2024 NBA Finals: Big questions ahead of Mavericks-Celtics

Jaylen Brown awarded with Larry Bird Trophy as ECF's MVP (1:05)

Jaylen Brown reacts to winning the Eastern Conference finals MVP and helping the Celtics to the NBA Finals. (1:05)

Welcome to the 2024 NBA Finals, featuring the season's most dominant team against a title contender that remade itself at midseason.

The 64-win Boston Celtics, behind the most efficient offense in NBA history, have lost only twice during the playoffs and are led by the play of Jayson Tatum and Eastern Conference finals MVP Jaylen Brown.

The fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, meanwhile, solidified their claim as the biggest winner of the trade deadline. In February, the franchise added center Daniel Gafford and forward P.J. Washington, who have meshed perfectly with Dallas' star duo of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving to create a giant killer in the Western Conference.

Will Boston capture its 18th championship and set an NBA record, or will Dallas lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the first time since 2011, when coach Jason Kidd, as a player, helped the Mavericks to their only title?

Our NBA insiders are setting the stage for the Finals -- Game 1 tips off Thursday, June 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET (ABC) -- including breakdowns of the biggest stars, most important matchups and each team's keys to the series.

Jump to:
Road to the NBA Finals | Star watch | Big questions
Keys to a Celtics win | Keys to a Mavs win | Betting

Road to the NBA Finals

Boston Celtics

The Celtics won 64 games during the regular season, the most in the conference since the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in 2012-13, and that domination has carried over into the playoffs. Boston led the league in net rating by 4.4 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and through the first three rounds of the playoffs.

After battling through longer series in previous playoff runs, Boston went 12-2 through the East bracket this postseason, with just four of those games featuring clutch minutes (defined as the score being within five points in the final five minutes or overtime). And Boston dominated those too, including coming from behind to win three of the four games in its conference finals sweep of the Indiana Pacers.

The Celtics will have nine days between games before the Finals opener, a "luxury," as veteran Al Horford described earlier in the postseason. It's also a major plus for injured big man Kristaps Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 center who has been sidelined since the first round with a calf strain and who gives the Celtics an added dimension of rim protection and 3-point shooting.

-- Tim Bontemps

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavs eliminated three of the West's top four seeds -- the No. 4 LA Clippers, No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder and No. 3 Minnesota Timberwolves -- thanks to their superstar duo, depth and defense. Doncic and Irving consistently excelled in clutch situations. Washington, Derrick Jones Jr. and rookie Dereck Lively II, all acquired over the past year as general manager Nico Harrison constructed a long and springy supporting cast around the Mavs' star tandem, have made major contributions on both ends of the floor.

The most surprising part of the Mavs' march through the Western Conference playoffs: Dallas did it with only glimpses of the peak version of Doncic, who has been hampered by a sprained right knee since midway through the first round. Doncic has certainly been a dominant force -- posting six triple-doubles, drilling a winning step-back 3-pointer in Game 2 over Rudy Gobert that is the signature moment of the Mavs' run and setting the tone for the Game 5 closeout rout by scoring 20 points in the first quarter -- despite having endured a shooting slump for most of the first two rounds.

But Doncic's production (28.8 points and 8.8 assists per game) and efficiency (51.3% effective field goal percentage) have dipped significantly from his historic regular-season numbers (league-high 33.9 points, 9.8 assists, 57.3% effective field goal percentage).

-- Tim MacMahon

Star watch

Kyrie extends Mavs' lead with step-back trey

Kyrie Irving buries a step-back triple from beyond the arc as the Mavericks continue to pour on the points.

Jaylen Brown, Celtics

After Brown was presented the Larry Bird Trophy as the Eastern Conference finals MVP, the Celtics forward sounded genuinely surprised. "I wasn't expecting it at all," Brown said after Boston's Game 4 win over the Pacers. "I never win s---."

This is the eight-year veteran's seventh postseason, and it's been his best yet, as he has averaged 25 points on 54.1% shooting, 6.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game through the first three rounds -- punctuating it with a tying 3 in Game 1 against Indiana and a 40-point night in Game 2.

In his first NBA Finals appearance two years ago, Brown averaged 23.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the Celtics' loss to the Golden State Warriors in six games, when he might have been Boston's best player in the series. His best is now better.

Celtics hold off Pacers late to sweep series, advance to NBA Finals

The Boston Celtics hold off the Indiana Pacers in a chaotic final few minutes to sweep the series and advance to the NBA Finals.

Jayson Tatum, Celtics

As great of a postseason as Brown is having, Tatum's production has been just as impressive. He has put up 26.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.1 steals through Boston's postseason run. Where Tatum hasn't matched Brown is in his efficiency: 44.2% from the field and 29% on 3-pointers.

