2024 NBA Finals: 5 questions on a Celtics-Mavericks matchup that will be worth the wait

After a pair of blink-and-you-missed-’em conference finals, we’ve now arrived at the final approach to the top of the NBA mountain. The Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics will take on the Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks in the 2024 NBA Finals, which will tip off at TD Garden at 8:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, June 6.

If you’ve consulted a calendar recently, you might’ve noted that “Thursday, June 6” is a full week away. We here at Yahoo Sports are committed to helping you kill that time (we’re really considerate like that) and will be serving up all manner of writing, podcasts and videos to help you get ready for the grand finale of the 2023-24 NBA season.

For now, though, we offer a bit of an amuse-bouche — not a full-fledged series preview, but something to nibble on before dinner is served. Here’s a handful of things I’m thinking about as we get set for Celtics-Mavericks with the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy on the line:

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 01: Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics defends Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks during the third quarter at the TD Garden on March 01, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)
The Mavericks and Celtics will meet in the NBA Finals, starting on June 6. (Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)

Yes, Boston was the beneficiary of some good fortune in the Eastern Conference playoffs. A spate of injuries meant the Celtics opened the playoffs against a Miami Heat team without longtime nemesis Jimmy Butler; advanced to face a Cleveland Cavaliers squad without ace rim protector Jarrett Allen and, eventually, both All-Star point guard Donovan Mitchell and reserve guard Caris LeVert; and moved on to a conference finals against an Indiana Pacers side that contested the final 2.5 games without All-NBA facilitator Tyrese Haliburton.

But for all the discourse about where Boston’s romp through the East ranks among the friendliest paths to the Finals in NBA history, it’s worth noting that the most experienced, seasoned and flat-out best C’s team we’ve seen in this era has done what they’ve needed to do: namely, win three series in just two games over the minimum.

Their first loss came on a night when Miami set a franchise playoff record for 3-point makes; their second came in an uncharacteristic performance that saw them post their second-worst defensive rating of the entire season. Outside of that, they’ve been pretty friggin’ good, outscoring opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions in the postseason; they’ve even shined in crunch time, outscoring opponents by 18 points in 19 minutes when the margin was within five in the final five minutes.

It’s one thing to get the breaks; it’s another to take advantage of them. The Celtics have done that, and it’s gotten them back on the biggest stage in the sport … and up against an incredibly dangerous opponent.

Speaking of “pretty friggin’ good” …

This was what Nico Harrison, Jason Kidd and Co. had in mind when the Mavericks dealt a pair of rotation players, a first-round pick and two second-rounders to pair Kyrie Irving with Luka Dončić at the 2023 NBA trade deadline: an offense that could overwhelm even the best defense in the business with tight-quarters shot creation and tough-as-nails shotmaking.

Dallas’ dynamic duo outclassed Minnesota in the Western finals, alternating killer stretches — Kyrie’s 24-point first half and Luka’s 15-point fourth quarter in Game 1; Kyrie’s 13-point final frame and Luka’s stepback game-winner in Game 2; Luka’s 11-point third and Kyrie’s 14-point fourth in Game 3; Luka’s 20-point opening salvo and Kyrie’s 15-point second to blow Game 5 open — marked by the kinds of shots, passes, off-the-dribble moves and bursts of off-script brilliance that few players in the world can match.

The playmaking partnership proved too much for the Clippers, Thunder and Timberwolves to manage: The Mavs outscored their opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions with their two star guards on the floor in their run through the West. Those opponents, however, didn’t have Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — a full complement of top-flight wing options — available at the point of attack.

Will Luka and Kyrie be able to create as much separation to cook on their own, or collapse the defense, draw help and create open shots for teammates, against a fleet of high-level perimeter defenders? Or will Boston’s ability to not only start strong, physical defenders on them, but switch one or two more onto them in the course of a possession, disrupt the remarkable on-ball rhythm that Dončić — the best player in this series, fresh off absolutely ripping the Wolves’ heart out — and Irving have developed?

