HomeSportsNBA Finals 2024: Kristaps Porziņģis lifts Celtics and reminds Boston of what...

NBA Finals 2024: Kristaps Porziņģis lifts Celtics and reminds Boston of what it missed

BOSTON – Kristaps Porziņģis ripped off the jersey that said “Walton” on it and received a standing ovation as he played for the first time in a month – then went on to play like the missing piece of the penultimate Celtics championship.

Players from the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks honored late NBA great Bill Walton by wearing a jersey with his name on it as he started the NBA Finals, and Porziņģis, perhaps unknowingly, paid the best possible tribute to the favorite fans.

Not only did he set the tone, but everything he did was loud as the Celtics struck first in this best-of-seven series, sending a resounding message in Game 1 with a 107-89 win at TD Garden.

Loud was the theme – like Walton’s unmistakable laugh, like Jaylen Brown’s ferocious defense against Luka Dončić, like the Celtics crowd in a frothing frenzy every time Kyrie Irving touched the ball.

But it is Porziņģis who completes this team, whether as a starter, as he has been throughout his career, or off the bench, as was the case for only the second time in his nine-year career. The parallels are almost too delicious for the viscous Celtics fan base, as the team honored Walton before the game and showed off his family in a luxury box. Walton was the missing piece for the 1985-86 team, perhaps the best of the Larry Bird era. Walton was ravaged by injury after such a promising start to his career with a championship and MVP, and all he needed to do was complement the legendary front line of Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

In short, Walton would have carried Bird’s bags if Bird had asked, but his passing, rebounding and activity worked wonders.

For Porziņģis, his highlights haven’t touched the sky like Walton’s in his heyday, but he found the perfect spot in Boston – the 3-point team leaves him plenty of room to operate from deep or on the free throw. line against smaller defenders, and the teeming individual defense leads unsuspecting motorists off the highway and into a brick wall at the edge.

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Boston Celtics center Kristaps Porzingis (8) celebrates a three-pointer, near Dallas Mavericks center Daniel Gafford (21) during the first half of Game 1 of the NBA Basketball Finals on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Boston.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

He hit them all in the first quarter, turning the game into a rout before the horn sounded. It was hard to believe that he seemed unsure about how well he would play after suffering a calf injury in the first round against the Miami Heat, and that he didn’t play possum.

Twenty points and six rebounds later, even he could no longer be pessimistic about himself.

“Yes, I think what helped me obviously is that from the moment I went out before the game and then stepped onto the pitch, that kind of support was unreal,” Porziņģis said. “The adrenaline was flowing through my veins and that certainly helped. Obviously it wasn’t ideal being away for so long, but I did everything I could to mentally prepare for this moment and it paid off.”

Brown was one of his biggest supporters and saw Porziņģis back at full strength before Porziņģis himself knew it.

“Was it the first or second quarter? He just went running where he just hit the three, hit the middle and then ran back, got the block on the rim in transition,” Brown said. “He made play after play and it was like, OK, he’s back, there was no doubt about that at the time.”

The Celtics, battling undermanned teams during their run, sat Porziņģis until he was fully healthy, and now Vultron has been formed. Brown led the Celtics with 22 points, six rebounds, three blocks and three steals. Jayson Tatum scored 19 with 11 rebounds and five assists.

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Ideally, Porziņģis’ presence, along with Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, will ensure the two mainstays don’t feel like they have to score themselves.

Five-part harmony.

Even Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who coached Porziņģis for just a year before being traded, praised his skills and seemed almost ready for what was to come.

“We’re a good team when the guys are down, but we’re really special when we have everyone down,” Tatum said. “I said it before, how seamless his transition was after being away for six, seven weeks and coming into the game and having a first half like that, that was a big spark for us going into the game.”

Tatum admitted he had pre-game nerves, but he said they were the good kind — like on the first day of school, when you lay out your best outfit on your bed the night before and your sneakers are extra clean because you wants to impress everyone, set the tone.

Tatum didn’t have to be the do-it-all type, even though that will likely be required of him before this series ends. But it was Porziņģis who took center stage.

“I know the storyline has to be what he’s going to look like because he’s been off for a month, but that’s what he’s been doing his whole career,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “He’s a great player. He’s been great for us. The reason why we’re here is because of what he’s done. No matter how long he’s gone, the guy is going to make plays because of his talent and the work he’s done goes into it.’

It’s the addition of Porziņģis and relative health that puts the Celtics in an almost unenviable position: winning alone isn’t enough. They must dominate and do it with style.

Any pauses are parsed. Maybe playing for the Celtics is the cause. Perhaps it has come up short, but this is as close as it has come to tasting champagne in recent years.

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But it is probably the presence of Porziņģis, who was rescued from the Bad News Bears in Washington after two years of anonymity. A great team became dominant, and it showed as the Celtics jumped out to a 29-point lead before halftime.

“I think you guys got a pretty clear picture of that all season long when we were healthy for most of it and how we played and how effective we were on both ends,” Tatum said. “KP had a big hand in that and the success we had this season.”

Of course, there were the frustrating moments, the stretches where the Celtics lost themselves, got a little too 3-point happy and the Mavericks showed some value in this series, cutting the lead to eight early in the third quarter.

But the Celtics quickly remembered and closed down the court where Dončić and Irving started to plant a bit of real estate, restoring order with a 14-0 run. Dončić led all scorers with 30 points, but his lone assist was the lowest mark of his playoff career – as the Mavericks were an anemic 3-for-15 from 3 outside of Dončić’s output.

And it only forced the Mavericks into the lane, where Porziņģis, Al Horford, Tatum and Brown were waiting. Porziņģis and Brown each had three blocked shots, with Brown hitting an Irving layup out of bounds, much to the delight of the still-salty Celtic crowd upon Irving’s departure in 2019.

“Every game has its own story,” Brown said. “We just have to stay ready, stay calm and take it one game at a time.”

The story of this one was the memory of the smiling redhead and the squinting to see the similarities between the man trudging along the sidelines to cheers that lifted him to the heavens.

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