Kristaps Porzingis is healthy, and the Mavericks have no answer for him whatsoever



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Kristaps Porzingis played coy when reporters asked him if he was at 100% leading into the NBA Finals. “Good question,” he said, reportedly with a smile on his face. “I don’t know. We’ll see.” The former All-Star missed Boston’s last 10 games with a calf strain, and his health was the single most significant story leading into the highly anticipated matchup between the Celtics and his former team, the Dallas Mavericks. 

Boston had gone 9-1 without him in the postseason, but largely did so against weaker, injury-riddled opponents in the Eastern Conference. Dallas represented an entirely different sort of challenge, one specifically geared towards punishing an ailing big man. Luka Doncic is perhaps the greatest pick-and-roll player in NBA history. If he senses a weak link in a defense, like, say, a 7-foot-2 center playing on one leg, he has no qualms about picking at it for an entire game or even series. 

Sure enough, when Porzingis checked in to Game 1 with a bit more than seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, Doncic tested his former teammate. He called P.J. Washington, whom Porzingis was guarding, over to set a screen. He hoped to hunt a switch against Porzingis. Instead, he read an impending double, split it before Porzingis could get in position, and finished with an acrobatic layup.

In that moment, some of Boston’s fears looked like they’d been realized. Porzingis was too slow. Doncic punished him for it. Teams have lost series against Dallas for less. Fortunately, it was an isolated incident. Let’s check and see how mobile Porzingis looked by the end of the first quarter…

Yeah, when a 7-foot-2 center is running cross-court with a guard for a transition block and swatting Kyrie Irving while moving laterally, he’s probably about as close to full strength as his team could have reasonably hoped in June. His numbers for the night tell that tale: in 21 minutes, Porzingis finished with 20 points, six rebounds and three blocks. He was sensational on both ends of the floor, proving not only why so many viewed him as the key to Boston’s historic regular season, but just how much of a difference he makes in this matchup, specifically. 

Dallas has no answer for Porzingis whatsoever.

Let’s start with the obvious question: how did Boston protect Porzingis from defending in space against the dangerous Dallas ball-handlers? In short, it bet against the less impressive Dallas 3-point shooters. Soon after Doncic’s opening salvo against Porzingis, Irving took a go. When Derrick Jones Jr. tried to screen Jrue Holiday off of him, Porzingis dropped while Holiday chased him down, daring Irving to pass it back to Jones for the triple. He did. Jones missed.

Jones is a 31.6% career 3-point shooter. He made 39.6% of his looks from deep in the first three rounds. Boston was willing to bet Game 1 on Jones turning back into a pumpkin. The Thunder are home right now because they lost that same bet. Jones attempted only two 3s in Game 1. He missed this one. 

P.J. Washington shot 0-for-3 from deep. As a team, Dallas was 7-of-27. That’s not sustainable, but the Celtics don’t need it to be. They just need to feel comfortable helping off of the weaker shooters so Porzingis isn’t left on an island against Doncic or Irving. Boston largely let him play rim-defense in Game 1, and it’s a good thing it did, because he was spectacular, and he was spectacular for a specific and predictable reason: he’s absolutely enormous. Just look at how much he can affect drivers at the rim through sheer verticality.

The most startling effect of Porzingis’ size came on Doncic’s favorite pass. Yes, Dereck Lively II manages to draw a foul on this play, but notice the placement of the lob pass. Doncic overthrew Lively because he needed to be sure that Porzingis wouldn’t break up the pass.

Dallas will come up with counters. After all, the Mavs have played against Rudy Gobert and Chet Holmgren in the past two rounds. There are answers for defensive size, even if those counters rely on players like Jones and Washington making shots they missed on Thursday. 

What Dallas can’t adjust to is the size and shooting Porzingis brings on offense. He made four mid-range jumpers in Game 1 and got fouled on another. Notice who’s defending him on those shots, or, more accurately, who isn’t: the Dallas centers. While Dallas started many possessions with a big man on him, it ultimately proved willing to concede switches for reasons we will get into shortly. The Celtics figured that out quickly and took advantage.

Boston acquired Porzingis, more than anything else, to take and make that specific shot. Of course, the Celtics didn’t expect to be up double-digits as he was drilling them in the NBA Finals, but this is the advantage of having a 7-foot-2 center that is an elite shooter. Almost any defender the opposing team puts on him is going to be a mismatch. Those shots become virtually impossible to truly contest. When Boston’s offense has bogged down over the past several postseasons, one of the biggest reasons is that it lacked this, specific weapon: an instant mismatch for easy points. The Celtics would instead resort to chucking up bad 3s or driving into clogged lanes. This was the key that unlocked the Boston offense.

So, why don’t the Mavericks just put their centers on Porzingis to at least attempt to match his size and contest these shots? A few reasons. They tried a few times. Unfortunately for them, Porzingis can put the ball on the deck and make their big men defend in space as well…

But more pertinently, Porzingis can also do this:

Porzingis isn’t just a 3-point threat. He can routinely hit the sort of extremely deep triples that overextend defenses. You have to defend him no matter how far away from the rim he gets. If you put your center on him behind the arc, you expose the rest of your defense to all sorts of other problems. The biggest is that their rim-protector is no longer close enough to the rim to actually protect it. Conceding those mismatches on Porzingis in the mid-range becomes the lesser of two evils. When he’s making them like he did in in Game 1, the Celtics are basically unbeatable.

What makes all of this so terrifying for Dallas is that Porzingis should only get better as the series progresses. He only played 21 minutes on Thursday. His conditioning was clearly not where it was before the injury. He still destroyed the Mavericks, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change. 

“I feel good,” he said after the game. “Felt good to be out there.” This was always going to be a matchup problem for Dallas. Its best hope in countering it was always going to be punishing an injured Porzingis in space defensively. The Mavs couldn’t do that in Game 1. Even if he’s not 100%, he’s more than healthy enough to win the Celtics this series.





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