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Chronicling The Celtics Run To The Finals

Jaylen Brown Boston Celtics
(David Butler II / USA TODAY Sports)

Writing these sorts of playoff articles about the Boston Celtics all begin the same way. The team in green has been around the top of the Eastern Conference for nearly a decade. Obviously, before that, the 17 banners thing is a glaring reminder to everyone that winning in Boston is expected.

In recent seasons, the Celtics have returned as a perennial title favorite. Having reached the Finals in 2022. In part, their regular-season results have a lot to do with those lofty title expectations. After all, the Celtics won a league-best 64 games this season and have a regular-season winning percentage of .626 (501-299) since 2014. Sprinkled in that stretch are a few one-seeds, historic offensive and defensive team seasons, and a handful of individual honors. 

Of course, all of that success is countered by the fact that the Celtics, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have not won an NBA title. “They haven’t done it yet” is more polite than saying, “They have failed,” but the latter fits, too. Frankly, with their talent and position, the Celtics have felt like they have underperformed during the postseason. This perpetual cycle has angered, confused, and triggered analysts, insiders, and fans alike.

As Game 1 approaches, two narratives have dominated the conversation around the Celtics’ postseason run. The first is the nagging belief that the Celtics, specifically Jayson Tatum, don’t have what it takes to get it done. The other, perhaps contradictory narrative, is that the Celtics haven’t dominated enough on their path to the Finals. These confounding conversations surrounding a team that is 12-2 in the postseason have been riddled with dissatisfaction. It is still too soon to anoint the Celtics, but why is there so much derangement in how this team is perceived?


Measuring The Celtics Success

If you go through the career of the Tatum and Brown duo, their success is staggering. Both players have achieved a lot in terms of their age and experience. The combo is just two of the 16 players in NBA history to play in over 100 playoff games by the age of 27. Beyond that, the two have played in 18 playoff series together and have a 13-5 record. On that stretch, they have defeated former champions’ higher seeds and made it to the NBA Finals twice. 

Tatum and Brown are highlighted for obvious reasons. First, Brown and Tatum were pitted against each other after the 2020-2021 season. Opinions from rival league scouts and executives trickled into the media, where a call for the two to be broken up was echoed. While those sorts of talking head hot take fizzled after the Celtics reached the 2022 Finals, the perception of the Celtics being reformed wasn’t welcomed.

Getting Results

Granted, not everything has gone smoothly from the Celtic’s point of view since then. There are more than a handful of losses to point to in the postseason that resemble nightmares. Even things like the Celtics’ home playoff record can make one queasy if they think about it too much. But, for all the noise being made about the Celtics being inconsistent, they have consistently been closer than any other team in the East since LeBron James joined the Lakers.

Maybe how we measure success is flawed. So far this postseason, the Celtics have advanced on the path to a championship with their third straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance after a sweep of the Indiana Pacers. The issues that plagued them last year in series versus the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat have improved. Look at the late-game process in the three close games the Celtics won in the ECF. Multiple players made huge plays and leaned on their elite skills to deliver behind-the-back passes into three-pointers or the shotmaking prowess of your all-star to tie the game, and the Celtics delivered. 


The More Impressive Path

Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks take on the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

(David Butler II / USA Today Sports)

Injuries happen. That is even more so the case in the postseason. As cliche as it sounds, it’s a reality that players are going to get banged up in the playoffs, and it’s generally the teams that can stay the healthiest that win. So, for the Boston Celtics, their path to the finals has been characterized as a weak one because of the injuries to the star players of their opponents. Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell, Jarrett Allen, and Tyrese Haliburton all missed the majority of their team’s games against Boston. 

Yet, the benefit of the doubt has been cast aside for the Celtics on their 12-2 postseason record as talking heads construct head-spinning hypotheticals to discredit their wins because of feelings and vibes. 

Quality of Wins

It may sound petty, but the same scrutiny the Celtics have faced because of their supposed easy path has been completely ignored on the side of the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks faced a Los Angeles Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard, their best player. They won a tight series against a young, undersized Oklahoma City Thunder team. They also didn’t have to face the defending champions, Denver Nuggets, on their side of the bracket. This is all to say that each team’s path can be picked apart because a player missed time and their seeding in the bracket.

What is impressive is winning 12 games in the postseason. Both these teams have done that. Dallas has undoubtedly been the more surprising team in how they have gotten their way to the Finals. For a team that was desperate at the trade deadline, it has done a complete 180 in less than three months. That turnaround deserves a lot of praise. But Boston has battled, too. Their tests have been more mental than anything. After all, most of their players have been here before. Finding their way back took a lot of composure. 


