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Stingy Mavs defense cools off Celtics

Tatum worked hard for his 21 and Boston limited Doncic as the tactical battle was built around stopping the two stars.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Boston Celtics Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Young stars Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic were set to do battle on Sunday in a primetime matchup, but the real show was the showdown of defenses. Both the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks are the top-two ranked defenses in the league since the calendar turned to 2022. Neither team made it to the century mark on Sunday; this marked the first time Boston failed to score 100 points since January 28th.

From a personnel perspective, the Mavericks don’t have a slew of great individual defenders. Doncic is subpar on that end as he conserves energy for offense. They lack a rim protector and are 26th in blocked shots. There isn’t a slew of switchable athletes to cover the point of attack like there is in Beantown.

However, the Mavericks have, under Jason Kidd, really cared about playing hard on that end. Guys like Maxi Kleber and Tim Hardaway Jr. — not known for their individual defense — are really playing well. Role players Dorian Finney-Smith and Josh Green have stepped up to claim a consistent spot in the rotation and been great one-on-one. The Mavs are dangerous and have an identity other than just Luka-ball.

Finney-Smith has become the linchpin of their gameplan. He shut down Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz last week, and held Tatum to a 7-23 performance from the field in this one. Tatum finished with a team-high 21 points, but wasn’t efficient getting there and worked for his buckets.

On the other end, the C’s looked to contain Doncic and find a way to focus their switching scheme on one star. Luka was ready to attack in isolation and challenge the tactics that Ime Udoka would deploy.

When Doncic got one of Boston’s bigs switched onto him, he cooked and got to the rim. Switching is only as effective as the one-on-one defensive ability of the player that opposing teams target. Doncic is among the world’s best at creating his own shot, but what he isn’t is overwhelmingly fast. That’s why it’s somewhat troublesome that he convincingly got past Al Horford straight to the rim:

At the half, the C’s were on top by nine and did a tremendous job limiting the Dallas offense. The Mavs only scored 38 points, with Doncic held to nine despite those blow-bys. However, the strategy in the latter points of the game was clear: get the ball out of Luka’s hands. The C’s were blitzing him and sending double-teams preemptively, before he could get into scoring range.

Doncic trusted his teammates, and the gelling Mavs made extra pass after extra pass to find the open shooter. They drilled 15 triples on the afternoon, many of which were uncontested in the second half as the C’s were a tad slow rotating out of their trap.

On the other end, Dallas ratcheted up the pressure coming out of the half. Dallas was able to stifle Tatum in the second half, holding him to 2-10 shooting after halftime. Finney-Smith was chiefly responsible for the lockdown, covering Tatum like a blanket.

Credit goes far beyond just him, though. The entire team had great anticipatory rotations, an understanding of who Boston’s scorers were and effort on the defensive glass to close out plays. This is a possession we’re used to seeing from the C’s, urgently closing out to shooters to run them off the line and covering to take away the rim. Defense led to offense for Dallas, scoring 12 fast break points to the Celtics’ two.

That helped prove the difference for the Mavs on Sunday.

The Mavericks would change their coverages on star players like Tatum and Jaylen Brown, how they reacted to ball screens and do enough little things differently to keep the C’s thinking. In his postgame presser, Al Horford intimated that the changing of coverages got the Celtics “playing a different way we really haven’t played much.”

There were a lot of different gadgets thrown at Tatum in the second half. When he’d drive middle, helpers would be sitting at the elbow, ready to collapse and force a kick out. They did just enough to turn him into a passer, and on a day when the C’s were ice cold from outside, it proved an effective strategy.

Despite the poor shooting, the C’s defense did enough to keep them in it. Coming down the stretch run of the game, Boston and Dallas were tied, providing another enthralling finish that the Celtics were involved in.

Late-game situations cause simple breakdowns. Human nature is to make the play when oftentimes, the smart thing to do is to just be defensively solid. Rob Williams got caught on that late, making a decision to help off Spencer Dinwiddie onto a Luka Doncic drive. Doncic had a half-step on Jaylen Brown, but Smart was waiting near the rim to potentially take a charge. The result of Williams’ over-help was a knockdown for Dinwiddie to permanently take the lead:

Throughout the afternoon, the Mavs were the more disciplined defensive group. Sure, Boston missed 3-point looks they’re capable of making. We could fret about the reversed foul call on the Marcus Smart triple that Doncic was initially whistled for, or lament about the lack of execution on the last play of the game with Tatum’s attempt to send it to overtime.

But in crunch time and throughout the game, the Mavs were locked in and played fantastic defense. We aren’t used to seeing a team play more engaged on the defensive end than the C’s, which speaks to the level Udoka has this club playing on a nightly basis.

Just a great effort from the Mavs in the second half to come back and take that game. Hats off to them.