Mavs don’t need to worry too much about Boston punishing them for switching the matchups on the fly, which is something they should do more often.

Force more turnovers by blitzing Brown

Given Porzingis’ questionable health, Boston will likely lean more on Horford for the rest of this series. Assuming that’s the case, Dallas can somewhat sag off of him given his slow release, and his defender can be used more in help situations as a result.

Specifically, the Mavs can use Horford’s defender to blitz Brown whenever the latter has the ball. Even though he finished with seven assists in game two, he also had six turnovers, and Brown’s biggest offensive weakness is undoubtedly his passing (and left hand), or lack thereof: his career playoff assist-turnover ratio is 2.4-2.3, and it’s been 2.9-2.8 so far this postseason.

Of course, trying purposefully to force turnovers is always a gamble, but it’s one that Dallas should consider making depending on Boston’s personnel. If it works, such a strategy would also help the Mavs’ offense since they’ll run more in transition, and Luka’s primary defender in Brown would also be left behind the play.


Through two games, these finals are looking more like a 5-6 game series for the Celtics rather than the 6-7 game one that I envisioned. Still, Luka’s individual greatness will ensure that everyone will return to Boston for a game five, so the dreaded “s” word won’t need to be uttered.

With the right adjustments, the Mavericks should win a game or two when things come down to the wire. We all know about Boston’s sphincter tightening issues in crunch time (which has spread to their hockey team), and no one has bigger cojones than Luka in those situations.

Regardless, Porzingis’ health remains the X-factor that’ll determine how far this series goes. His shot-blocking prowess and floor spacing are what separates this Celtics team from the field, and without him, Boston is beatable: in this series, the Celtics are +25 in the 43 minutes that Porzingis has played, but net neutral when he sits.

Think about it this way: if Luka is the lock that’s standing in Boston’s way of a championship, then Porzingis is the key to getting there. But if the key is misshapen in any way, then the Celtics’ path to big ol’ Larry becomes muddier.

Will Boston still be able to rely on their key, or are they going to be forced to use brute force? Only time will tell.

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.

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