Joe Mazzulla warned Celtics they were vulnerable, then Dallas fought back in NBA Finals

DALLAS — Joe Mazzulla has never been afraid of failure. He puts himself in compromised positions every day to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

It’s all to prepare for a moment like this. On the verge of a sweep to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, it’s hard to feel desperate when you have so much room for error.

“The closer you are to beating someone, the closer you are to getting your ass kicked,” Mazzulla said before Game 3 of the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. “Tonight I expect the best out of Dallas, and we got to get ready for a fight.”

Dallas fought back that night and it wasn’t quite enough. Then with their backs against the wall Friday, with the Celtics on the verge of clinching the title, the Mavericks played as if the past three games were a mirage.

It was such a comprehensive reversal of everything that has happened in this series that there was only one way to describe it.

“A simple way: an ass-kicking,” Derrick White said. “That’s the simplest way right there.”

The Mavs beat the Celtics 122-84 to stave off a sweep and send the NBA Finals back to Boston by doing everything that got them to the finals in the first place. They created corner 3s, dominated the rim and stood in Boston’s way. But they won because they showed up with nothing to lose.

“It’s real simple. We don’t have to complicate this. This isn’t surgery. Our group was ready to go. They were ready to celebrate,” Jason Kidd said. “Understand, we made a stand. We were desperate. We got to continue to keep playing that way (and) understand they’re trying to find a way to close the door.”

“We have to know that we’re just as vulnerable as anybody else in this situation, and how we handle that will determine our fate,” he said Thursday. Their fate is a return to Boston, duck boats still on standby, to recover from this counterpunch.

“I think winning at any game is hard. But winning Game 4 of the NBA Finals is pretty damn hard,” Holiday said. “I think they came out desperate and I think they punched us in the mouth, and we couldn’t kind of recover the way we wanted to.”

It took too long, but the Mavs finally reminded people why they made the finals. This was the kind of high-level basketball that survived the path out west.

Dallas was finally physical with its point-of-attack defense, keeping up with the Celtics launching 3s and getting the best out of Dereck Lively II. They found the right spots to put Luka Dončić on defense, having him help off Al Horford or even protect the rim at times. Their spacing was much improved, as they finally generated corner 3s for the first time in this series.

Boston got to a 3-0 lead by taking away so many of the things that gave Dallas layers beyond Dončić and Kyrie Irving, but they were all back so suddenly that the game was over just a few minutes into the second half. Dallas caught up to Boston in 3-point volume and dominated the offensive glass as they amassed what was at one point a 48-point lead. It was Boston’s worst-ever defeat in the championship round, blowing away the 33-point Game 3 defeat to the Lakers in the 1984 finals that ended with a Celtics title.

“Preparation doesn’t guarantee an automatic success, so I thought we had a great process,” Mazzulla said. “I thought we had a great shootaround. Thought we had a great film session yesterday. I thought the guys came out with the right intentions. I just didn’t think it went our way, and I thought Dallas outplayed us. They just played harder.”

Added Kidd: “The hardest thing in this league is to close the door when you have a group that has nothing to lose. Tonight you saw that. They let go of the rope pretty early.”

Mazzulla credited Dallas’ defense with flying around the floor and creating indecision on Boston’s reads. Dallas didn’t just get a center at the rim to stop drives but also had help defenders disrupt those attacks so the Celtics had to pick up their dribble early. If the Mavs had a chance to outwork the Celtics or beat them to a spot, they took it.

“Every loose ball, 50-50 ball, they got to it,” White said. “Honestly, the turnovers, missed shots, combined that’s not a winning recipe.”

The Celtics didn’t consistently garner multiple drives on a possession. Even when they got to the paint, Dallas was more effective in limiting Boston to one passing option and then being in position to recover to the shooters.

Most importantly, Dallas defenders steered drives more effectively toward Lively, who got his hands in the passing lanes. Boston’s kick-out passes were less accurate this game, giving Dallas just enough time to keep up to speed when it was in scramble mode.

Jayson Tatum was frustrated with how much contact was allowed both while he was driving and in the air. But that looser whistle fed perfectly into Dončić’s hands, as he was able to get the switches he wanted and then bully his way deep into the paint. The irony was that he was even taking Holiday and Horford down to the low post, Boston’s two best defenders in those scenarios.

Even when they would execute well, like on this play that pulled Lively to a shooter and fed Tatum in the post, someone like Dončić would come over to get the stop.

Sometimes Dončić was positioned in the right spot so that the Celtics had to try to score around him. But when they miss and the ball goes right to Dončić, that can have dire consequences for Boston’s transition defense.

“I think this is the most stagnant that we’ve been this series,” Tatum said. “And the worst job of owning our space on the offensive end and doing what we wanted to do instead of what they were forcing us to do.”

The Celtics have to find a way to enter the ball into the post with spacing that will allow them to zip the ball around. Tatum and Jaylen Brown have to figure out different angles to attack so Dallas’ defense gets pulled into rotation. They didn’t have to make significant changes to the way they were operating heading into Game 4, but now it’s their turn to respond.

“I’ve been in a lot of (series) and usually by the second game, you’re making adjustments,” Horford said. “We’ve had the first three games; we didn’t make any adjustments. Today, they did something. We have to see what we can (do), how we can be better and prepare for it.”

This is a puzzle they have to solve. They’ve eliminated teams in earlier rounds before, but there’s a different level of desperation when the championship is on the line. But the Celtics have one person they can turn to at this moment. Everyone on the Celtics roster can now say they have brought a team to the verge of a title, but Jrue Holiday is the only one who can say he’s brought one home.

So what is the secret to getting that one last victory?

“I don’t know. I don’t know, even though I’ve done it,” Holiday said. “You’ve got to do it together as a team. Everybody has to be clicking and being, again, the more desperate team.”

The Celtics are a process-oriented team built on consistency, and nobody has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA Finals. But they learned last year that it can be done. Now that Dallas has nothing to lose, this series comes down to more than just principles.

“What it really comes down to is when you get punched, are you going to throw one back?” Lively said. “Or are you just going to concede?”

(Photo: Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

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