Monday, June 17, 2024
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2024 NBA Finals: How Mavericks can use P.J. Washington to generate more assists, force Celtics to adjust

As fans filed into TD Garden to support their Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, they were greeted with shirts on the back of their chairs that read “You Got Boston.” Frequently throughout the broadcast, the feed would pan to a Celtics fan donning the shirt while celebrating after Jaylen Brown stole the ball from Luka Doncic for an emphatic dunk, or when Kristaps Porzingis drilled a long-range 3-pointer or when the Mavericks needed to call a timeout to stop the bleeding of what was at one point a 29-point lead. The Mavericks “got Boston,” and on Thursday night, they found out exactly what that means. 

The Celtics executed a near-perfect game plan to contain Doncic, Kyrie Irving, and the rest of the Mavericks. Irving was serenaded to a chorus of boos every time he touched the ball, and while he said after the game that he thought the crowd would be better in terms of letting him hear it, it must’ve had some impact considering he went 6 of 19 from the floor for just 12 points. After the game, PJ Washington said the Mavericks “let the crowd get to us,” as most of Dallas’ roster is experiencing the Finals for the first time. The crowd fed off the energy that the Celtics were playing with, primarily on defense, where they limited the Mavericks to a season-low nine assists, and held Doncic, the typically generational facilitator, to only one dime.

It was a product of Boston’s suffocating defense, a defense that rarely — if ever — showed help on Doncic, forcing him and Irving alone to beat them. Doncic did his best — 30 points and 10 rebounds — but with Irving having an off night and no open passing windows to kick it to someone like Washington or Derrick Jones Jr. on the perimeter, it didn’t leave the Mavericks with a ton of options to put the ball in the basket outside of letting Doncic go to work.

This isn’t like when the Mavericks played the Timberwolves, Thunder or Clippers, where Doncic’s driving to the rim forced the defense to collapse, leaving shooters on the corners open for a 3-pointer. Instead, you could look at almost every Mavs possession where Doncic is looking to draw multiple defenders and the Celtics just didn’t take the bait, at least not fully. 

On this possession, Doncic gets Brown switched off of him for the still capable defender in Jayson Tatum. Doncic immediately puts his head down and drives to the basket, and what would normally cause the defense to panic and collapse on him, resulting in Doncic flipping a pass out to the corner, the Celtics stayed within enough space of their guys to still close out quickly, neutralizing that threat.

There are dozens of clips similar to that in Game 1, where the Celtics stole Doncic’s super power. It’s clear that Boston isn’t going to allow Washington and Jones Jr. to just sit at the 3-point line at spot up for open shots. That means the Mavericks will have to change their tactics going into Game 2 if they want to avoid another blowout, and the best way to combat that is to get Washington more involved on offense. 

We saw the Mavericks do some of that against the Thunder in the second round, like this opening possession in Game 3, where Washington used an off-ball screen by Jones to cut to the rim, where Irving fed him perfectly for this dunk:

In the game prior to that, the Mavericks went to Washington in back-to-back possessions, one where he took advantage of a smaller defender in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on him, and dumped it off to Daniel Gafford for the assist:

The next one was an open Doncic 3-pointer off a Washington assist when he drew two defenders on the ball:

After that game, Jason Kidd said getting Washington more involved was by design, and after the blowout loss to the Celtics in Game 1, they’re going to need to go back to that more often if they want to stand a chance. Part of the reason the Mavericks traded Grant Williams for Washington was the latter’s ability to create for himself a bit. He’s not someone you want to run your whole offense through, but he’s versatile where he can move well without the ball in his hands to open spots, back down a smaller defender and get a good shot off, and he’s shown great decision making skills in knowing when to pass it off to someone like Gafford or Lively under the rim. 

We saw some of that in the third quarter when the Mavericks were chipping away at the Celtics’ lead, like this drive from Washington where he takes advantage of the smaller Derrick White guarding him.

White was Washington’s primary defender in Game 1, and despite having three inches on the Celtics guard, the Mavericks didn’t take advantage of the size mismatch nearly enough. Allowing Washington to put White in a post up could create a better opportunity for him to score, or like that play against OKC, find an open teammate to get a bucket.

The Mavericks can’t have another game where guys like Washington and Jones are just hanging out in the corners, it’s too predictable for the Celtics to guard. If Dallas wants to generate more assists, they’re going to need both of those guys, and every other role player to move more and find easier opportunities to score. It can’t just be testing Kristaps Porzingis at the rim multiple times in a game, because we saw how poorly that went.

We’ve seen Dallas adjust after losing Game 1s in two of the three previous rounds, and now they’ll have to do it again.

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