NBA Finals Preview 2023-24: Can Anyone Stop Luka?

At the beginning of the playoffs, Boston versus Dallas did not seem to be a likely Finals matchup but here we are.  Well, the Boston side of the equation was pretty predictable but Dallas has been a pleasant surprise.  Nevertheless, Dallas has shown itself to be a legitimate NBA finalist with Luka Doncic’s incredible shot making and a supporting cast that suddenly fits so well together.  Let’s run through the major issues of this series and see what comes of it…

Did Boston get here with a super easy path?

Definitely.  Boston earned an easy path by dominating the regular season and it got even easier when their playoff opponents all had untimely injuries.  The Ringer had a nice look at this issue and concluded that this year’s Celtics had the easiest path to the Finals ever (when you factor in injury bad luck of opponents).  My personal view was that, even with the injuries, Boston had an easy run but nowhere near as easy as the mid-1980s Lakers.  But it doesn’t matter either way.  A lot of the teams that have had easy paths to the Finals won the Finals or came damn close.  The aggregate SRS of the 1986-87 Lakers’ Western Conference foes was a shockingly bad -3.6.  They still won in the Finals and have been considered, by some, the best team ever.  Regardless of whom they have played, the 2023-24 Celtics have dominating team stats that are consistent with past dynastic teams (10.74 SRS, 1st in offense and 3rd in defense) and there is no reason to think they are a paper tiger.  Boston could lose to Dallas but the “easy path” narrative is fairly meaningless.

How will Boston guard Luka?

The Celtics have no weak defensive players in their top five but the real decision is whether you use a quicker guard, that Luka can shoot over and muscle, or a bigger player that might be more vulnerable to penetration.  There is no real way to stop Doncic but he clearly enjoys shooting over the smaller players.  I expect Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to split the duties, two players that can, at least, neutralize Luka’s strength game in the post to some degree.

This year, Boston won both games against Dallas fairly easily but they did not stop Doncic, who put up 35 ppg and had a triple-double in both games.  Boston will just have to make Luka work hard for his points and avoid giving him too many easy three-pointers.

What is Dallas’ best route to winning?

Obviously, the Mavs’ theory of the series is that they have the best player in Doncic and they just need Kyrie Irving to be effective and use their two-headed center of Daniel Gafford and Derrick Lively to dominate the paint on both sides of the court.  Still, Dallas has to watch Boston’s three-point barrage.  Boston can go cold at times (particularly Tatum) but they shoot the most threes in the NBA and make them at a high rate (.388%).  While there is higher variance on three-point shooting, Dallas will have to adjust its defense to make sure Boston doesn’t get too many uncontested threes as well.  Expect Boston to try to target Luka and the centers for easy three attempts.

The other factor to watch is the health of Kristaps Porzingis.  He’s been resting since the first round with a calf strain but, if he’s healthy, his size on defense and his stretch shooting on offense are nice counters to Gafford/Lively more short range abilities.  Assuming health, Porzingis will still be vulnerable to the Doncic pick-and-rolls (as all big men are).  Boston will have to try to configure its defense to allow Porzingis float elsewhere and avoid being on an island with Luka.

A few words on Kyrie

Kyrie is, and has always been, an amazing player.  No matter the outcome of the Finals, Irving’s season has been great and there are (and will be more) redemption stories after his washout in Brooklyn.  He deserves plenty of credit for his play (and by all accounts he has been a beloved teammate) but let’s remember the context of the trade last season.  Irving demanded a max extension after missing tons of time for all sorts of reasons that made Brooklyn queasy to reinvest in him and he refused to play out the season without that deal.  Conversely, Dallas had badly screwed up the Rick Brunson negotiations and had to take a risk on a talent just to keep Luka happy.  Irving’s trade market was small and this trade was rational for both teams and not some sort of a coup for either.

Dallas v Boston: A History

There is not a ton of history between Boston and Dallas.  Here are a few nuggets to munch on though:

-Boston leads the overall matchup 46-40.  Boston won the first 11 games played between the teams, and were 24-4 against Dallas through the 1993-94 season.  Through the years, Dallas has fought back to tie the series at 35-35 after the 2015-16 season.  The Mavs had won seven straight at that point.  The teams have gone back-and-forth since, with Boston currently on a four-game winning streak.

-Dallas’ first win against Boston came against the legendary 1985-86 squad by one point in Dallas on March 10, 1986.  Boston actually led the game by 13 points with six minutes to play but Dallas rallied to win.  Larry Bird scored 50 points but was needled by Bill Walton for his play anyway.  According to Peter May’s “The Last Banner,” Walton told Bird: “’You may have scored 50, but you were the worst player on the court.’  Bird agreed.  He knew, as Walton knew, that he had been going for points at the expense of the team—a move that was a typical of Bird.,,,[Mavs coach Dick] Motta was so pleased [about breaking the streak that] he gave his team the next day off.”

-That 50-point game was Bird’s high game versus Dallas, though he did go for 30 or more nine times and went 18-2 for his career against Dallas.

-In terms of trades, Dallas was kind enough to give the hapless ML Carr his best trade as GM of the Celtics.  After the 1995-96 season, Dallas was desperate for a center so they traded their sixth pick in the draft and an unprotected 1997 pick for the Celtics ninth pick in 1996 and Eric Montross, who had looked pretty solid in two years out of UNC.  Carr hyped the trade saying that “[w]e believe there’s a quantum leap from six to nine.”

Boston nabbed future All-Star Antoine Walker, while Dallas took a journeyman Samaki Walker at nine (they both passed on Kobe and other big stars but what can you do?).  Dallas had a miserable 1996-97 season and traded Montross after only a few months.  Boston nabbed Dallas’ sixth pick in 1997, which ended up being the star-crossed Ron Mercer.  But let’s give Carr some props for getting a lottery pick for a backup center.

Prediction:  Dallas can win this series.  They have the best shot maker in the NBA but Boston is a tier above the prior teams that the Mavs have played.  Unlike OKC and Minnesota, Boston has had several deep playoff runs and the taste of the 2022 Finals slipping away from them.  I thought the Celtics were the best team coming into the playoffs and I’m sticking with them.  Either way, this should be really fun.  Boston wins 4-2.