SI:AM | Five Things to Watch in the NBA Finals

Here’s what will define the series, on and off the court. 
It'll be Irving and Doncic vs. Tatum and Brown in battle of the star duos for this NBA Finals.
It'll be Irving and Doncic vs. Tatum and Brown in battle of the star duos for this NBA Finals. / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, I’m Dan Gartland. I’m taking the Mavericks to beat the Celtics in seven games. 

In today’s SI:AM: 

🏀 NBA Finals preview

📈 NFL’s most improved teams
💸 Get ready to pay up, NBA fans

Who has the upper hand?

The NBA Finals begin at 8:30 p.m. ET on Thursday night in Boston on ABC. On one side, you have the Boston Celtics, making their second Finals appearance in three years and seeking their first championship since 2008. On the other side, it’s the Dallas Mavericks, who are making their first Finals appearance since they won in ’11. Let’s take a look at a few of the most significant factors in the series. 

Kyrie Irving’s return to Boston

How much do Celtics fans hate Kyrie Irving? Enough that they were chanting “f--- Kyrie!” after completing their conference finals sweep over the Indiana Pacers—before Irving and the Mavericks had even clinched a spot in the Finals. 

The hate isn’t without reason, either. It mainly stems from his October 2018 statement that he intended to re-sign with the Celtics, only to reverse course months later and say he would keep his options open. Irving ended up leaving the Celtics after that season to join Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets. 

The hate has gotten ugly at times. A fan was arrested and charged with assault after throwing a water bottle at Irving during a playoff game in 2021 and Irving was fined $50,000 for directing an obscene gesture and profane language at fans during a playoff series a year later. 

Will Irving let the hatred get to him this time around? Maybe not. He said earlier this week that he thinks he’s “better at consolidating kind of the emotions now or being aware of what it’s going to be like” and that the 2022 incident “wasn't a great reflection of who I am and how I like to compete on a high level. It wasn’t a great reflection on my end towards the next generation on what it means to control your emotions in that type of environment, no matter what people are yelling at you.”

Kristaps Porzingis’s injury

One person who’s happy about the long layoff between conference finals and this series is Kristaps Porzingis. He’s been sidelined since Boston’s fourth game of the playoffs due to a calf injury but is reportedly set to return to the court for the Finals. 

The Celtics got by just fine without Porzingis, with Al Horford sliding into the spot in the starting lineup he had occupied before Porzingis arrived this season. But Boston will be glad to have the additional depth that Porzingis's return will provide—and glad to no longer have to play Luke Kornet off the bench. 

Porzingis is bigger and more athletic than Horford, which will be beneficial against a Dallas frontcourt that includes the bouncy 7'1" rookie Dereck Lively II. The biggest challenge for Porzingis will be when he is forced to switch onto Luka Doncic off of screens. Will he be mobile enough with his bum calf to keep the smaller Doncic in front of him?

Which star duo will be better?

A big part of what makes this series so fascinating is that both teams are led by a pair of spectacular backcourt players. For Dallas, it’s Irving and Doncic. For Boston, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Not to discount both team’s other players, but the series will be dictated by the play of those four stars. No one has been better during these playoffs than Doncic, who also led the league in scoring in the regular season. Not only has he continued to score at an elite level, he’s done an excellent job of finding open teammates when the defense collapses around him, and his teammates have knocked down those shots. Tatum and Brown are also capable of taking over games, but they’ll be feeling the pressure to rise to Doncic’s level. 

Can Dallas’s role players keep thriving?

Doncic and Irving lead the way for the Mavs, but the rest of the roster has stepped up in the playoffs and played an enormous role in getting Dallas to this point. Trade deadline acquisition P.J. Washington has been especially excellent. He went from averaging 11.7 points per game in the regular season (after the trade to Dallas) to averaging 13.6 in the playoffs. His three-point shooting percentage went from .314 in 29 games with the Mavs in the regular season to .363 in 17 playoff games. Derrick Jones Jr. has also shot the ball well from deep (.396) and had plenty of highlight dunks, while Lively and Daniel Gafford have rebounded well and played good interior defense. 

Which defense will be better?

Dallas’s defensive improvement is a major reason why it has advanced this far in the postseason. After allowing 115.6 points per game in the regular season (20th in the NBA), the Mavs are allowing 107.9 per game in the playoffs. That’s despite the fact that Doncic and Irving aren’t regarded as great defenders. But Jones is an athletic wing player capable of playing lock-down defense. Gafford and Washington—the other two members of the starting lineup—are also strong defenders. 

Boston had one of the best defenses in the league in the regular season, ranking third in points allowed per 100 possessions. Porzingis’s return will give the Celtics a boost defensively, but the bigger question is how Boston will try to slow down Doncic and Irving. The Celtics have two great defenders in their backcourt—Derrick White and Jrue Holiday were both named second-team All-Defense this season—but both players are significantly smaller than Doncic. 

Boston Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis (8) during the NBA Finals Media Day.
Porzingis, who has not played since Game 4 of Boston's first-round series, will return for the Finals against his former team. / Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

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Dan Gartland

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).