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NBA Finals 2024: Celtics stunned after lopsided loss to Mavericks in Game 4. What happened?

DALLAS – The Celtics entered Friday with a chance to become NBA champions, largely because of the metronomic consistency of their approach and execution. Much of the credit for that goes to head coach Joe Mazzulla, whose unwavering – and sometimes eyebrow-raising – commitment to a process-over-results, sweat-the-little-things style has helped transform Boston from a talented one team that occasionally slips up has grown into a team that has spent the better part of the last eight months functioning as a brutally efficient winning machine.

However, as Mazzulla told reporters before Game 4, a healthy share of the credit should also go to the team his Celtics had a chance to beat.

“Dallas is a great opponent because they test your discipline – like every possession,” he said during his pre-match press conference. “And as soon as you’re not where you’re supposed to be, or you’re not executing your angles properly, they take advantage of that.”

More often than not on Friday nights, the Celtics weren’t where they needed to be and didn’t execute their angles well. And manLuka Dončić, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Mavericks took advantage.

Dallas took a two-point lead midway through the first quarter on a corner three-pointer by Dereck Lively II — his first career NBA triple on just the third attempt of his rookie season — and never relinquished it. A 19-5 run gave the Mavericks a double-digit lead in the first quarter. An 11-0 upset pushed the lead to 25 in the second. An 8-0 stint in the third had the Mavs flirting with a 40-point margin before both coaches pulled their starters … and then Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas’ No. 3 scorer during the regular season, before retiring due to a cold Banished from the rotation, shooting and tolerant defense caught the kind of heat he hadn’t stoked in months.

The Mavs led by as many as 48 points before a pair of late Boston buckets saw the destruction settle to a 122-84 final. Dallas lives to fight another day – three more, in fact, with the finals now returning to TD Garden for Game 5 on Monday.

The C’s, in turn, not only get to think about a loss for the first time since May 9 during the long flight back to Boston, but also think about what on earth happened to lead to the most lopsided Finals loss for any Celtics team has also ever led — “a kick in the ass,” in the words of Celtics guard Derrick White, who scored six points on 2-for-8 shooting in 31 minutes.

“I think winning is hard,” Celtics guard Jrue Holiday said. “I think it’s difficult to win a match. But winning Game 4 of the NBA Finals is damn hard.”

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It gets considerable harder if you can’t make anything. The Celtics missed 10 of their first 15 shots, looking both inside and outside – some were good shots that just went out, others more rushed attempts as they struggled to create space from a Mavericks team that looked set to creating higher pick-up points, a higher level of physicality and much more aggressive rotations.

Things got worse from there: a horrible second quarter in which the team with the most efficient offense in NBA history could only muster 14 points on 3-for-16 shooting with three turnovers; such a complete lack of quality possessions that Mazzulla finally pulled his starters down 36 with 3:18 to go in the third quarter.

“Our group was ready to go. They were ready to celebrate,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said after the win. “…The hardest thing in this league is to close the door when you have a group that has nothing to lose. You saw that tonight. They let go of the rope pretty early, you know.

The Celtics finished 29 for 80 from the floor (36.2%) – the first time they failed to make 40% of their shots in a playoff game, and their second-worst shooting performance of the entire season.

“I think this is the most stagnant we’ve been in this series, and the worst job of owning our space on the attacking side and doing what we wanted to do, rather than what they forced us to do,” said Celtics star Jayson Tatum, who finished with 15 points on 4-for-10 shooting with five rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal in 27 minutes.

Boston still managed to increase its wholesale volume of 3-pointers, going 14 to 41 from distance on the night. But those attempts accounted for 47% of the C’s total shot diet — up from 55% in Game 3 — and more of them seemed rushed, with Boston’s shooters feeling the heat of Mavericks defenders screaming across the court to finish close and fight. And the same was true of the Celtics’ attempts domestically:

They shot just 9 for 23 (39.1%) through the first three quarters and finished with 26 points in the paint — two off their season low, which came in the first game of the postseason against the Heat — the way Dallas looked. to have perimeter players pre-switch to Al Horford when he sets ball screens or their bigs from backup Xavier Tillman Sr. drops, allowing Lively, Daniel Gafford and Maxi Kleber to spend more time packing the track.

“They did a great job flying around and making us [feel] indecision to shoot or drive,” Mazzulla said. “And then, their many efforts: I thought their five guys did a great job protecting the paint. Every time we did a layup, there were multiple guys competing.

