Defining Questions That Will Decide Celtics-Mavericks NBA Finals

Two NBA assistant coaches give their takes on the biggest keys to the series.
Tatum leads a talented Celtics team looking for the franchise's 18th NBA title.
Tatum leads a talented Celtics team looking for the franchise's 18th NBA title. / Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON — As the NBA Finals kick off on Thursday, one thing rival coaches can agree on: When it comes to talent, it’s advantage, Boston Celtics. “Six of the top eight guys are on Boston,” said a Western Conference assistant coach. Added an Eastern Conference assistant, “Talent usually wins out. And it’s pretty clear the Celtics are more talented.”

Can the Dallas Mavericks do anything to turn the tables? Can Luka Doncic’s brilliance carry Dallas? Will Kyrie Irving silence the Boston crowd? Or will Jayson Tatum stamp himself as one of the NBA’s top stars with a signature Finals performance? 

Sports Illustrated spoke to an assistant coach from both conferences for their takes on some of the key questions in this series.

Sports Illustrated: What is the biggest question you have about this series?

Eastern Conference assistant: I think it’s ‘Is Boston going to Boston?’ And what I mean by that is it's their mentality, their mindset. They're the more talented team, but on top of that they've been prepared all year, they've executed all year. Yeah, they had a light run to the Finals, but with that said, they easily could have choked off some of those Indiana Pacers games. To me, so far they've been solid. This will be the most talented test. They should be prepared for it but they've proven over the years that mentally there are hurdles. Can they get over the mental hurdle, which is themselves? I think that's the main factor.

Western Conference assistant: Well, number one, what's Dallas going to do defensively? Because Boston really shouldn't have anybody they can help off of or leave open. Maybe with the possible exception of Jrue Holiday, but one guy out of their top eight is pretty tough. I don't think it's going to be a long series, but I guess the other question would be Kyrie, this whole reclamation project. This is kind of like the final boss he has to beat in the video game. And personally, I'm not confident he's going to beat it.

SI: Who are the most important players?

ECA: It’s Luka for Dallas because he's proven that his specialness can literally be a difference-maker. Boston has to scheme the s--- out of him, which gives the entire crew more shots. Obviously, Kyrie is the 1B in that, and that's just Dallas. Dallas is just a 1A and 1B team, and then their role players follow suit behind that.

I think, in Boston, it's still Tatum because he's been their leading scorer throughout the regular season. And at the end of the day, they need to have a guy that can get them a bucket when they need it. But Boston's tough because they have so many options. Derrick White could f------ win them a game. It's not as defined with Boston as it is just 1A, 1B with Luka and Kyrie. I'd still say Tatum though, because your best player's got to win you the biggest games.

WCA: For Dallas, I think it's everybody except those two guys. Because I don't think Boston's going to let those two guys beat them. But in order to do that, you're going to be leaving people open. I know they've shot it well and played pretty well so far, but the Finals are going to be a whole new ball game pressure-wise. I'm not too worried about Luka. I think that they have to be better three through eight or three through nine, whatever the rotation is, than Boston for sure.

For Boston, it’s Derrick White. I feel like he's the guy that you're going to maybe take a chance on leaving open every now and then, or being a little further off in helping and shifting your gaps to try and protect the paint against those other two guys. I think he's the key guy. Will he do what he's been doing, which I expect him to do, or will he catch a cold streak and be less of a factor? I don't know.

Slowing down Doncic will be key for the Celtics.
Slowing down Doncic will be key for the Celtics. / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

SI: How do you expect Boston to defend Doncic?

WCA: Personally, I think it's switch and shade him to his left hand. He wants to get to his left hand and step back a lot. A lot of people will not do that, but I would still live with contested step-backs going left as opposed to putting it in a strong hand where he's a better passer. I'm not saying he's poor with going left, but he likes to drive in there and raise the ball up in his right hand and try to make you bite. That's one thing that you can take away by forcing left. 

He still is a good passer. He'll still raise up and throw a two-hand overhead pass to the weak side corner regardless of where he is in the court. But I would take his right-hand drives away and his ability to pass with one hand, which is better than passing with his mobile hand to his left. I think he can get to his left hand and step back no matter what you do, so by sending him left, you can kind of sit on his right shoulder and maybe do a little bit better job of contesting. The example I'm thinking of is Rudy Gobert at the end of Game 3 of the conference finals. He's getting to the left hand no matter what, so you might as well be sitting on his right shoulder if you can be.

I think Boston is going to be in switch more than not and then maybe throw in some schemes, maybe hit them, trap them every now and then, maybe try and kick the on-ball defender back and replace him with a better defender. But they have so many guys with length. When you're in drop with him, it's really tough, because [Dereck Lively II] is a very good roller and it's tough for Luka. When he gets you on his hip, it's over for that guy.

So now you're counting on the big to slow him down. And with Lively getting out so quick and catching those lobs, the big has to either step up and take Luka or drop back and take the lob, and if he chooses the first, the corner's going to be open or the lob's going to be open. So, I think it's going to be tough to play them in drop and the Celtics shouldn't need to with their size, I don't think.