By the time Game 1 tips off, it will have been 39 days since Porziņģis last took the floor in an NBA game. If he’s able to continue the progress he’s reportedly made since suffering that left soleus strain, he’ll be returning to action in not only the biggest games of Boston’s season, but in the biggest games of his career — uncharted territory for a player who, in nine NBA seasons, has never suited up for a game past the end of the first round.

Hitting the ground running after a nearly six-week layoff is a tall order on its own. Doing it in this context — under the brightest lights the sport has to offer, with your team not only favored but expected to win the title, against the Dallas team that traded for you to be the missing piece in its championship puzzle and then sent you away when it no longer thought you could be that? That’s an awful lot to deal with.

If Porziņģis is ready to deal with it — if he’s something close to fully operational and ambulatory — then he may well finally be the missing piece in the puzzle that prevents Dallas from winning it all. Delicious, delicious ironing.

A reintegrated Porziņģis allows Boston to re-establish its optimal spacing on offense, pulling Dallas centers Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II out of the paint — where they’ve spent the better part of the last month and a half suffocating the half-court offenses of the Clippers, Thunder and Timberwolves — lest they give up a steady diet of pick-and-pop 3s. He offers an interior answer if Dallas starts switching screens: a walking mismatch who might not have been capable of steadily punishing smaller defenders on the block back when he wore a Mavericks uniform, but has looked very good doing it in Celtic green.

On the other end, Porziņģis provides high-end rim protection and auxiliary length behind the initial line of defense, making a Boston unit that finished the regular season third in defensive efficiency even stingier. The C’s allowed 2.8 fewer points-per-100 with the 7-foot-3 Latvian on the floor.

Dallas, of course, just got finished summarily dispatching a pair of top-five defenses backstopped by gigantic shot-blockers, and features devastating isolation scorers capable of making opposing goliaths look downright foolish after forcing a mismatch. You can bet that Luka will look to target his old running buddy on switches, forcing Porziņģis to prove that left calf is healthy. Boston will have to hope that 39 days of rehab work will have the big fella looking limber enough to keep up along the perimeter — and keep off of Dončić’s ever-expanding highlight reel.

Tatum has drawn criticism in some quarters for his underwhelming shooting efficiency in this postseason — 44.2% from the field, just 29% from 3-point range — and for a shot diet that can often skew too far toward contested pull-up jumpers and too far away from aggressive attacks of the basket. But the 26-year-old remains the linchpin of Boston’s two-way attack, has been crashing the boards and distributing the ball at career-best levels in these playoffs, and is working on his third postseason of averaging more than 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game; only Nikola Jokić (five such postseasons) has more. Seems pretty damn whelming to me!

He’s capable of taking over games with his shot creation, shot-making and consistently floor-raising, gap-filling play. In two meetings during the regular season — both Celtics wins — Tatum torched the Mavs to the tune of 39 points on 21 shots, 11 rebounds and five assists …

… and 32 points on 19 shots, eight rebounds and three assists:

Tatum’s got the strength to outmuscle Derrick Jones Jr.; the quickness to beat P.J. Washington off the bounce; the poise, vision and touch to make Dallas pay for giving him daylight to either drive or raise up; and the physicality to finish in amongst the Mavericks’ tall trees. This is it: the chance to take all those tools, all that experience, all the lessons learned from the myriad successes and stinging shortfalls, and turn them into the kind of two-week run that can land you the grandest prize in the sport …

… if the other guy doesn’t grab it first.

Over his last seven games, stretching back to the Oklahoma City series, Dončić is averaging just under 32 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists per game on .651 true shooting. He dismantled Minnesota’s league-best defense, sending Chris Finch and Co. cycling through the menu in search of any answer they could find to slow him down …

… and wound up staring down the barrel of grim inevitability: With this guy, shooting this well, with this much confidence, there is no right coverage.

Luka led the NBA in scoring this season. He’s made All-NBA First Team five years running; he’s got three top-five MVP finishes, including a third-place nod this season. He’s won everywhere he’s been, and now, he’s got the chance to add the crown jewel to one of the most glittering résumés you’re ever going to see by age 25. He’s taken out the West’s No. 1 seed and the NBA’s No. 1 defense. Take out the team that’s been the league’s best since October’s opening tip, and you take the throne, and the crown that comes with it.