NBA Finals: Depth won Game 3 for the Celtics, and it’s going to lose the series for the Mavericks

In a crucial Game 3 of the Finals, the Dallas Mavericks found themselves in a precarious situation. Trailing by a whopping 21 points against the Boston Celtics, their chances of a comeback seemed slim. However, J. Washington emerged as a glimmer of hope for the Mavericks. With two timely 3-pointers and a total of eight points, he played a pivotal role in a remarkable 22-2 run in the fourth quarter. This impressive turnaround not only narrowed the deficit to just one point but also highlighted the significance of Washington’s contributions. Prior to his breakthrough, the Mavericks, excluding Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic, had managed to score a mere 19 points throughout the first three quarters. Washington’s crucial 3-pointer with just 1:04 remaining in the third quarter marked the first successful shot from a non-Doncic or Irving Maverick that night. With their superstar duo in need of support, Dallas desperately required someone, anyone, to step up and contribute offensively. Washington’s timely performance was the turning point, as the Mavericks came close to stealing Game 3.
It has been a challenging series for Dallas. The Celtics have dominated the scoring, with four out of the top six scorers in the series being Celtics players. If Kristaps Porzingis had played in Game 3, it would likely have been five out of seven. So far, Doncic has been the leading scorer for the Mavericks in all three Finals games. On the other hand, the Celtics have had three different players leading in scoring: Jaylen Brown in Game 1, Jrue Holiday in Game 2, and Jayson Tatum in Game 3. The perception that the Celtics have more depth than the Mavericks is not new, but what has really made the difference in this series is the Celtics’ exceptional ability to shut down the few types of plays that make the Dallas role players effective on offense.

Let’s consider how the Mavericks got to this point. In the second round against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Mavericks faced a formidable defense ranked fourth in the league. The Thunder decided to trap Doncic and Irving, putting pressure on the Dallas supporting cast to step up. The Mavericks were comfortable with this strategy and managed to average over 16 corner 3-point attempts per game.
Despite only making 36.1% of their shots, the high volume of three-point attempts ultimately proved to be the downfall of the Thunder. In addition to the long-range shooting, Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. posed a threat at the rim, with Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford capitalizing on double teams against Doncic. This led to numerous alley-oop opportunities, resulting in almost 11 field goal attempts per game in the restricted area for the Dallas big men in the Thunder series.

In contrast, the Celtics have adopted a different strategy. Apart from a brief period in Game 2, they have chosen not to double-team Doncic. Consequently, the Mavericks have lost access to those high-value shots. The lob opportunities have vanished, and Lively and Gafford’s restricted area attempts have decreased to 7.4 per game. Furthermore, the Mavericks’ corner three-point attempts, which averaged over 16 per game, have plummeted to an astonishingly low 4.7. By effectively neutralizing these two types of shots, the Celtics have effectively disarmed all Mavericks players except for Doncic and Irving.
The foundation of Dallas’ offensive strategy relies on utilizing their two exceptional ball-handlers to force the defense into rotation. This is what allows their defense-oriented role players to thrive. These players were acquired by Dallas at relatively low costs because they lack the ability to create their own shots. Instead, they rely on someone else to create opportunities for them.

However, if Boston is able to effectively defend Doncic and Irving in one-on-one situations, the defense is not forced into rotation. As a result, players like Washington and Jones are no longer left open in the corners, and Lively and Gafford lose their chances for alley-oop plays. Suddenly, the only shots available to them are difficult ones. If Jones wants to attempt a long-range shot, or if Washington wants to post up against an opponent, the Celtics can accept those challenges.
The Mavericks are in need of a third shot-creator to address their issues. This is the role they are paying Tim Hardaway Jr. almost $18 million to fulfill. In the first half of the season, he performed well, averaging over 18 points from October to January. However, his production declined in the second half, with his scoring dropping to 9.2 points on 35.7% shooting from February onwards.

To compensate for this decline, the Mavericks attempted to allocate more minutes to Jaden Hardy in the postseason. However, Hardy is only 21 years old, and history shows that it is rare for players of his age to contribute double-digit scoring on a championship team. Only seven players aged 21 or younger, such as Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, and Rajon Rondo, have achieved this feat. Therefore, it is not realistic to expect Hardy to fill this role at this stage of his career.

Unfortunately for the Mavericks, the timing seems to have worked against them. Hardy is a year too early in his development, while Hardaway is a year past his prime.
One must also question whether Dallas’ hyper-heliocentric offense would allow supporting players to consistently score at the necessary rate for the Mavericks to win this series. Scoring relies heavily on rhythm, and it begs the question of whether there are enough shot opportunities beyond the corners for a microwave scorer to get hot. Would investing in such a player archetype be feasible for Dallas, considering the already significant resources devoted to Doncic and Irving? It’s difficult to say.

However, the Celtics, known for their egalitarian style of play, are winning this series as a cohesive team, even more so than anticipated. Throughout the season, Boston’s depth has been highly regarded. While they may not boast a top-five player like Doncic, they have at least five, and possibly six, players who could legitimately be considered among the top 50.
However, the relatively unknown bench players on the Boston Celtics have had a significant impact as well. Sam Hauser, for instance, has made more three-pointers in the series (five) than all of the Dallas Mavericks’ reserves combined (four). Additionally, Xavier Tillman played 11 minutes coming off the bench in Game 3 due to Kristaps Porzingis’ injury. Notably, the Celtics emerged victorious by seven points, with Tillman contributing a nine-point advantage during his minutes on the court. The Celtics rely less on their supporting players, allowing them to thrive in roles that align with their strengths. Moreover, all of their reserves possess defensive prowess, and with sufficient shot-creation from various sources, these bench players are always able to limit themselves to high-quality scoring opportunities.
With 4:12 remaining in the game, the Mavericks found themselves trailing by three points, but the situation worsened when Doncic fouled out. In the final four minutes, they ended up losing by an additional four points. The contrast was striking. Throughout the game, the Celtics had managed to survive without Porzingis, while the Mavericks couldn’t even last a few minutes without Doncic. It may not be fair to expect them to perform without their star player, especially considering that Porzingis doesn’t have the same impact for Boston as Doncic does for Dallas. However, this highlights the crucial point. The Celtics have successfully constructed a roster and strategy that doesn’t place excessive burdens on any individual player. In contrast, the Mavericks are on the verge of losing the series because their supporting cast of specialists can be easily neutralized.