That activity threw sand in the gears of the Celtics’ decision makers, resulting in several missed layups. Holiday had a pair of those, as well as five turnovers, in a performance well below the high standard he had previously set. the series – and some poorly timed, off-target passes. That led to some live-ball turnovers: the dreaded miscues that Kidd had in his team to work harder to avoid throughout the series, and that suddenly became Boston’s bugaboo.

June 14, 2024;  Dallas, Texas, USA;  Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (11) falls after contact with Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) during the first half of game four of the 2024 NBA Finals at the American Airlines Center.  Mandatory credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Boston’s offense struggled to get going in Game 4 of the 2024 NBA Finals at the American Airlines Center. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

According to PBP Stats, seven of the Celtics’ 14 turnovers were live-ball turnovers. The Mavs scored 1.71 points per possession after a Boston turnover in Game 4, according to Inpredictable, a huge number.

Combine that with how opportunistic Dallas was in slowing the pace of defensive rebounds – another Kidd talking point; he doesn’t like the way the Mavs are “running the ball up” in this series, especially in the second and third quarters – and you have a recipe for real problems in transition. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Mavericks finished at 1.73 points per game at halftime in Game 4 – more than double what they allowed in the first two games of these finals.

“We’re one of the best teams in the league when it comes to getting stops. That has been our identity,” said Irving, who scored 21 points on 10-for-18 shooting with six assists and four rebounds in 31 minutes. “We are playing better, I think, offensively – this is just my opinion; it may differ per team. “I think we play better offensively when we can get stops, increase the tempo and get easy opportunities in transition, which is something we haven’t done as much in the last few games.”

Add those fast-break opportunities to the increased aggression that Lively and Co. on the offensive glass – 13 offensive rebounds that led to 16 second-chance points, a 32% offensive percentage that is the second-highest Boston has allowed this postseason – and there were just way more opportunities for the Mavericks to consistently generate the easier, higher-quality, rhythmic looks that Boston’s defense so carefully took away in Games 1, 2 and 3.

The Celtics controlled the first three games of this series, winning the math battle via a significant lead in three-point attempts. But by hammering the offensive glass, cutting down on turnovers and relentlessly attacking the paint in transition and off the half-court dribble, Dallas was able to tilt the math back in its favor by winning the possession battle, even more once scored eleven field goals. attempts and nine more free throw attempts – and, for the first time in the series, setting the terms rather than letting Boston take the wheel.

“It’s a playoff series. Teams go back and forth,” Celtics center Al Horford said. “Usually, you know – I’ve been through a lot of it, and usually in the second game you make adjustments. In the third game you make another adjustment, and that’s pretty much how it goes. And for us, we’ve had the first three games, we haven’t really made any adjustments. So today they did something. We have to look at how we can get better and prepare for that.”

The answer likely lies, as it often does with the Celtics, on the less glamorous side of the court.

“I think it starts on the defensive side for us,” said Tatum, who was Boston’s only source of offense in the first quarter, scoring 11 of the team’s 21 points but going a whisper-quiet 0-for-3. from the field over the next two quarters as Dallas pulled away. “We didn’t get many stops, so they were allowed to set up their defense, and when you score at a high rate, you obviously feel good about yourself. Your energy is higher. Probably play better defense. … We just have to contain them a lot better, make it harder and stop them.”

As disappointing as Friday’s effort was, the Celtics still leave Texas with firm control of the series: with a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with three more chances to slam the door, and with Game 5 back in their Gym. The Celtics answered their previous two losses this postseason with a 20-point win and a 13-point win; they will try to turn it into a trend with a third impressive rebound in a row.

“The one thing I can tell you about our group is that we have responded to every adversity time and time again,” Horford said. “This is an opportunity we have in front of us here.”

They would do well to seize this early Monday. As Dončić, Irving and Co. but stick around, maybe they’ll bring this thing back to Dallas for Game 6. Remove all doubt and you get to hold up a very big gold trophy.

“These are the moments that can make or break you,” said Celtics star Jaylen Brown, who finished with 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting. “We need to get back together. We need to watch it and learn from it, and then we need to embrace it and attack it.

“It’s going to be hard to do what we’re trying to do. We didn’t expect anything to be easy. But it is no reason to lose our heads.”

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