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Kristaps Porzingis Rained Hellfire On The Hapless Mavericks

Kristaps Porzingis dunks.
Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

Kyrie Irving has a hidden talent. For as long as he has been in the NBA, he has had an incredible knack for preventing professional photographers from capturing him having a bad time. Irving was just about awful Thursday night in Boston's Game 1 blowout victory at home: He shot 6-of-19 from the floor, he missed all five of his three-pointers, he had more turnovers than assists, he dribbled the ball off his feet more times even than Jaylen Brown, and he had shots and layups blocked by approximately every single person in the arena. Boston's frothing home crowd serenaded him with chants of "Kyrie sucks" perhaps not every time he touched the ball but close to it. There were a handful of times, particularly in the first half, when Irving seemed distracted enough by the flowing hateration to force some uncharacteristically horrible shots, and at a point in the game when more than anything the Mavericks needed someone to do some calm and precise operating.

Looking through the Getty photos this morning, you would swear Irving had a grand old time out there.

Kyrie Irving driving for a layup, and smiling.
I had the time of my li-i-ife! (Jaylen Brown blocked this shot to the Oort Cloud.) Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports via Getty Images

Thankfully, the dependable professionals on scene had other ways of capturing the dynamics of this massacre of a basketball game. That photo up top, of the crotch of Kristaps Porzingis, is approximately a first-person view of the experience of every Dallas Maverick who played in the game. Porzingis had not participated at all in the playoffs since April 29, when he suffered a strained calf in Game 4 of Boston's first-round series against the Miami Heat. The Celtics needed him not at all in order to flatten the beat-up Cleveland Cavaliers and the not-real-good Indiana Pacers. The Mavericks present—at least in theory—a much stiffer challenge, one that—also in theory—would require the services of a Porzingis who is not only ambulatory but reasonably in-rhythm in order to master. Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla elected to use Al Horford as his starter Thursday night, but Porzingis was dressed and warmed-up and smiling and ready, and when he entered the game at around the seven-minute mark of the first quarter the crowd greeted him with an enormous pop.

The Celtics were leading at that moment, 12–11, but Irving drained a sweet little pull-up jumper from the right side to push the Mavericks ahead. The teams traded a couple buckets but already it was becoming evident that Porzingis's gravity around the free-throw line and most of the way out to the logo was starting to pull Dallas's defense into weird configurations. Jayson Tatum drove to his right, with Porzingis standing a solid 32 feet from the basket on the wing; Luka Doncic, guarding Porzingis, couldn't give even a foot of help, so Tatum was able to turn the corner on Dereck Lively II; Dallas's defense was forced to collapse, and Tatum fired the ball back to the corner, where a wide-open Derrick White drained a three-pointer. You don't stick to well-meaning old Al Horford really at any range; swap Horford out for a 7-foot-3 killer with Steph Curry range, and the shape of everything can go all to hell, very quickly.

That's what happened from about the three-minute mark of the first quarter. Boston was already up six and its defense was stiffening. Porzingis threw down a huge dunk and then dropped home a tough contested mid-ranger, and suddenly the floodgates were wide open. Tatum drilled a pull-up three, then Porzingis drilled a pull-up three, and then Sam Hauser threw home a preposterous running three-pointer in transition, and the Mavericks just started flailing around in a desperate panic. Whatever wisdoms Jason Kidd dispensed to his team at the quarter break didn't take: The Celtics continued to play absolutely psychotic basketball in the second quarter, at one point doubling up the Mavericks on the scoreboard before taking an intimidating 21-point lead into the half. Porzingis had 18 points in the game's first two quarters; the Celtics won his 13 minutes of run by 15 points. At the climax of that psychedelic first-quarter Celtics explosion, Porzingis bombed home a 30-footer and had two highlight blocks inside of one minute; by this time he was grinning and chuckling.

The Mavericks looked vaguely threatening for a stretch of the third, which eventually inspired the Celtics to become serious once again, and that was that. Lots of players contributed to the Game 1 bloodbath, of course: Derrick White was excellent; Dereck Lively II was horrendous; several Mavericks shooters banged baseline jumpers off the side of the backboard, things of that nature. But an in-form Porzingis truly may be an unsolvable problem for these Mavericks. "Just his presence shooting the ball and then him being able to attack those switches and mismatches," gushed Jaylen Brown. "He made them pay every time, and that's what we need going forward in the series."

The Mavericks tried a few things: They tried to get tough with him around the stripe, where Porzingis likes to use darting footwork and killer pump-fakes to wrong-foot defenders, but where if all else fails he can quite literally just shoot the ball directly over the outstretched arms of anyone who is not Victor Wembanyama. They tried to pressure him up the floor, taking away his space and forcing the ball out of his hands. This also failed, as when Porzingis dribbled around a pressing Lively and soared into the lane for a thunderous dunk. They tried to switch and they tried to avoid switching; every attempt the Mavericks made at negating the advantages Porzingis brings to Boston's offense went quickly to shit. "He's a matchup nightmare," Derrick White said. "Even when you play good defense, he doesn't really see you."

The stuff that the Celtics did defensively in Game 1 was good. They were patient with Doncic, resisting the impulse to send too much help and absolutely refusing to abandon shooters in the corners. They counted on him wanting to pass from floater range, and any number of promising Mavericks possessions stalled when Doncic worked his way into the lane, expected the Celtics to collapse, and then pivoted his way out of any advantage before kicking the ball pointlessly out to the perimeter. Dallas's role players never got any rhythm shots; only P.J. Washington played with any force or determination, but his limitations as a shot-creator were evident. For most of the game's first three quarters it felt like a mistake, or possibly even a disaster, whenever any Maverick other than Doncic attempted to do any single thing with the basketball. At one point pretty late in the game I found myself struggling to remember whether any other Maverick had even scored at all.

The Celtics can achieve this when Porzingis is out there doing shit that, for now, only he can do. They don't present any particularly exploitable defensive vulnerabilities—Porzingis at one point forced Doncic into a live-ball turnover after an orchestrated switch—and their offensive spacing becomes hysterical, highlighting Joe Mazzulla's near-fanatical devotion to three-point shooting. There may not be any better hope for the Mavericks than to hunker down and survive those moments, and then pick their heads up and try to sort through the carnage. Watching things unfold Thursday, it seemed downright ludicrous that guys like Lively and Derrick Jones Jr. and Maxi Kleber could survive defensively with their available help stretched to the corners of the arena. During Boston's first-half run their ball-handlers were just ordering off the menu. Everything was available. The Celtics took threes because they preferred threes. At no point in there did the Mavericks force them to do anything.

It's just one game, and it's helpful to remember that the Mavericks lost by double-digits in each of the first games of their first two series of these playoffs. They're better than they looked Thursday night. It's hard to look worse. Also it's probably true that not all of Boston's deeply audacious three-pointers will fall in subsequent games. There are probably even ways for Dallas to win a game that do not include solving The Porzingis Problem. But not very many. When Kevin Durant called Porzingis a "unicorn" all those years ago, this is what he was imagining.

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