Mavericks' NBA Finals blowout was impressive, but does it mean anything for Game 5?

Dallas Mavericks 122, Boston Celtics 84.

An epic beatdown, yes. But does it mean anything beyond one game? Does a result this emphatic have any predictive value for what might happen the rest of these NBA Finals? Are the Celtics actually in trouble now?

If this were a regular-season game or Game 1 of a playoff series, it might be easier to answer “yes” to those questions. Normally, point differential has a lot of predictive value, especially when operating with otherwise small samples of games.

Let’s start with the good news for Dallas. By virtue of its lopsided Game 4 win Friday, Dallas is a plus-6 for the series despite being blown out in Game 1 before losing more respectably in the next two.

Additionally, elements of Friday’s game seem like they might be repeatable in Game 5 and beyond. The Mavs were much more invested in protecting the rim, something that might seem odd given Boston’s bombs-away approach, but a big story in Game 4 was 2-point efficiency: Boston had only 18 paint points in the first three quarters (at which point both teams emptied their benches) on 9-of-23 shooting, and several of the Celtics’ 13 turnovers to that point came on paint forays. Even Luka Dončić got in on the party, contributing a rim-protection stop on Jayson Tatum.

The Mavs also landed on a rotation that works for them, excising Jaden Hardy and Tim Hardaway Jr. from the mix after they were ineffective in the first three games and upping the minutes for Dereck Lively II (who subbed in after just two and a half minutes) and Josh Green. I still wonder if Dallas should consider starting Lively and Green, as neither Derrick Jones Jr. nor Daniel Gafford has made the same impact as those two subs. Either way, the rotation tweaks are repeatable.

A more extended run for Maxi Kleber also has helped, even if he wasn’t exactly dominating the ball. Kleber’s additional size was a real factor on defense — Dallas played bigger lineups throughout the game Friday — and was one reason that, after his first 12 minutes on the floor, he had a plus/minus of plus-21 despite registering no stats at all in that time.

Finally, remember that Dallas also went on a 21-2 run in the fourth quarter of Game 3 before succumbing in that one. Over the last five quarters of basketball, the score is Dallas 151, Boston 105. Yikes.

Some of that is likely the so-called “play better” adjustment of our colleague Seth Partnow. Dončić, perhaps embarrassed after enduring public criticism of his being repeatedly torched in Game 3, submitted perhaps his best defensive game of the playoffs. (Shout out to Steph Noh for doing my video work for me.)



Dončić and the Mavs dismiss criticism and extend the NBA Finals: ‘He grew’

Several other Dallas effort and hustle plays stood out (Ben Taylor pointed out many of them here), something that was much harder to find in the tape in the first three games.

On the flip side, Boston was awful. Tatum repeatedly missed open shooters and forced dribbles and shots in traffic. Jrue Holiday suffered from a weird inability to grasp the basketball with two hands, finishing with five turnovers on his way to an NBA Finals record minus-38. Jaylen Brown only made three field goals. And even when initial defensive efforts were good, the Celtics were embarrassed on the boards.

However, we might have one or two bigger takeaways as well, particularly related to one player. Yes, Boston will surely play better in Game 5, and Dallas can only go down from a peak performance in Game 4. (This is a compliment, by the way. The Mavs were awesome.)

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Celtics center Kristaps Porziņģis warms up before Game 4 of the NBA Finals in Dallas. (Peter Casey / USA Today)

The common throughline to a lot of what happened in the last five quarters is the absence of Kristaps Porziņģis. Dallas has been able to protect the paint more successfully because of the absence of the deep shooting threat of Porziņģis, especially in Game 4, when the 38-year-old Al Horford didn’t seem to have much in the tank after going 37 minutes just two days earlier.

In the non-Horford minutes, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s lack of perimeter threat was glaring; while he made a wide-open corner 3 in Game 3, in more typical situations, he operates as a non-shooter. Late in the first quarter as Friday’s game began slipping away, he had a notable record scratch when Holiday drove and kicked to him above the 3-point line on the right wing and Tillman didn’t even look at the rim. The reset let Dallas’ defense get back into position, and Boston ultimately struggled to get away a Holiday runner that missed just before the shot clock expired.

