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Boston Celtics vs Dallas Mavericks Game 3 preview: Three things to watch, injury news, odds

“They’re just better. At the end of the day, they are better than all the teams we’ve played. It’s the Finals, and we’ve just got to be better.”

Dallas’ P.J. Washington summed up the first two games of the 2024 NBA Finals perfectly — the Celtics have just been better. Washington’s Mavericks are not out of this series — just three years ago Phoenix won the first two games against Milwaukee but the Bucks have the banner — however, some fundamental things have to change starting in Game 3 or this series will be over earlier than expected.

What are those things? Let’s get into it and break down Game 3 of the NBA Finals, which return to Dallas Wednesday night.

Betting odds for NBA Finals Game 3

Boston Celtics (+114) vs. Dallas Mavericks (-135)
Spread: Mavericks -2.5 | O/U: 213

NBC Sports’ Betting Analysts Jay Croucher, Drew Dinsick, and Vaughn Dalzell have laid out their favorite picks for Game 3, including a lot of Jayson Tatum love.

Yes, Dallas will be better in Game 3. However, Game 3s thus far in the playoffs have been a showcase event for Jayson Tatum and it is difficult to believe this series plays out without a stat-filling performance from the Celtics’ biggest star.

Jayson Tatum OVER 5.5 Assists (-142)
Has cleared this number in three of the last four games, including 12 in Game 2 of the Finals
Jayson Tatum OVER 9.5 Rebounds (-110)
Has cleared this mark in 10 of Boston’s 14 playoff games, he pulled down 11 boards in Game 1 vs. Dallas.

Injury news, updates

Kristaps Porzingis will be a game-time decision due to a “torn medial retinaculum allowing dislocation of the posterior tibialis tendon.” What that means in English is the structure that holds the tendons running from the ankle to the foot in place is damaged, allowing things to shift around, causing instability and pain.

He is officially listed as questionable. Porzingis wants to play, but the Boston doctors have the final say. Considering the injury and the timing, it seems likely that Porzingis will sit out Game 3, but we won’t know for sure until less than an hour before tip-off.

• Luka Doncic got a painkiller injection before Game 2 to help him play through the bruised chest he suffered in Game 1, and he’s expected to get another shot before Game 3 and then play.

Three things to watch for in Game 3

1) The Kristaps Porzingis effect

The minute Kristaps Porzingis stepped on the court in Game 1, his value in these Finals became self-evident — he was knocking down 3s, posting up smaller players, and providing another level of shot blocking that clearly bothered Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Mavericks. Through two games in the Finals he is +25. The Celtics as a team are +25.

As noted in the injury report above, Porzingis will be a game-time decision due to a rare foot and ankle injury. The team doctor will make the call.

“From my side, as I said, nothing is going to stop me unless I’m told I’m not allowed to play,” Pozingis said.

If he does play, even if he’s somewhat limited, that’s still a huge boost for the Celtics because of the floor spacing and rim protection he provides.

If he does not play — which seems the more likely option — it opens the door for a more aggressive Dallas team to attack the paint on offense and help more on defense.

Without Porzingis on the court this series has been even — Dallas will take that.

2) Kyrie Irving has to be better

Talk about Kyrie Irving in the 2016 NBA Finals and we talk about the shot in Game 7 that sealed Cleveland’s comeback win. Or we talk about how in games 3-5 in that series he averaged 35 points a game and shot 50% from 3 in that stretch.

What gets lost to time is he struggled the first two games of that series — he scored 36 points across the two games and needed 36 shots to get there.

Dallas needs Irving to turn things around. Through two games in these Finals, Irving is averaging 14 points a night on 35.1% shooting, including 0-of-8 from 3. Irving has acknowledged his struggles and knows what he has to do.

“I can be a lot more fundamentally sound, technical on my shots, not get into the paint often where it’s three or four guys around me, I’m not making a pass,” Irving said. “They’re sending specific strategies against me to make it difficult.”

Boston is not making it easy on Irving, it is sending an elite defender at him in Jrue Holiday. That’s not going to change, but Irving has hit tough shots over good defenders his entire career.

Dallas needs more than just Irving to step up and play better, but it starts with the team’s second-best player setting the tone.

3) Does Dallas play like a desperate team?

Game 3 is must-win for Dallas.

Technically, if the Mavs lose, there will be a Game 4 on Friday night (and maybe even a game after that), but the series will be over in any real sense. No team has ever come back from 0-3 in the NBA Playoffs, and Boston is too good and too deep to become the first team to blow that kind of lead.

Dallas has to play desperate. That kind of play can wake a team up. Dallas needs it to help them in specific areas.

• Wake up the role players and get them hitting 3s. Mavericks not named Doncic are shooting 15.6% (5-of-32) from 3 in this series, and 29 of those 32 attempts have been classified as open or very open (meaning the nearest defender is at least four feet away, as tracked by Second Spectrum). Dallas has to be better.

• Play with more pace — Dallas is at its best when it runs, Boston has smothered that for much of the first two games.

• What happened to the Spain pick-and-rolls and the double-drag picks Dallas thrived with against Minnesota? Why did Dallas go away from what worked?

• Take advantage of matchups, especially if Porzingis is out. For example, the Celtics tried to hide Jayson Tatum on Mavericks center Daniel Gafford last game, and he took advantage, scoring 11 points in the second half. Boston has good defenders across the board, making it more imperative that the Mavericks exploit the mismatches they do get.

• Make your free throws. Dallas missed eight in Game 2 (16-of-24) in a game it lost by seven.

• Take care of the ball. The Mavericks turned the ball over 15 times in Game 2, which Boston converted into 21 points. Dallas can’t give away points like that.