2024 NBA Finals Preview: Burning Questions Answered

The Eastern and Western Conference playoffs felt about as different from one another as I can ever remember. Once the Celtics got past a Jimmy Butler-less Heat team in the first round and Milwaukee was dispatched by Indiana, it felt almost inevitable that the Finals would start in Boston.

Until the final minutes of Game 2 against Minnesota, nothing felt destined about a Finals trip for the Mavericks. Jason Kidd's team had huge stretches of inconsistent play before February, and then general manager Nico Harrison made two stellar trades that bolstered Dallas' frontcourt.

It's not the Nuggets/Celtics Finals we were perhaps anticipating earlier this year, but it's not exactly a Cinderella story. This NBA Finals may involve a 5-seed, but it's still a titanic battle.

Let's look at four questions that will help decide the new champion.

1. How will Boston guard Luka Doncic?

I'm not breaking any news to say that it's practically impossible to stop Luka Doncic. Double him, and he'll find an open man. Switch everything, and he'll hunt a mismatch. Use a primary defender and stay at home on everyone else, and he'll use his body to get to the basket or create space for an outside shot. Any equation of pick-and-roll coverage creates a soft spot for the defense.

I think Boston will likely use Jaylen Brown most often on Luka, but Derrick White and Jayson Tatum should also see time on Luka. There's some statistical evidence that blitzing Doncic could work, and it's easy to imagine Jrue Holiday coming into ball-hawk and help in certain matchups. Boston has to be multiple in its thinking — scheme-wise and with the four starters who can guard the perimeter best — and hope Luka has enough bad shooting nights from deep.

2. What will Kristaps Porzingis look like after returning from injury?

Kristaps Porzingis was an excellent pickup in the offseason, and his rim protection on defense and ability to stretch the floor on offense were invaluable for a Celtics team that lapped the field in the East in the regular season.

And somehow, in the 35 games the Latvian has missed between the regular season and playoffs, Boston is 30-5. Is it possible that Boston could be a better team without Porzingis? It's highly doubtful, and especially so in this series.

Without Porzingis for the last two series, Boston has had to rely upon a 38-year-old Al Horford at center and to play as many as 40 minutes in a game. While Horford had great counting stats against Indiana for a fifth offensive option, the Pacers shot 74% at the rim while being swept.

But at the same time, if Porzingis plays in Game 1, it will have been more than five weeks since he played in the first round against Miami, and a calf strain always makes me a bit concerned about a potential Achilles injury. If Porzingis looks limited, Doncic, Kyrie Irving, and the Mavs' lob-catching frontcourt could rack up the points inside.

3. Will the Celtics be ready for the level of competition?

This should be a wholly preposterous question to ask when a team is in the NBA Finals. Winning a conference championship and 12 playoff games is never an "easy" task, but it sure looked relatively simple when the Celtics didn't have to play against Butler, Donovan Mitchell, Jarrett Allen, Tyrese Haliburton, and Bennedict Mathurin for all or part of their opponents' respective playoff series.

Boston absolutely should have lost Game 1 to Indiana, and Game 3 and 4 without Haliburton were crunch time toss-ups. It was a sweep, yes, but was it also playing down to a lesser opponent in three of the four games?

The Mavs not only present an altogether higher level of opponent, they're about as healthy as you could expect a team to be at the 100th game of the season. The Celtics won't have time to get their sea legs in Game 1 of the Finals. As Game 5 against Minnesota showed, Luka and Irving can blowout a team playing C-minus basketball in the first half.

4. What kind of an impact do Dallas' role players need to have for the Mavericks to win the Finals?

When the Mavericks went to the Western Conference Finals in the 2022 playoffs against the Warriors, they got absolutely demolished on the glass. That was not the case in the conference finals this season, thanks in large part to the play of P.J. Washington, Daniel Gafford, and Dereck Lively, none of whom were on the team during the disastrous 2022-23 season for Dallas.

Doncic and Irving combined for over half of the Mavs' points in the five-game series against Minnesota. But Gafford and Lively went a combined, mind-boggling 40-of-48 from the floor against the Wolves, with Lively not missing a single shot. In the Oklahoma City series, Washington was electric, outscoring Irving for the series and drawing the series-clinching foul.

And with respect to wing role players Jaden Hardy and Derrick Jones, Jr., it's going to be imperative for Washington, Gafford, and Lively to continue to deliver big games on offense for the Mavs to take down the favored Celtics. Dallas won't be able to win if it's just Luka and Kyrie making shots.

I think we're in for an extended series and possibly more final-possession games than we typically see in an NBA Finals. My pick is Celtics in 7, with Boston exorcizing its fourth-quarter demons from past playoffs in a Game 7 thriller.

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