How The Celtics Picked Apart The Mavs In Game 3

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Key Highlights

    • Despite the absence of Kristaps Porzingis, the Boston Celtics posted their best half-court offensive rating of the series in Game 3 (108.9)
    • Jaylen Brown starred again with 30 points, including 10-of-13 shooting inside the arc
    • Behind 31 points, Jayson Tatum broke out of his shooting slump, while adding six rebounds, five assists and one steal

Among the most consequential aspects of the Dallas Mavericks‘ impressive run to the NBA Finals was their defensive scheme. They constantly anchored a center, Daniel Gafford or Dereck Lively II, to the paint by putting them on a shaky/non-shooter, regardless of position. Doing so allowed Dallas to largely stay out of rotation, confident that any perimeter breakdown would be insulated by a lanky rim protector inside.

Sporting an eight-man rotation with eight shooters, the Boston Celtics have challenged that scheme. They pummeled Dallas in the first half of Game 1 before the Mavericks responded after intermission by being more diligent about preserving their center as the low man, no matter who they were guarding or where their initial assignment ended up.

In Game 2, Boston countered by stashing its guards — typically Jrue Holiday, but also Derrick White — in the dunker spot, shifting to a four-out, one-in look rather than its traditional five-out arrangement. That move drew Dallas’ centers out of the paint and forced its guards into low man responsibilities as rim protectors, jobs for which they’re unqualified.

In Game 3, the Mavericks kept their centers down low against almost any matchup. Gafford and Lively were routinely communicating to teammates about swapping positions on the floor in order to stay near the hoop on the weakside.

Early on, that strategy worked. The Celtics’ drives were sticky. Possessions generally ended in decent looks, but acceptable ones for the defense, given Boston was the league’s top offense this season. Through 5.5 minutes, Dallas led, 17-7, and the absence of Kristaps Porzingis seemed evident on both ends.

By night’s end, the Celtics had won, 106-99. They seized a commanding 3-0 lead and posted their best half-court offensive rating of the series at 108.9 — 2.4 points better than their top-ranked regular season mark and 3.2 points better than their playoff-leading mark.

Their vibrant, multifaceted, sweet-shooting offense opened up courtesy of a few tweaks that complicated Dallas’ approach defensively and pushed their bigs into unfamiliar spots.

During Game 1, head coach Joe Mazzulla told his team to “manipulate the spacing” in five-on-five settings when there’s no numbers advantage. That’s exactly how they flourished in Game 3 to enjoy a robust offensive showing.

Boston’s attack is unique around the league because it is legitimately loaded with five credible shooters at all times when Porzingis is healthy; even Xavier Tillman — who saw Game 3 minutes in his stead — burned a triple Wednesday night. It touts an array of ball-handlers, which grants the Celtics the freedom to orchestrate offense anywhere on the floor or, at the very least, be a threat to do so.

That flexibility means the strong-side and weak-side are liable to be flipped at any time. Whereas most offenses understandably station elite off-ball shooters or savvy cutters on the weakside because they lack ball skills, Boston can do that and entrust many of those same players to be threats with the ball. So, that’s precisely how the Celtics elected to target Dallas’ gambit: promptly spin the weak-side into the strong-side.

When Gafford or Lively lurked as a low man, primed to detonate any paint touch, Boston would swing the ball around toward their assignment in the corner, someone who — aside from Tillman — was always a credible shooter. They couldn’t offer a soft closeout and invite warmup long balls.

The Celtics reoriented the floor balance and demanded that Gafford and Lively guard their assignments rather than broadly guarding a zone. Their 21.4 percent corner three frequency in Game 3 was their highest of the season (99 games) and they netted 7 of their 18 attempts (38.9 percent).

They also had Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — their two premier creators — work from the corners more often as well. It exacerbated the burden for Dallas’ bigs, unsure of how aggressively to close out on the backside because of their driving prowess or how far to help off initially because of their shooting chops.

That’s a reality forged by the presence of viable secondary ball-handlers like Holiday, White and Payton Pritchard. It is rare that teams can tuck their stars into the corners and let others conduct offense without serious repercussions. Boston’s depth embeds this versatility and adaptation.

Such adjustments left undersized defenders to patrol the paint, springing driving lanes, post-up opportunities, and catch-and-shoot chances. Not only did reversing the ball thrust smaller Mavericks into interior duties, it prompted Gafford and Lively to close out or play in space off the ball. Everyone was caught in ill-fitting roles.

Not every single profitable possession stemmed from the simplicity of shifting the big into the strong-side corner. Sometimes, the ripple effect of size absent on the interior empowered the Celtics to encounter success in other ways such as drives against the big as a point-of-attack defender, weakside cuts, and offensive rebounds.

All of it is built upon the same principle, though: the big had to defend a player instead of an area. Manipulate the spacing.

A couple plays in the third quarter exemplified some of the challenges for these Mavericks.

The first time, Gafford shades help as the low man and the Celtics promptly kick the ball around, which leaves him closing out — an unreasonable request for majority of bigs — and they eventually score.

The second time, with Holiday again in the weakside corner, Gafford rotates early when Brown catches the ball up top. Since he wasn’t on the prior play and it cost him, he wants to be prepared for any potential drive or shot from Holiday. That rotation opens Tatum for an entry pass off his seal and he, too, scores at the rim.

Manipulate the spacing. It’s prevalent across so much of the Celtics’ offensive process.

Occasionally, as Boston settled itself and thrived against this scheme, Dallas answered with traditional matchups. Gafford and Lively took the bigs and were brought into the action. They switched onto the perimeter. At one point, the Mavericks downsized and P.J. Washington manned the 5-spot.

Facing these tactics, the Celtics still produced quality shots, including spot-up threes from White and Brown, and Brown’s vociferous jam to punctuate a tide-changing third quarter. Each strategy Dallas tested, Boston and its overflowing offensive depth held a response to neutralize its impact.

After the Mavericks stormed back and turned a 21-point fourth quarter deficit into a crunch-time bout, the Celtics got tricky.

Lively picks up Holiday, recognizing he starts on the weakside. It’s the only player he can guard at that point because everyone else is above the break and Lively is already backpedaling into the paint.

Yet that’s precisely what Boston wanted Lively to do. Holiday curls to the strong-side corner and Lively stays nearby. Tatum gets Kyrie Irving on the switch. Josh Green is the low man — a starkly different deterrent than what Dallas thought it would have when Lively first stuck to Holiday.

A messy pass concludes in a dunk because of Green’s (justifiable) gamble and the fact he’s a 6-foot-5 wing who’s easily discarded — not a sturdy, 7-foot-1 rim protector. Manipulate the spacing.

For the majority of the night, Boston excelled at masking the strong-side vs. the weak-side against Dallas’ defensive coverages. Aside from a brief fourth quarter stretch, the Mavericks rarely figured out how to combat the Celtics’ deceitful offense.

There’s nothing revolutionary about a tactical adjustment like this, and there doesn’t have to be. The roster is loaded. The most important part is how swiftly Mazzulla and Co. altered the game-plan. They assessed the situation and almost immediately devised a path to ignite the offense.

Boston’s coaching staff has been marvelous in this series (and all year), holstering a bevy of quick, worthwhile adjustments to curb any sustained success for Dallas. Game 3’s showing was merely the latest amid many this playoff run — one that’s brought the entire organization to the brink of a title for the first time in 16 years.