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Mavericks vs. Celtics NBA Finals: Five takeaways from Boston’s run to 18th banner

Celtics win NBA Finals in dominant fashion
Dan Patrick reacts to the Boston Celtics blowing out the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 to win the NBA Finals, breaking down how Brad Stevens and Co. were able to construct such a strong roster this season.

BOSTON — Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum had paid their dues.

This Boston Celtics squad had been to the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals in five of the previous seven years, they had been knocking on the door of a championship but just couldn’t take that final step.

Until this season.

“It took being relentless,” Tatum said of the lessons learned in all those losses. “It took being on the other side of this and losing in the Finals and being at literally the lowest point in a basketball career that you could be, to next year, to the following year, thinking that was going to be the time, and come up short again.

“So, I mean, people have said it before. But coming up short and having failures makes this moment that much better. Because you know what it feels like to lose. You know what it feels like to be on the other side of this and be in the locker room and hearing the other team celebrating, hearing them celebrate on your home floor. That was devastating.”

This time around, it was Tatum and the Celtics who were celebrating. It doesn’t matter who they faced, there are no asterisks on a banner, they beat everyone in front of them and did it handily.

Here are the five takeaways from the Celtics run to an NBA title.

1) Winning takes a team, not just stars

Talent wins in the NBA and rings are not won without a top-10 player in the league to lead the roster — Boston has that in Jayson Tatum, who scored 31 with 11 assists in Game 5 to close out the series (he is only this sixth player ever to have 30+ and 10+ in a closeout game, joining West, Frazier, Worthy, Jordan and Curry).

However, the lesson of the last two NBA Finals is that in the modern NBA it takes a team to win it all — not just assembling a “big three” and filling in whatever you can around them. It takes a balanced roster and thoughtful team building around a star. It takes depth and positional versatility. Boston was the best team in the NBA this season, the way Denver was a season ago around Nikola Jokic — not a collection of stars but a roster built around a playing style.

It took Finals MVP Jaylen Brown. It took the best defensive backcourt in the league (who have some offensive skills, too) in Jrue Holiday and Derrick White. It took the veteran leadership of Al Horford. It took Kristaps Porzingis in the middle, Payton Pritchard hitting bombs off the bench, plus guys like Sam Hauser and Luke Kornet, and Xavier Tillman and so many more — not just good players, but good players who fit together with a plan.

It took all of them buying into the five-out system Joe Mazzulla wanted them to execute. It took putting together a team where Mazzulla wasn’t trying to hide his weak defender because there wasn’t one.

In the modern NBA, one with an onerous second-apron of the luxury tax serving as almost a de facto hard cap, winning is going to take team building like Brad Stevens did in Boston — get a couple of stars but then fill in smartly around them — not just throwing together a collection of stars and expecting them and a coach to figure it out. Teams have to be more intentional than that now.

2) It was all about the defense

Boston had a historically great offense with a definitive plan (for more on that, skip ahead to No. 3), but on the biggest stage it was their defense that won the title — in all four of their Finals wins, the Celtics held Luka Doncic and the Mavericks under 100 points.

“They were physical a lot. They have great defenders,” Doncic said.

“Everybody had the mindset of, like, we are going to do whatever it takes, each of us individually, to get the job done,” Porzingis said. “Like, we want to win a championship for this city.”

What made Boston so good defensively was they didn’t roll out a bad defender in their core rotation. Joe Mazzulla didn’t have to come up with a nightly game plan where he had to hide someone on defense, or find a way to rest a player on defense because the offense fell apart if he wasn’t able to be the primary shot creator on the other end.

That’s rare, but it ties back to No. 1 on this list — Boston was the best team in the NBA all season. Team president Brad Stevens (and Danny Ainge before him) built a roster without many holes. That shone through in the playoffs.

3) Get ready for even more 3s

The Boston Celtics averaged 42.5 3-point attempts a game this season, 47.1% of their shot attempts. They took three more shots a night from beyond the arc than the second-place team — the Dallas Mavericks.

Both of these teams were in the NBA Finals because they could win the math game on a nightly basis, taking and making more 3s than their opponents, knowing the other team would struggle to keep up with the pace.

Don’t think for a second other teams around the league didn’t notice.

It’s not as simple as “shoot more 3s” — Boston assembled a deep roster where everyone was a threat from deep (again, back to the theme of Boston being the best Team, the best roster in the league, not a collection of stars). Every team is looking for shooting, it’s hard to assemble this much of it.

Also, both Dallas and Boston got their threes by having shot creators who could drive the lane and force the defense to collapse, then kick-out to open shooters. Boston played five-out, centers Porzingis and Horford stood out at the arc and the team hunted 3s, but the plays started with a pick and a big man rolling to the rim or Tatum (or Brown, or Holiday) driving into the paint looking to score then finding the shooter in the corner when the defense collapsed on them).

Still, the math doesn’t change: 3>2 — 50% greater. And the two teams in the NBA Finals knew how to win the math game.

4) Don’t let Payton Pritchard shoot half court buzzer-beaters

At the end of the third quarter of Game 2 — when Dallas was making a push and had cut the lead to six — Payton Pritchard checked into the game because Jrue Holiday had picked up his third foul. Then he broke Dallas with this shot.

In a close-out Game 5, this was the moment everyone in the building knew Boston was going to win — another Pritchard half-court buzzer-beater.

“I think he won us moments,” Mazzulla said. “You know, as the playoffs go on, obviously some patterns change and things change, but those guys have to win moments of games for you, and Payton did that twice for us. That is just as important as any other plays that happened throughout the series and in the playoffs alone.”

Jaylen Brown was more succinct.

“That dude, he’s a f****** legend, man,” Brown said. “Shout out to Payton Pritchard.”

5) Doncic learns hard lessons

To a man, champaign-soaked Celtics talked postgame about the journey to this moment — they would not have been there without the hard lessons learned where a core group had been together for years figuring out how to win at this level.

That wasn’t lost on Luka Doncic.

“They’re a great team,” Doncic said. “They have been together for a long time, and they had to go through everything, so we just got to look at them, see how they play, maturity, and they have some great players. We can learn from that. We got to fight next season.”

Kyrie Irving came over at the trade deadline just more than a year ago. P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford joined the team in February at this trade deadline. Derrick Lively was a rookie. While we think of Doncic having been in the league a long time, he is just 25 and it was his first time on this stage.

Dallas has the pieces to be back here in the next few years (although any team getting out of the gauntlet that the West will be next season will be a challenge). Winning in the NBA is a learned skill. Doncic hugged Irving as time wound down on their season and said just that.

“Just stay together, man,” Doncic said. “I think just having Ky on my team -- I mean, on our team, he’s unbelievable. Just help him. We said, We’ll fight together next season, and we just going to believe.”