Celtics-Mavericks Finals Preview

We can all look forward to a competitive NBA Finals, and this is primed to be one. The matchup is intriguing on several levels. From the star-powered duos to the history players have with each team, the storylines go deep. Those will be highlighted, but first, let’s look at how these two teams match up numbers-wise. 

Boston Celtics (Playoffs) vs. Dallas Mavericks (Playoffs): Overall Stats Per Game Table
1 BOS 2023-24 2023-24 40.4 84.0 .480 25.7 44.2 .582 14.6 39.8 .368 .568 16.0 20.1 .797 9.9 33.8 43.7 23.6 6.3 5.4 11.6 15.3 111.4
2 DAL 2023-24 2023-24 39.0 82.8 .471 26.4 48.9 .540 12.6 33.9 .372 .547 17.4 23.8 .728 11.4 31.7 43.1 22.4 6.4 6.2 12.9 19.4 107.9
Provided by Found with Stathead. See Full Results.
Generated 6/6/2024.

The Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks were a top-15 defensive team post-All-Star break and have been 5th in the postseason. That level of defense from a team with two defenders who are considered targets is evidence of how they have made it this far. It hasn’t all been the new blood of Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington in lineups. Head Coach Jason Kidd has received defensive buy-in from Doncic and Irving, as well as young players like Jaden Hardy, Josh Green, and, of course, Dereck Lively.

So far, the second biggest factor in the postseason for the Mavericks has been their shotmaking. Starting with outside shooting, the Mavericks have not just caught fire but have set ablaze stretches of games, particularly with their corner three-point shots. During the season for the Mavericks, P.J. Washington hit 53 threes in 29 games. He has hit 41 threes in 17 games in the postseason at a 36.9% clip. Similarly, Jones Jr. is shooting his threes at almost 40%, far higher than his career 31.6% rate. Add in the consistently efficient shooting of Irving and the backbreaking daggers from Doncic; it reveals how the Mavs have been able to overwhelm teams.

Not a lot has been made about where the Mavericks could struggle in this series. Dallas has proven that they could out-muscle the Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves, but the Celtic’s size poses a different challenge. The front line of OKC was certainly lacking; the Celtics, with Porzingis back, have enough length to contend the Mavs frontcourt. In the Western Conference Finals, the Timberwolves’ size was concentrated in their bigs. However, the Celtic’s size is spread out from top to bottom. There aren’t a lot of mismatches for Dallas to hunt defensively in the starting five for the Celtics.

The Boston Celtics

For the Celtics, they have shown they can win in multiple ways. While the three-point shooting is still their bread and butter, the Celtics have been able to score in other places than from behind the arc this postseason. Even without a steady diet of Porzingis post-ups, the Celtics have increased their 2PT FG% to 58% (just over 57% in the regular season) in the playoffs. Much of that concerns the Celtics prioritizing easy baskets in transition and off of turnovers. In their runs against the Pacers in the ECF, the Celtics relied on getting out in space and getting downhill. 

The same will be needed for the Celtics this series if they hope to win. Getting into a scoring contest with Kyrie and Luka isn’t the greatest strategy, even with their own set of offensive firepower. The Celtics need to feed off their defense, which is sporting a 108.9 Defensive Rating in the playoffs. Getting stops and turnovers, especially late, will be imperative for the Celtics as they look to disrupt not just easy shot opportunities for Dallas’ backcourt but also the getting in passing lanes to prevent kick outs to corner threes and alley-oop lobs. 

In the halfcourt, the Celtics’ offense needs to trust its flow. Settling for isolation basketball, especially early in the game and early in the shot clock, is going to be losing basketball because the Celtics can’t do it as well as the Mavericks can. Keeping Dallas uncomfortable means keeping their defense scrambling, especially their best players. Attack Luka and Kyrie, and make them defend in a bunch of ways, not just with fadeaway jumpers or step-back threes. 

Can The Celtics Finish The Story?

In true Cody Rhodes fashion, the Celtics have a chance at redemption in the NBA Finals. While they have dominated all season, a title is the only thing that would fulfill this journey. It could also quiet the critics.

But as the Celtics have acknowledged, even if they win, people might still want them to do it differently. Some of that way of thinking has already seeped through, as the Mavericks are receiving a lot of sportsbook action, and even some experts are letting it know that they believe in Dallas more.

The Celtics have been doing things their way for a while now, and they will have to do it that way again in the Finals.


Matt Strout is an Editor for Back Sports Page. Matt studied Journalism and Sociology at Temple University for four years and graduated in May of 2022. While there, Matt wrote for multiple student and professional publications covering sports and the City of Philadelphia. Matt is originally from Maine and now resides in California. He has written content primarily for the NBA and PGA Tour. When Matt is not writing, he enjoys cooking and playing golf. Follow Matt’s social media on Twitter @TheRealStrout or Instagram @matt_strout96

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