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The Celtics Keep It Simple

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics reacts in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Three of the 2024 NBA Finals at American Airlines Center on June 12, 2024 in Dallas, Texas.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics took a 3-0 Finals lead by beating the Dallas Mavericks 106-99 on Wednesday night. The story of how this game was won maps neatly onto the story of the Celtics' season, which is now all but fated to end with a title: The Celtics stuck to their system, even when it started to look like they shouldn't, and they were rewarded for it.

The Celtics built their 3-0 lead by adhering to the same relatively simple formula that turned them into a historically great regular-season team and made their journey to the Finals feel like a leisurely float trip. On defense, they switch every pick and roll and stay home on shooters, almost never sending help to the ball. On offense, they use screens to get their preferred defender isolated on the perimeter, and then blow by him in order to create a collapsing defense which can then be picked apart by kick-out passes and three-point shooting.

The Celtics' scheme, designed and championed by head coach Joe Mazzulla, is just the latest iteration of the "Three is more than two" philosophy that took hold of the league as soon as Steph Curry won his first title and James Harden landed in Houston. The Celtics go into every game with a singular purpose: limit the other team's open three-point attempts while creating as many for themselves as possible. So far in the Finals, the Celtics are shooting 33 percent from three-point range on 127 attempts. The Mavericks are shooting 28 percent from deep on 78 attempts. Dallas has only been allowed to fire 14 corner threes all series, which is precisely the shot they used in previous rounds to carve up the Clippers, Thunder, and Timberwolves. Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving have been challenged to score in one-on-one situations, and even when they do so successfully, they have been playing into the Celtics' hands. Payton Pritchard said as much to the The Athletic after last night's game:

“That’s the plan,” Pritchard told The Athletic. “Just make it tough 2s. They’re going to hit shots, obviously. But if they hit 2s over and over again and we rely on our offense, it’ll carry us the other way quickly.”

It's tempting to dismiss all of this as bloodless spreadsheet basketball, but to do so would be to overlook what actually makes the Celtics' scheme effective: the players who run it. It's one thing to say that you are going to guard Doncic and Irving one-on-one, but it's another thing entirely to actually do it with any amount of success. Both of those players specialize in finding a weak point in the opposing defense and pressing on it until something breaks, but the Celtics' individual defenders present no vulnerability. It's one thing to say that you are going to spend a season shooting 42 three-pointers per game, but somebody actually has to make some of those shots. You need Derrick White, who shot 31 percent from deep during his last season in San Antonio, to become the kind of confident shooter who takes six threes a game and cans 39 percent of them. You need Jrue Holiday to have the best three-point shooting season of his career, and for Al Horford put up a hit rate that beats his age by a decent margin.

There is something to admire in the Celtics' commitment to the cause, too. I don't know if there has ever been a 64-win team that has been questioned as much as this one. Some of that is down to the number of times they've failed to get over the hump in the Tatum-Brown era, and some of it is down to the fact that the Celtics' system can, in crucial moments, look self-defeating. We saw this in Game 3: After building a 21-point fourth-quarter lead, the Celtics fell into one of their patented spells of stagnation. The defensive intensity sagged, drive-and-kicks were replaced by meandering possessions that ended in contested jumpers, and suddenly the Mavericks were down only one with just over three minutes to play. But the Celtics just kept playing the same way they have all season, trusting that the score would eventually shake out in their favor. It did, and now they are one win away from a championship.

When the Celtics get that win, it will not only dispel the angst that has swirled around this team for years. It will reveal this year's edition as the thing it has always been: a focused and confident team that burned a path of destruction from the season's first game all the way to its last.

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