Inside the Moment that Propelled Celtics to NBA Finals Game 1 Win: 'Just Breathe'

Jun 6, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) blocks Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (11) in the third quarter during game one of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 6, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) blocks Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (11) in the third quarter during game one of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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The Celtics set the tone for the NBA Finals by landing a haymaker in Game 1 on Thursday.

There were no signs of rust from Kristaps Porzingis, who came off the bench in his return from a 38-day absence caused by a soleus strain in his right calf.

The seven-foot-three center relished his first opportunity to participate in a playoff game past the first round and maximized the moment, serving as the spark that ignited a 22-5 run that staked Boston to a 37-20 advantage entering the second quarter, tied for the second-largest lead after the first frame in NBA Finals history.

"I was so in the moment and enjoying the moment and the crowd and everything," said Porzingis after registering 22 points, six rebounds, and three blocks in the hosts' Game 1 win. "It's kind of like a blur to me right now. I have to re-watch the game; what happened and stuff. But I was completely just in the game. That's the best feeling. Like, I had the most fun, and I hope to have more of those moments going forward."

Along with the former All-Star's production, the Celtics' masterful execution of their defensive game plan was the other driving force in their lead growing as large as 29.

They put Porzingis on role players like P.J. Washington and Derrick Jones Jr., who combined to go 1/5 from beyond the arc. That allowed Jayson Tatum to stay on the Mavericks' centers, Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II.

Targeting the six-foot-eight star forward in pick-and-rolls was an unappealing option. Shying from that challenge neutralized the lobs that those two feast on, neutralizing one of Dallas' most reliable methods of manufacturing points.

Tatum also did an excellent job keeping them off the glass, grabbing nine of his game-high 11 rebounds at the defensive end of the floor, helping limit the visitors to one shot per possession consistently, and allowing Boston to maintain an up-tempo attack.

And as the hosts toggled between switching when Al Horford was in and drop coverage with Kristaps Porzingis, they made Luka Doncic work for everything he got, requiring 26 shots to score 30 points, faring 4/12 from beyond the arc, only dishing out one assist, and committing four turnovers. It's the first time the five-time All-NBA selection has had fewer than two assists in a playoff game.

That strategy and the job the Celtics did of executing it also took away another of the Mavericks' most trusted sources of offense: corner threes. They attempted only three and didn't make one until the final minute of the matchup.

"Listen, they're going to make a lot of adjustments, and they're going to do a lot of great things because of the talent that they have, so we have to execute the game plan, communicate coverages, communicate matchups; guys did a great job communicating to each other and keeping defense first," Joe Mazzulla told Inside The Celtics of the keys to Boston's sustained execution to minimize what Dallas does best offensively.

The lone blemish came when the visitors, who closed the first half on a 7-0 run, came out with the desperation one would expect from a team trailing by 21 points in the NBA Finals.

As the Mavericks slowed the pace, they found the success necessary to stage a 10-2 run, with Doncic burying a three from the left wing that narrowed the gap to eight with 4:28 left in the third quarter.

That prompted a timeout from Mazzulla. And while the idea of Dallas erasing a 29-point deficit and rallying for a win against an opponent boasting six of the top eight players in this series is hard to buy into, the onus to prevent that was on the Celtics.

"It's the NBA Finals -- you're playing against a great team, and they're going to make runs," conveyed Boston's second-year head coach of what he said during that timeout. "Just building on awareness (as) to why the run was made. And that team does a great job of making defensive adjustments on the fly, and sometimes, it takes us a possession or two to recognize that. So, just understanding the run, what could we do to change it, and how can we get better coming out of that."

What transpired next was a 14-0 run as the hosts raised their energy and physicality; they went from pacing themselves while working with a sizable lead to playing inspired defense, and Jaylen Brown hosted a block party at the rim.

Those stops led to a three-point barrage at the other end, as Brown, Al Horford, and Tatum knocked down three consecutive shots from behind the arc, pushing Boston's advantage to 20 entering the last 12 minutes.

That proved to be the knockout blow in the Celtics' 107-89 victory. Teams that win Game 1 of the NBA Finals at home have gone on to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy 78% of the time (46-13).

"I thought the guys' poise out of that timeout was big, and that's going to happen," expressed Mazzulla from the post-game podium. "They're going to go on more runs, and we're going to have to fight through 'em."

Echoing that sentiment, Brown voiced, "When they cut it to eight, that's when the game started. I liked how our team responded. We stayed composed. Offensively, we got to our spacing and was able to push that lead back out and make some plays on offense. That was a big third quarter."

The timeout that preceded Boston's counterpunch to protect its lead mostly featured Mazzulla allowing his players the space to talk through what was unfolding on the floor.

Brown shared about that dialogue: "We just said, 'Just breathe. The game is starting now. Just breathe. We're in -- this is a moment where our experience shines through. Just breathe, just keep playing basketball. If you got a shot that's open, (then) take it with confidence, no turnovers, take care of the basketball, and just play our game.' We got to get some stops. They made some big shots. Just navigate the run."

The Celtics' ability to regroup and quickly put those words into action is paramount to them protecting the parquet and moving within three wins of Banner 18.

Further Reading

Preparation and Perspective Fueling Kristaps Porzingis in NBA Finals

Celtics Set the Tone for the NBA Finals with Game 1 Haymaker

Celtics Stars Reflect on Lessons Learned from 2022 NBA Finals

Kyrie Irving Shares Regret and What He Takes from Playing in Boston

Kristaps Porzingis Details Mental Side of Rehab as He Readies for NBA Finals Return

Celtics' All-Defensive Guards Relishing Chance to Defend Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic

Joe Mazzulla Eviscerates Contrived Narrative about Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

Al Horford Returns to NBA Finals Aiming to Add to a Legacy Already Cemented

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Bobby Krivitsky


Bobby Krivitsky's experiences include covering the NBA as a credentialed reporter for Basketball Insiders. He's also a national sports talk host for SportsMap Radio, a network airing on 96 radio stations throughout the country. Additionally, he was a major-market host, update anchor, and producer for IMG Audio, and he worked for Bleacher Report as an NFL and NBA columnist.