NBA Finals: Celtics Stave Off Mavericks’ Fourth-Quarter Comeback to Take 3–0 Lead

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown each scored at least 30 points, just the second time in Finals history for a Boston duo.
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and guard Jaylen Brown keyed Boston’s win and a 3–0 lead in the NBA Finals.
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and guard Jaylen Brown keyed Boston’s win and a 3–0 lead in the NBA Finals. / Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

News, notes and observations from the Boston Celticsthrilling 106–99 NBA Finals Game 3 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday in Dallas to take a 3–0 series lead …

A great win for Boston. A near miss for Dallas.

Early in the fourth quarter it looked like Boston was going to cruise to a 3–0 series lead. A Derrick White three staked the Celtics to a 21-point lead with 11 minutes to play. The three-point line was hot and the Mavericks looked finished. Then P.J. Washington hit a three. Then Luka Doncic hit a layup. Then Dereck Lively II tipped in a miss. A 12–0 run cut the lead to nine with eight minutes to play. A 20–2 run made it a one-possession game with six minutes to play. 

Doncic was hot. Kyrie Irving was rolling. Dallas had life.

With 4:38 to play, Doncic picked up his fifth personal foul. Bad. Fewer than 30 seconds later, he picked up his sixth. Worse. Dallas, faced with trying to complete the comeback with its All-NBA guard on the bench, crumbled. An Irving jumper briefly cut the lead to one but Boston quickly pushed it back up to three, then six, then eight. And that was your ball game. 

“We had a good chance,” Doncic said. “We were close. Just didn’t get it. I wish I was out there.”

Said Jayson Tatum, “The game of basketball is about runs, and this is at the highest level. You know, it’s the best team in the West at this point. They are going to make shots. They are going to go on a run, and it’s just all about how do you respond.”

A big game for Boston’s stars

When Dallas surged to an early 13-point first-quarter lead, there was Tatum, scoring 20 of his 31 points in the first half to keep the game close. When Boston needed buckets down the stretch, there was Jaylen Brown, who scored 24 of his 30 in the second half, including nine in the fourth quarter. 

It wasn’t a flawless game. Tatum struggled with his shot, finishing 11-for-26. Brown was 2-for-9 from three-point range. But they refused to get discouraged. It was Tatum’s driving dunk in traffic that pushed the Celtics’ lead to six late in the fourth quarter. It was Brown’s 21-footer that put the game away. For just the second time in Celtics history, two players scored at least 30 points in a Finals game. And when the final buzzer sounded, the two stars embraced near center court. 

“Just you know showing the emotions of the game,” Tatum said. “Two guys that were excited, tired, that, you know, after the game. We’re not necessarily saying like, ‘One more,’ or anything like that. We are just saying, ‘However long it takes.’ Nobody is relaxed. Nobody is satisfied. Just at that moment, you know, just told him I was proud of him and he said the same thing. That we’ve got to keep fighting. We can’t relax.”

Role players made a difference

Role players have become the story of this series. For Boston, the first two games were dominated by Kristaps Porzingis, who returned from a 38-day absence to help power Boston to a 2–0 series lead. In Game 3, with Porzinigis out, it was White (16 points) and Sam Hauser (nine) making shots. Al Horford stretching out for 37 minutes. Xavier Tillman, playing his first minutes of this series, finishing a +9 in 11 minutes. 

“I just think that top to bottom, we trust everybody, and we just compete at a high level,” White said. “Obviously, they are great players, and it’s a challenge but [it’s] just consistently being in the right position and just competing.”

Xavier Tillman guards Luka Doncic at the basket.
Tillman came up big in Game 3, playing his first minutes of the Finals. / Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

On Dallas’s side, it was more of the same. Washington chipped in nine points during Dallas’s fourth-quarter comeback but finished with 12 overall. Derrick Jones Jr. was a non-factor. Maxi Kleber, too. Jason Kidd dusted off Tim Hardaway Jr. for 20 minutes. Hardaway finished 0-for-5. In the first half, Kidd’s rotation went 11 deep. 

“We were trying to find someone to come off the bench and give us a spark,” Kidd said. “It doesn’t always have to be someone making a shot. I thought the guys that played tonight helped us get the lead or get back into the game.

“When you look at some of the guys who played, we got good looks, some of them made them, some of them didn’t. I thought the group that played, once that third quarter got away from us, it just showed the group kept playing.”

In the conference playoffs, Luke Kornet gobbled up the bulk of the non-Porzingis minutes. In Game 3, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla went with Tillman, in part because of the ex-Memphis Grizzlies forward’s experience against the Mavericks. Tillman responded by knocking down a corner three in the third quarter and swatting away two shots. 

“Big shout out to X,” White said. “To not be in the rotation but to stay locked in and he gives us big-time minutes. He just does a little bit of everything out there. Then he guarded his ass off and hit a big shot and rebounds, and he just did a little bit of everything for us. Credit to him. Great, great teammate, great guy, and he was big for us.”

Can Dallas make history?

The statistics say no. Of the 156 teams that have trailed 3–0 in an NBA playoff series, zero have come back to win it. The more pressing concern is if Dallas can avoid a sweep. Doncic struck an optimistic tone at his postgame news conference. “Being down 21 in the third game and then coming back was a really positive thing for us,” he said. And the Mavs did get a breakout game from Irving (35 points). But as talented as Doncic and Irving are, they are not getting enough help. And a Celtics team that nearly completed a 3–0 comeback last season isn’t sounding like one ready to let this one slip away. 

“You have to expect the expected,” Mazzulla said. “You’ve got to understand we are just as vulnerable if not more vulnerable than they are. And we have to play that way. So as long as we have that mindset, and when you understand that you’re vulnerable and your back’s against the wall, you’ve got to fight. And so that’s the mindset that we have to have.”

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Chris Mannix


Chris Mannix is a senior NBA and boxing writer at Sports Illustrated. He began his tenure at SI in 2003 and has covered the NBA Finals and major boxing matches since 2007. Mannix spent three years at "The Vertical" at Yahoo Sports before returning to SI in 2018. He hosts Sports Illustrated's Open Floor podcast. A nominee for the 2022 National Sportswriter of the Year, Mannix has won several writing awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America and the Pro Basketball Writers Association. He is a longtime member of both groups. Mannix graduated from Boston College in 2003.