Erica Denhoff/ALOST

akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief

BOSTON — Not dissimilar to Russell Crowe’s Maximus walking into an arena to fight to the death in the 2000 hit movie Gladiator, Kristaps Porzingis walked slowly towards the scorer’s table, without a competitive basketball game under his belt in more than a month, to wage battle in the NBA’s version of a life-or-death struggle: the NBA Finals. And just like Maximus, Porzingis’ arms and legs swung effortlessly on the TD Garden floor as if he were an expert swordsman, leaving a wreckage of opponents strewn across the parquet floor — and a rabid gathering of fans hollering in approval.

Given Porzingis’ sense of humor and light-hearted nature, one would not put it past him to have shouted “Are you not entertained?” to the masses after jogging back to the bench to complete his shift. So much for wondering what Boston’s championship prospects would look like upon his return.

The beginning of the 2024 NBA Finals also became the platform for Porzingis’ triumphant return from a calf injury, as he dropped 20 points in just 21 minutes while being the catalyst for the Celtics’ dominant first half in Boston’s 107-89 victory over the Dallas Mavericks to move the franchise three wins away from securing the long-awaited championship banner No. 18. Acquired in the offseason during a time where the team’s makeup underwent somewhat of a facelift, Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 Latvian with undeniable talent, fit into the Celtics’ core seamlessly but was relatively unproven in the pressure-cooker of the NBA postseason. Four games into this year’s playoffs, Porzingis suffered a calf strain, further piling on doubts as to how he would respond if and when the Celtics were playing game with much at stake.

Seven electrifying minutes into his NBA Finals debut, doubts turned into dominance … and mid-range jumpers … and drives to the basket for monstrous slam dunks … to bounding leaps to block two different dunk attempts, including that of former NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion Derrick Jones Jr. late in the first half.

Beware the Ides of Porzingis as the NBA Finals progresses into the middle of June, and like many of the gladiators of yore, the build-up to the battle allowed him to overcome any uncertainties about how he would perform in the lion’s den of an arena that is TD Garden.

“I think obviously what helped me is just even from the walk out before the game and then getting on the court, getting that kind of support was unreal. The adrenaline was pumping through my veins and that definitely helped,” Porzingis said. “Obviously it wasn’t ideal that I was out for such a long time, but I did everything I could to prepare mentally for this moment coming back and it paid off and we got the job done tonight and had a good game and happy about the result.”

What he also had to prepare for was not starting, which was just the second time in his 474 career games (regular season and postseason) that he did not start. His only other appearance as a sub came in January 2017, or, in other words, when Jaylen Brown was a rookie and Jayson Tatum was still at Duke.

But his arrival in Boston came with the perspective that, being burdened with legitimate title aspirations for the first time in his career, any sacrifice that would push the storied franchise closer to championship glory was well worth the endeavor.

“From day one I came here and I said like I’ll do whatever it takes to help this team win, right?,” said Porzingis, playing in his first-ever NBA Finals game. “I think it was — this situation, you know, it made sense. I didn’t care. I didn’t care. I knew I could prepare to come off the bench, which is something different for me, and that’s what I did and stepped into that role and embraced it and had a good game.”

*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Thursday evening’s Game 1, with photos taken by ALOST staff photographer Erica Denhoff. After clicking on a photo to enlarge the picture, press the left and right arrow buttons on either side of the caption to scroll through the rest of the pictures that appear on the first page. Also, click on the numbers and/or arrow appearing immediately below the picture grid to load the next set of photos. There are 62 pictures in total.

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Tags : Boston CelticsDallas MavericksNational Basketball AssociationNBANBA Finals

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