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2024 NBA Finals: Five bold predictions for Celtics vs. Mavericks, with tight series ending in historic upset

The 2024 NBA Finals have arrived. Game 1 is set for Thursday night. Dallas at Boston. The Celtics are the favorites, but most people, myself included, see this as more of a tossup series than that number would indicate. 

I think this goes down as a classic series. I have the Mavericks in seven, but even if it’s Celtics in six, or vice versa, these games are going down to the wire. Which, as it turns out, is actually one of my five bold predictions for this series. Here they are. Let’s get to it.

1. Luka averages 35 points per game

Only nine players have averaged at least 35 points for a single Finals: Michael Jordan (2x), Shaquille O’Neal (2x), Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jerry West, Allen Iverson and Kevin Durant. Luka will become the 10th. 

Doncic has averaged north of 35 PPG for a single playoff series just once in his career (35.7 vs. the Clippers in 2021). It’s a huge number. But Dallas is going to have to score big in this series, and any idea that Boston is uniquely equipped to defend Luka largely went out the window with what he did to Minnesota, which was also stocked with big, athletic, switchable perimeter defenders and a world-class rim protector on the back line. 

2. Finals point differential will be under 20

About one third of all NBA Finals have finished with a point differential of fewer than 20 points (24 our of 76 series). This one will become the 25th, and I believe it’s possible that the winner of this series actually loses the point differential battle, which has happened 11 times in history with the most recent being the 2012-13 Heat. That Miami team was outscored by the Spurs by five points for the series but still took home the ring, and there’s a distinct possibility that happens again this year with how close this series feels. 

Which leads us to …

3. At least six ‘clutch’ games

Clutch games are defined as being within five points at any point within the last five minutes. I predicted this series to go seven, so I’ll allow for one game to have some relative separation by the time we reach closing time. But the rest are going down to the wire, which won’t be anything new for either of these teams. 

In fact, this is just the fourth Finals over the past 25 years in which both teams played at least three clutch games in the conference finals. What’s more, in each of the three previous cases (2009 Magic vs. Lakers, 2011 Heat vs. Mavericks and 2020 Heat vs. Lakers), the thin margins continued with at least three “clutch” games in the Finals. 

The fact that I’m expecting a super close series is why I’m giving Dallas the edge on the strength of their all-world closers Doncic and Kyrie Irving. Consider this information from CBS Sports research: 

  • Doncic is 3 for 3 in his playoff career on game-tying/go-ahead field-goal attempts in the final 24 seconds of the fourth quarter/OT. That’s tied for the most makes without a miss by any player in the last 25 years (Trae Young is also 3/3).
  • Doncic and Irving are a combined 4 for 4 on game-tying/go-ahead field-goal attempts in the final 24 seconds of the fourth quarter/OT in their playoff careers, and 7 for 9 in the final minute, with Doncic going 4 for 5 and Kyrie 3 for 4 in these do-or-die situations. That is nuts.

4. Porzingis takes center stage

Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t played since Game 4 of Boston’s first-round series with Miami. He’s expected in the starting lineup for Game 1 of the Finals, and as the series goes on he will be one of the biggest storylines to follow. 

One, will Boston’s offense go back to unstoppable with Porzingis’ spacing, shooting, and mismatch-punishing post game back in the fold? Two, will Porzingis be able to hold up defensively? Dallas isn’t outfitted with 3-point-shooting centers who can pull him away from the paint to open up driving lanes. However, Doncic and Irving are going to hunt him mercilessly by using his man as the ball screener and forcing Porzingis to switch onto them. 

Don’t be surprised if Boston tries to preempt this plan by having Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown cover the Dallas centers in anticipation of conventional 1-5 pick and rolls, but all Luka is going to do is instead call up Derrick Jones Jr. or P.J. Washington — whichever is being covered by Porzingis — as the screener. The bottom line is Porzingis will be spotlighted both as a potential defensive liability and as a big boon to the already lethal Boston offense.

5. Dallas scores historic upset

OK, so how am I suggesting a Mavericks win would be a historic upset when I just detailed how evenly matched these teams are and how close I expect this series to be? For this, I give credit to the great Bill Simmons, who noted on his podcast that of the 15 teams in history that have gone into the Finals with a combined 20 of fewer losses over the regular and postseason, 14 have gone on to win the title. The only team to defeat one of those juggernauts is the 2016 Cavaliers, who took out the 73-win Warriors (thanks in large part to one of those aforementioned clutch shots from Irving in Game 7).

Boston is the 16th team to enter the Finals with no more than 20 total losses for the season (they have 20 exactly after finishing 64-18 in the regular season and losing just two playoff games so far), meaning the Mavericks would have to become the second team in history to pull off that kind of upset. 

This is to say nothing of the fact that only one team in history seeded lower than No. 4 (1994-95 Rockets, who were seeded No. 6) has won a a championship. The Mavericks entered as the West’s No. 5 seed. It feels like Dallas is an elite team, and the Mavs are definitely a different team than they were before the trade deadline. But still, from a historical standpoint, they are trying to pull off a minor miracle here. And I think they’ll do it. 

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