ECA: The biggest thing is can you put size on him that can move laterally. Meaning you may not stop him, but you're actually making him feel something throughout the possessions that he's either doing well or bad on because you've got to wear them down. The best guy to ever do it that I've ever seen is Ben Simmons. He could literally go toe-to-toe with him because of his freakishness. It's about having bodies with size that can wear him down because even though he's proven that he's actually super durable, he gets beat up. Even the kid, Jaden McDaniels, he's so skinny that by the end of the last round, I feel Luka didn't even feel him. I think I know Joe [Mazzulla] enough from watching how he game plans, their base will still be like, ‘Hey, we're going to try to treat this guy two-on-two, one-on-one, limit our help situations.’ And then you have to mix in strategic double teams, both on pick and roll and isolations.

SI: What does Boston need from Jayson Tatum?

ECA: He needs to be a steady contributor offensively but a guy, that in the fourth quarter of tight games, can get you a bucket. And then he needs to show his length and durability and switches, that he's not going to be a slouch when he gets matched onto one of these two guys. When you switch Luka or Kyrie onto a mismatch, it's a problem when Boston's on offense, versus when you get a Tatum who's arguably your best player, on those guys, it's got to be nowhere near the level of mismatch on the other end.

I'd say though, the one thing, Tatum’s ‘Mamba Mentality,’ that killer mentality, that probably is the thing that doesn't help him. He's not a bad guy, he's not a baby, but he also has a little bit of nonchalant-ness to him. He’s a little bit of a complainer to the refs in him. But I think he’s a victim of Boston being so damned talented. 

I think Boston has one of the most talented rosters I've seen. To me, talent-wise, this Boston team crushes the Denver Nuggets last year. They are better than the Golden State Warriors two years ago. Than the Milwaukee Bucks the year before. This team is so well rounded, it's insane. Being a superstar on a talented team means being less of a superstar, if that makes sense.

WCA: Well, I think a better two-way player than Luka, maybe. Luka's going to be the best offensive player. You can hope for a poor shooting night, but he's still going to have 10 assists on those nights and still get close to 10 boards and whatever else. I know he's playing harder on defense, but he's not like Bruce Bowen out there. So, Tatum, he's got to be able to affect the game more on both ends. And then he has got to hit some clutch shots. If the games are close, people seem to think Dallas will win those games because A) Boston hasn't been in many of them, and B) They have two closers. I think JT's got to shake the critics in those moments.

SI: Jason Kidd vs. Joe Mazzulla—how do you see the coaching matchup?

WCA: I think the Mavericks have a pretty good staff. I think Kidd will not get caught up in the moment when some of his players might because it's their first time, so he might have that advantage.

But I think people underestimate [Mazzulla], man, to be honest. He thinks the game. He studies game endings. They may not be in a lot of close games, but he himself mentally has been in a lot because he's always watching them. He's always thinking about different ways to improve your chances of finishing it off or scrapping out an extra possession if you're down. And I don't think he's going to get flustered because he has that experience from last year where he was criticized quite heavily. Usually, when you can survive that, you are better for it. That's what the case will be.

ECA: I think that basically, you have two coaches that really care and really work hard. I don't want to use the word non-player for [Mazzulla] because he played at West Virginia. He didn't play in the league but he's going to do everything in his power to figure it out. Whereas [Kidd] is the cerebral ex-player. And they're both powered by really good staff that are almost think tanks. Sean Sweeney is a really smart guy on Jason’s staff. Charles Lee is that guy in Boston. I give Kidd a little edge simply just because he's got two elite guards and that’s exactly what he was. He's the closest thing to a true extension of a coach on the floor with those two out there. That gives him a little bit of an edge.


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Chris Mannix

CHRIS MANNIX

Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix has boxed with Juan Manuel Marquez, played guard in the NBA's D-League and even tried his hand at bull riding at the Sankey Rodeo School in Martin, Tenn. The latter assignment left him with a bunch of bruises and a fractured collarbone. "I liked all the first-person experiences, but fighting Juan was my favorite assignment for SI," says Mannix. "It was a tremendous experience that required brutal training and introduced me to a fear I never knew I had." Mannix has covered the NBA since he arrived at SI in 2003. He currently writes columns and profiles in the magazine and for SI.com and also serves as SI's NBA draft expert. Among the NBA stars he has profiled: Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and Andrei Kirilenko. As a teenager Mannix was a locker room attendant with the Boston Celtics for eight seasons (1995-2003) and covered high school sports for the Boston Globe. "Working for the Celtics was like attending a different fantasy camp every game. I spent pregames D'ing up the likes of Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and yes, Michael Jordan. Last time I went one-on-one with MJ he beat me 48-0. I got one shot off … and it was blocked." Boxing is also one of Mannix's specialties. He has reported for SI on several championship fights, annually hands out SI.com's boxing awards and writes the website's "Inside Boxing" column. Mannix won the 2012 Boxing Writers Association of America's awards for Best Feature over 1,750 words and Best Feature under 1,750 words. In addition to his duties at SI, Mannix serves as host of The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio (Sundays 6–9 p.m. ET) and is a co-host of Voices of the Game, with Newy Scruggs every Wednesday from Noon–3 p.m. ET. In addition, Mannix is a ringside reporter for Epix and Fight Night on NBC and NBC Sports Network, and is a regular guest and fill-in host on The Dan Patrick Show and The Crossover on NBC Sports Network. He also regularly appears on sports radio shows across the country, including weekly appearances in Miami, Orlando and Salt Lake City.  Mannix received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Boston College in 2003 and graduated from Boston College High School in 1998 (which makes him a double Eagle). He resides in New York City.