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Celtics' Perimeter Shooting Overwhelms Mavs in Loss to End 4-Game Road Trip

The Mavs were strongly outperformed by the Celtics in perimeter shooting during Friday's defeat, ending a four-game road trip and displaying roster limitations.

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics showcased why they have been the NBA's winningest team this season in their 138-110 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. A critical factor in the Celtics' success was a relentless approach focused on perimeter shooting. 

Boston was hot from the start, and the results didn't taper off significantly throughout the game, shooting 21-43 (48.8 percent) from deep, compared to the Mavs going 9-34 (26.5 percent) on their attempts. The Celtics had all five starters make multiple 3-pointers, with two additional contributors doing so off the bench. Jayson Tatum (five), Kristaps Porzingis (four), Jrue Holiday (three), and Derrick White (three) each made three or more shots from beyond the arc. 

“You can't have empty possessions against them. And then you can't have breakdowns defensively against them,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “They're going to make you pay for it at the 3-point line, and that's what they did.”

Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks

There are many factors a team encounters when trying to deploy strategies to contain a team with as much firepower as the Celtics. Given that they can deploy a five-out offense whether they play multiple bigs together or go small, there is a significant pressure on the defense to rotate on a string. 

"It's a very rare thing in this league to see a team like that with five shooters," Kidd said. "It's about team for them. You can see that with the ball movement. They're not worried about who is shooting it. A lot of times, the person shooting it is wide open." 

Luka Doncic, who finished with 37 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists, emphasized the difficulty of defeating the Celtics, who he described as "the best team in the NBA right now." Dallas has improved defensively lately by pre-rotating off of weak shooters, but have struggled against teams with five-out capabilities. Doncic admitted they had to use a different approach and could have executed better. 

"Everybody basically is a laser, everybody can shoot, everybody can make it, so it's tough. It's a different coverage than any other games," Doncic said. "We have almost five out all the time, so it's tough. We should've done better in our schemes... It's tough to guard those players." 

The Mavs went small often with lineup combinations, particularly in the second half. Entering the game, Dallas felt the Celtics have struggled facing teams that have played smaller personnel but also noted how if a center cannot guard the perimeter, there will be challenges in deploying them against a team of this caliber. Daniel Gafford played under six minutes, while Dereck Lively II logged in slightly over 23. 

"Yeah, just understanding that they have struggled against playing small," Kidd said. "If your bigs cannot guard the perimeter, it will be a shootaround for them. So we felt comfortable going small."

In theory, a drop coverage center will struggle to make an impact against a high-octane offense that is hitting 3-pointers repeatedly. However, for a Mavs team that spends so much time working on Veer switching to contain the initial drive in recent years, the team could not rely on any strategy to get the job done against Boston or even against the Indiana Pacers at the start of the road trip. 

"They're an amazing team. I think one through nine can shoot threes," Lively said. "We definitely tried to limit the amount of 3s they had. We tried to Veer every screen. They still were able to hit shots over us. We were trying to make their 3s as hard as possible." 

Lively has continued to work on his execution as a switching defender throughout his rookie season and has been getting reps with Veer switching schemes with the Summer League squad since July. He sees continued room for improvement in how the unit handles communication and trust while executing switching. 

"I'm trying to be able to do my job and making sure I'm just trying to get them off the line," Lively said. "Trying to make sure I get him off the [3-point line] so that, once they drive, I have my low man, and I can kick the low man back out. We got to be able to just work on the rotations. We got to be able to work on the communication on the floor and our trust."

Kleber has shown capable of being an effective small ball center option to switch and space out from the 3-point line, but doing so for long stretches against high-octane offenses hasn't necessarily paid off as of late. If the Mavs aren't converting at a high clip from the perimeter themselves, keeping pace while sacrificing rebounding isn't easy. He's played well at the four next to one of the Mavs' centers, but the team views him as their 

"With Maxi being healthy, our defense is, I don't want to say it's built around him, but he is a big part of that," Kidd said. "But just understanding what Maxi means to us on the floor as a starter or someone coming off the bench. His ability to play defense; he can guard one through five and rebound."

Adding P.J. Washington has helped add another on-ball defensive option, but the Mavs remain limited in their wing options. It's difficult to score against the Celtics with a weak shooter like Derrick Jones Jr. on the court; since Boston has elite on-ball defenders as it is, they will be given the added assistance of having a help defender shrink the floor on drives. Dallas also has to deploy enough shooting to survive the perimeter shooting of the opposition.

Tim Hardaway Jr. is a negative defender who tends to lose players off-ball, doesn't contain dribble penetration, and rarely boxes out. All of those challenges become exacerbated when deploying a small perimeter. Against a team with a lot of talent on the wing, there isn't enough perimeter defense next to Doncic and Kyrie Irving, with Hardaway in the mix. Josh Green is limited offensively but has flaws defensively. Dante Exum can guard effectively, but health is naturally a concern for sustained impact. There is only so much that can be accomplished with many 6-foot-5 and shorter, particularly when deploying Kleber at center. More perimeter size is needed. 

The Mavs needed Olivier-Maxence Prosper to emerge into the rotation at this point of the season after adding a stopgap like Jones in free agency on a prove-it deal. In July, the team was confident this would be the case, even emphasizing him during Summer League as the more NBA-ready talent than Lively. Standing at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he has physical tools that other options lack. However, he has played 13 games in the G League, often being sent back and forth lately instead of factoring into the Mavs' rotation as they continue to toggle between different flawed options. 

"This season's going to be his defense because he doesn't do dumb fouls," Mavs assistant coach and Summer League head coach Jared Dudley said about Prosper in July. "It'll take him three, four months to get to the speed, and after that, you're gonna see him the second half of the year, I personally believe, helping this team bit by bit.

"I could see him easily playing for the Mavs this season just because of his defense and his aggressiveness," Dudley continued. "Anytime I tell him to do something, He does it automatically, and it's no second-guessing it. He does it a hundred miles an hour, so I respect that."

While over-analyzing a single regular season is never wise, there is more than enough history to see; there isn't an all-around option with the necessary size on the wing for the Mavs to maximize their desired play style around Doncic and Irving currently receiving consistent minutes. 

Another issue the Mavs face is the continued investment in the center position but not having trust in those options against teams with a lot of shooting. Whether it was trading a late first-round pick for Christian Wood, using the taxpayer mid-level exception to sign JaVale McGee, drafting Lively in the lottery, or acquiring a first-round pick using a future swap to acquire Gafford, the team continues to rely on options at a position group they felt necessary to upgrade after a Western Conference Finals run. Using these matchups to give Lively reps to develop for long-term gain could be more advantageous.