Pain (and Pleasure) and Suffering — 2024 NBA Finals; Game 3

Ross James/ALOST

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

DALLAS — The proverbial sky was falling, as the American Airlines Center roof all but caved in on the Boston Celtics during a madcap fourth quarter that saw them surrender almost every single bit of a 21-point lead. While Boston’s vision securing a comfortable victory and taking an insurmountable 3-0 NBA Finals lead was going up in smoke akin to the fire that destroyed ancient Rome, head coach Joe Mazzulla, at least according to one of Boston’s heroes on Wednesday night, was played the role of Nero, with a clipboard in hand instead of a fiddle.

Just like Rome, the Boston Celtics’ empire was not built in a day, yet their vice-grip hold on the 2024 NBA Finals almost fell in one … but it didn’t. And because Mazzulla and his centurions were able to control the blazing conflagration just in time to move to the winner’s circle, Boston is one win away from being bestowed all the laurels, in the form of the Larry O’Brien Trophy and another championship banner raised to the rafters.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined with Derrick White to score all 21 points for the team in the fourth quarter as it held on for a 106-99 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday evening. Tatum and Brown combined for 61 points, with the former leading the way with 31 points. After a 91-70 Celtics lead with 11:07 remaining shockingly became a 93-92 Boston advantage with 3:37 left, Brown and White made the shots that kept Dallas’ miraculous comeback at bay. Brown’s jumper after two Kyrie Irving free throws extended the lead to three before White drilled a three to give Boston a 98-92 advantage. By this time, Mavericks star Luka Doncic had fouled out with just over four minutes remaining.

When a couple of baskets inside from Dereck Lively II pushed the Mavericks to within two at 100-98 with just over a minute remaining, Brown answered with a long jumper from the just inside the arc on the next possession. The Celtics’ lead never fell below two possessions afterward, with White and Tatum making a pair of free throws in the final 22 seconds.

The rollercoaster ride of emotions and level of play is something almost every Celtics player and fan could have done without, but when White was asked after the game if he thought his head coach enjoyed the way the final stages played out, he didn’t hesitate to get into Mazzulla’s supposedly warped mind.

“He’s a sicko, so probably,” White said.

The main reason Mazzulla didn’t flinch in the face of his team’s near-epic collapse is mainly because of the ethos that he has preached to his team throughout the season, based on his belief that the closer a team gets to winning, they also move even closer to defeat.

That fourth quarter was the perfect validation for his philosophy, with the Mavericks going on a stunning 22-2 run, with Dallas needing just five minutes of playing time to go from down 21 to just three (and with possession of the ball, having a chance to tie with a long ball). Earlier in the game, Dallas also rode a crest of momentum to energize a home crowd seeing its first NBA Finals game in person since 2011, with both Doncic and Kyrie Irving, who led all scorers in the game with 35 points, starting out hot to give Dallas a 22-9 lead midway through the first quarter. Boston climbed back into the game quickly, and took the lead in the second quarter before heading into the break down 51-50.

Doncic scored only two of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, when the Mavericks made a furious comeback, and his disqualification with 4:12 remaining hurt Dallas’ chances of pulling out the win. (Ross James/ALOST)

If Mazzulla was more like Nero late in the game, the second-year Celtics head coach was Nostradamus early on.

“We were down 13. I expected that. We were down one at the half, and I expected that,” Mazzulla said. “You have to expect the expected. You’ve got to understand we are just as vulnerable if not more vulnerable than they are. And we have to play that way. So as long as we have that mindset, and when you understand that you’re vulnerable and your back’s against the wall, you’ve got to fight. And so that’s the mindset that we have to have.”

Maybe Mazzulla was the only one in the building who also expected the final 24 minutes to turn into one of the most unpredictable halves in NBA Finals history. The Celtics outscored Dallas 35-19 in the third quarter, taking an 85-70 lead into the fourth; Brown and White made back-to-back threes to begin the fourth, giving Boston its largest lead and sending throngs of supporters to the exits with almost a whole quarter to play still; the Mavericks responding with a 12-0 immediately after facing their largest deficit, giving a glimmer of hope that a comeback for the ages could be in the cards; Doncic, who scored 27 points, picking up for four fouls in the fourth quarter, including a blocking foul while trying to draw a charge on a collision with Brown at the three-point line with 4:12 remaining; Irving scoring nine points in the fourth, coming close to singlehandedly pushing the Mavericks to the finish line without his backcourt running mate in the final stages.

“I mean, I don’t think I really had a choice,” Irving said when asked if he felt like he had to take over the game after Doncic’s disqualification. “It was unfortunate that the foul was called. Luka picked up his fifth and sixth in a matter of a three-minute or two-minute span. It’s tough. We still had to figure out a way to win the basketball game. We put our best foot forward, especially being down 21. We easily could have packed up and folded. But we didn’t give up. We kept playing. The guys that were out there, we kept competing. Felt like we gave ourselves a chance to win down the stretch.

But it was a couple of Irving’s former teammates in Boston, Brown and Tatum, who used their experience of being teammates for seven years — and having seen it all during that stretch, including an NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors a couple of seasons ago — to find comfort in the struggle to pull the game out.

“I know we were up 20, and then they stormed back. And that’s what the beauty of basketball is. You can never let up. It’s always time, and they were able to cut the lead. But in those moments, those are the moments which you have to just live for. We’ve been in those moments a lot … I thought we got some good looks down the line in the fourth. Some went in. Some didn’t. But we were able to make plays and find a way to win. And we’ve been in those positions, and we’ve lost. It was great to overcome that with my brother, Jayson, and with our team. That was special.”

As special as the win was, it only served to hammer home Mazzulla’s mindset of appearing as close to defeat than victory, and even with the Celtics as close as they’ve been in the past 14 years to claiming the ultimate triumph, they only have to go back one season ago to they were as close to victory than defeat when coming back from an 0-3 deficit against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, only to lose Game 7 at home. Tonight’s game was just more fuel for the Rome-like fire that Mazzulla presided over on Wednesday.

“Joe is consistent the whole time,” White said. “I mean, he’s probably so happy that [the game] happened like that so he can just continue to tell us that.

*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Wednesday evening’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals, with photos taken by ALOST staff photographer Ross James. 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 40 pictures in total.

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Tags : Boston CelticsDallas MavericksNational Basketball AssociationNBA Finals

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