SI:AM | The Celtics’ Defense Is Winning Them a Championship

The Mavs have yet to be able to crack the code, and now Boston is up 2–0. 
“He’s just a hell of a player, hell of a person, great teammate,” Brown said of Holiday. “I credit the victory to him tonight. He played well.”
“He’s just a hell of a player, hell of a person, great teammate,” Brown said of Holiday. “I credit the victory to him tonight. He played well.” / Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. I really didn’t expect Luka Doncic to have a triple double when he looked like this before the game.

In today’s SI:AM:

☘️ Celtics go up 2–0
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Jrue Holiday stepped up on both ends

The saying that defense wins championships is perhaps the oldest cliché in sports. But in the case of the Boston Celtics, it’s proving to be true.

Boston took a 2–0 lead in the NBA Finals with a 105–98 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday night—and its defense was the biggest reason why.

The Celtics had a historically great offense in the regular season, scoring an NBA record 123.2 points per 100 possessions, but they were so-so on that side of the floor in Game 2 against a Dallas defense that is, to be fair, nothing to sneeze at. They shot .452 from the field, including .256 from three. Jayson Tatum failed to find his shooting stroke, making just six of 22 attempts, but he did contribute in other ways with 12 assists and nine rebounds. Kristaps Porzingis, whose 18 first-half points helped the Celtics open up an enormous lead in Game 1, managed just 12 points off the bench in Game 2.

The man who saved the day for Boston was Jrue Holiday, who had 26 points (on 11-of-14 shooting) and 11 rebounds while also playing excellent defense on Kyrie Irving, who was held to 16 points on 7-of-18 shooting.

“He’s just a hell of a player, hell of a person, great teammate,” Jaylen Brown said of Holiday. “I credit the victory to him tonight. He played well.”

The defensive play that’s making headlines in the wake of the game is Derrick White’s controversial block on P.J. Washington that essentially sealed the game. With about one minute left on the clock, in the midst of a 9–0 Dallas run, Derrick Jones Jr. blocked a Tatum dunk attempt, leading to a fastbreak opportunity for the Mavericks. Washington rose toward the rim for a dunk attempt that would have cut Boston’s lead to three, but White and Brown chased him down from behind and White swatted the ball out of his hands.

There’s just one problem: The replay showed that White first contacted Washington’s hand.

“It looked like a foul,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “But it wasn’t called, so it wasn’t a foul.”

A foul call there would have kept the Mavs’ hopes of a comeback alive, but that one judgment call wasn’t the reason they lost the game. The Celtics smothered Dallas all night long with tenacious (legal) defense, holding the Mavs under 100 points in consecutive games for the first time since their opening two games of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Throughout the postseason, the Mavericks have been carried by the combination of Irving and Luka Doncic, but thus far in the Finals, Dallas has struggled to get anyone other than Doncic involved offensively. Irving has averaged 14 points per game on 35.1% shooting in the series, and Washington, whose hot three-point shooting was key to the Mavs’ victories in the first two rounds, is just 1-for-8 from deep. Washington hit 32% of his three-point attempts in the regular season (including his time with the Charlotte Hornets before he was traded to Dallas) but hit 40.7% of his threes in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Since the start of the conference finals, though, he’s made just 22.5% of his threes.

Doncic didn’t play a perfect game in Game 2. He had a game-high 32 points (on 12-of-21 shooting) along with 11 assists and 11 rebounds, but he also turned the ball over eight times and was a disappointing 4-for-8 on free-throw attempts.

“I think my turnovers and my missed free throws cost us the game,” Doncic said. “So, I’ve got to do way better in those two categories.”

The trouble for Dallas is that the Celtics have been so good defensively that nothing less than perfection from Doncic will do. Will the Mavs be able to crack the code when the series shifts to Dallas on Wednesday?

Xander Schauffele celebrates after winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
Xander Schauffele will have a chance to defend his Olympic title, but his teammates aren't fully determined. / Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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Dan Gartland


Dan Gartland is the writer and editor of Sports Illustrated’s flagship daily newsletter, SI:AM, covering everything an educated sports fan needs to know. Previously published on Deadspin and Slate, Dan also is a former Sports Jeopardy! champion (Season 1, Episode 5).