Porziņģis, in his 44 minutes, has as many points in this series as Horford and Tillman combined in 132 minutes. Even when the Zinger hasn’t hurt Dallas from 3 (he’s only made two in his two games), he’s punished any switch by shooting straight over a helpless Mavs defender from the free-throw line area. Boston is plus-25 in his limited run, a figure that stood out even before Game 4’s carnage to his teammates’ stats.



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

Thus, Porziņģis playing in Game 5 would be a big item tilting the dial back in Boston’s favor, not only due to his quality but also by removing the Tillman minutes and giving Horford some extended relief. The Celtics had Porziņģis active for Game 4 but opted not to play him; it’s reasonable to think he could give it a go Monday.

However, there is an even bigger reason to think Boston shouldn’t sweat that Game 4 blowout too much: We’ve seen this movie before.

I noted above that, in the regular season, a result like this would have a lot of predictive value. In the playoffs, historically, it just doesn’t. The reason, of course, is that human nature remains undefeated: A team that is up 3-0 or 3-1 and playing on the road can find a lot more reasons to pull the plug and mail it in if things aren’t going well early.

Witness two years ago, for instance, when the Golden State Warriors led the Memphis Grizzlies 3-1 in the second round heading into Game 5. Knowing they still had a Game 6 coming back home, and that Ja Morant was out for the series, human nature took over: The Warriors trailed by an unfathomable 52 points after three quarters in a 134-95 blowout loss. They proceeded to win the championship.

That’s not our only example. The 1996 Chicago Bulls were one of the best teams of all time but put a big fat postage stamp on Game 4 in Seattle after they’d taken a 3-0 series lead; their 107-86 loss was only their second double-digit loss of the entire season.

There’s more. The 2000 Lakers had a dominant team en route to its first Shaquille O’Neal-era championship but lazed through a 120-87 loss to the  Indiana Pacers in Game 5 before winning the title in Game 6. A generation earlier, the Philadelphia 76ers beat the tar out of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 135-102, in Game 5 of the 1982 finals before the Lakers clinched it the next game in L.A. And in 2017, the Warriors breezed to a 3-0 lead against an overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers team before surrendering a 49-point first quarter and succumbing 137-116 in Game 4; they went home and clinched it in Game 5.

Conversely, I was surprised at how rare it was for a series with 3-1 comebacks to feature a no-show blowout like this one. The closest parallel is probably the Detroit Pistons’ first-round win over Orlando in 2003 when the Magic were up 3-1 and lost Game 5 in Detroit by 31; Detroit won the next two as well to take the series.

The Houston Rockets’ 3-1 comeback against the LA Clippers in 2015 is something of a parallel; the Rockets eased past LA by 21 in Game 5 in Houston, although that was a competitive game most of the way. The now-forgotten (except maybe to Mavs fans) 2003 series between Dallas and Portland also sort of qualifies; Portland was down 3-0, won Game 4 by 19, and eventually forced a seventh game before falling. But that wasn’t a surrender like Friday’s blowout; Portland trailed that Game 4 at halftime.

The Mavs are going up against history no matter what, as teams trailing 3-0 are 0-156 in best-of-seven NBA playoff series; included in that total are Dallas’ and Boston’s conference finals opponents the previous round. But even being down 3-1, with two games left on the road to complete a comeback, the Mavs have extremely long odds, as other teams in this situation have lost 98 percent of the time.

If Dallas wins Game 5, those odds shorten to something more realistic; the Mavs would still need to win twice more, but 3-2 has been done relatively frequently. If Porziņģis can’t return, the past two games are much more indicative of the state of play going forward.

Nonetheless, history says this was probably a human nature loss more than a telling turning point. Most teams in the Celtics’ position that suffered similar fates immediately took care of business and ended the series the next game. Boston will have home-court advantage, a possible Porziņģis return, and a “play better” adjustment on its side in attempting to add its name to the list.

(Top photo: Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

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