Tatum's 2022 Finals performance was a lowlight in an otherwise brilliant career that already has included five All-Star appearances in seven seasons. He shot just 36.7% against the Warriors during that series and was brutal in the closeout Game 6, scoring 13 points on 6-for-18 shooting with five turnovers. He'll get a chance at redemption against Dallas.

Luka Doncic, Mavericks

Already cemented as a certified playoff superstar -- with his 31-point scoring average the second best in league history behind only Michael Jordan -- Doncic elevated to an even higher level this postseason. Doncic's 9.1 assists per game leads all players in these playoffs, and he has logged six triple-doubles through the first three rounds.

His go-ahead 3 in the final seconds of Game 2 was the initial dagger against the Timberwolves, and he twisted the knife to close them out. Doncic outscored Minnesota on his own in the first quarter of Game 5, 20 to 19, en route to a 36-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist night as he won the Magic Johnson Trophy as the Western Conference finals MVP.

Kyrie Irving, Mavericks

Irving once said he hoped his No. 11 would hang in the rafters at TD Garden. Now he's going to try to stop his former team from hanging championship banner No. 18 in that very building. Irving is back in the NBA Finals for the first time in seven years, and he's been every bit the perfect fit alongside Doncic this postseason as he was next to LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Irving's 48.2% shooting mark from the field coming into Game 5 against Minnesota was the best of his playoff career, and his 42.3% from 3 wasn't far off his best postseason showing with the Cavs. Remarkably, if the Finals go at least five games, Irving will have played as many career postseason games with the Mavericks (22) as he did in his time with the Celtics and Brooklyn Nets combined -- evidence of how well things have clicked for him with the Mavs.

-- Dave McMenamin

The Finals' biggest questions

Can this Celtics group finally break through?

The Celtics have repeatedly knocked on the championship door for most of the past decade. They've reached the East finals six times in eight years. They have played in and won more playoff games over that span than any other NBA team. Tatum leads the NBA over the past seven postseasons in games played, minutes played and points scored, and he will likely enter the top five in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks by the time the Finals end.

Despite those numbers, however, this group has yet to win a title. As Boston enters this series as the betting favorite and with home-court advantage, one question hangs over the Celtics' latest pursuit of banner No. 18: Is this finally the year?

Boston has rarely been pushed during a playoff run through a trio of opponents that were overmatched, injured or both. Neither of those should be issues for the Mavericks, who have arguably the league's most explosive backcourt in Doncic and Irving and unquestionably have the best player in the series in Doncic.

Boston, though, is the deeper and more versatile team. The Celtics have arguably the best defender in the NBA to guard Doncic in Jrue Holiday -- someone Doncic has personally praised in the past -- and one of the best options to guard Irving in Derrick White. Whenever they switch, they can throw Tatum or Brown on either player, and both of them are capable of doing a credible job on either star Mavs guard. And presuming Porzingis is back for the start of the series, Boston will run out an eight-player rotation full of 3-point threats, which will give the Mavericks' improved defense its toughest challenge.

-- Bontemps

How can Dallas slow down the most efficient offense in NBA history?

The Celtics scorched the Mavs for 138 points in a blowout win March 1. But much has changed for the Dallas defense since then, perhaps most importantly the starting lineup.

A few games after that trip to Boston, Kidd made a permanent lineup change that included reinserting defensive stopper Derrick Jones Jr. into the starting five. The Mavs have morphed into an elite defense since, allowing the fewest points per 100 possessions in the league over the rest of the regular season and fueling the 16-2 finishing stretch that pushed Dallas' climb from the play-in race and to the West's fifth seed.

The Mavs feature a pair of springy rim-protectors in Gafford and Lively and have packed the paint around them throughout the playoffs, forcing opponents to finish in traffic. As a result, Dallas held foes to 56.5% shooting within 5 feet of the rim in the playoffs through five games of the West finals.

Boston presents a tough test for that strategy, as the Celtics made and attempted the most 3-pointers in the NBA, during the regular season and in the playoffs.

-- MacMahon

Keys to a Celtics title

Most important matchup

One of the things that should be most fun about this Finals: Watching perhaps the league's best offensive backcourt go up against arguably the NBA's best defensive backcourt. Doncic and Kyrie have Finals MVP potential with their on-ball wizardry, while both Holiday and White were named to the All-Defensive Team. It really doesn't get much better than this from a skill standpoint.

That said, if you're looking for this to be a series where you'll see two stars go at each other repeatedly, play after play, you might want to recalibrate your expectations. Doncic and Irving are too good to repeatedly face the same stopper without schematic changes, as we saw in the conference finals series against Minnesota. And beyond that, forward Jaylen Brown was the Celtic who spent the most time defending Doncic during the regular season.

Expect it to be a steady mix of wings on the Mavs' two primary ball handlers, whether it's through switches or crossmatches.

Series X factor

The health of Porzingis, who's been out since the end of the first round with a calf strain, will be paramount. He has had the past two rounds to heal and now is getting an additional week and a half as a result of the Celtics' conference finals sweep.

It's more than fair to wonder how the rust might impact Porzingis. But look into his history and you'll see he's been efficient in recent seasons when coming off an injury absence of one week or longer. Over the past three seasons, he has shot 50% or better from the field in each of his past six return showings after missing a week or more.

Still, Porzingis' mobility on defense figures to be just as important, particularly for a Boston club that doesn't have a rim-protector anywhere near as good. In the conference finals, Indiana shot 74% at the rim through the first three games.

Stat to watch

Pay close attention to how Boston defends the corners in this series. The Celtics clamped down on opponents, holding them to a league-worst 35.2% on corner 3s during the regular season. They've been even more successful during the playoffs, limiting teams to an NBA-low 23.5%.

On the flip side, Dallas -- powered by Doncic's incredible passing ability -- took more corner 3s than any other club during the season, with 924 attempts. The Mavs have made teams pay from the corner this postseason by hitting 40.4% of their tries from there. Doncic flung a league-leading 318 passes that led to corner 3 attempts during the regular season -- 71 more than the next closest player, according to data from Second Spectrum.

-- Chris Herring

Keys to a Mavericks title

Most important matchup

Luka Doncic vs. everybody. The simplest path for the Mavericks winning this series is Luka being far and away the best player. Since 1997, the Finals leader in my wins above replacement player metric has gone 20-7 (.741), and when they're at least .5 WARP better than the next-best player in the series, that improves to 13-1 (.929). The Celtics have the defenders to keep Doncic from being so productive, starting with Brown (his primary regular-season matchup) and including All-Defensive picks Holiday and White.

Series X factor

Maxi Kleber. Dallas boasts several contenders, including second-year reserve Jaden Hardy. Kleber could be particularly important to counter Porzingis' ability to pick-and-pop for 3s, however. The Mavericks were willing to concede those shots to Chet Holmgren in Round 2 after they were forced to move their centers on him defensively. Porzingis, who attempted 6.2 3s per 36 minutes at a 37.5% clip, could force Dallas to pull its 7-footers out of the paint, limiting their defensive value. That could create an opportunity for Kleber, the Mavericks' most mobile big man, who returned from a shoulder injury in Game 4 vs. Minnesota.

Stat to watch

Doncic's 3-pointers. It's been a boom-or-bust postseason for Luka from long range. He hasn't shot between 37% and 45% in any game yet in the playoffs. When Doncic beat that mark, Dallas was 5-0 against Minnesota and Oklahoma City. (With Luka battling hamstring soreness, he shot no better than 36% in any of the Mavericks' six games against the LA Clippers in the opening round.) When Doncic has been less accurate than his regular-season mark of 38%, Dallas has gone 6-5 during the playoffs.

-- Kevin Pelton

Best bets for the Finals (odds via ESPN BET)

Series total games: Over 5.5 games (-160)

Since the trade deadline, when the Mavericks traded for Gafford and Washington, Dallas has tied for the second-best record in the NBA at 22-9. While the Celtics had the best record in that span at 25-6, the Mavericks strengthened their case as title contenders by soundly defeating the Thunder and Timberwolves in the postseason.

These NBA Finals match the clear-cut two best teams in the NBA right now, and the series should be competitive. According to ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI), there is a 61% chance it lasts at least six games.

Series spread: Mavericks +1.5 games (-125)

Though Doncic and Irving make up one of the most dominant offensive duos in the NBA, the key to the Mavericks' run has been their balance. Since the deadline, Dallas has been the league's fifth-best defense (111.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) and the eighth-best offense (117.7 points per 100). The Celtics, Thunder and Nuggets were the only other teams in the top eight in both metrics during that span. Meanwhile, no team has played in or won more clutch games during these playoffs.

I like getting the extra game and a half for one of the teams at near even money. According to BPI, there is a 56% chance the Mavericks either win the series or extend it to seven games.

Most total rebounds in the series: Tatum (-120)

For the past two playoff runs, Tatum has been the Celtics' best rebounder, averaging double-digit boards in all six of their series. Even if Porzingis returns and is able to play full starter minutes, neither he nor Horford are dominant rebounders at this point in their careers.

For the Mavericks, Doncic has averaged 10 or more rebounds only twice in eight career playoff series -- in the second round this season against the Thunder and in the first round of the 2022 playoffs -- while Gafford and Lively might divide the Mavericks' share of the rebounds even more.

At close to even money, Tatum leading the series in rebounds is solid value.

-- André Snellings