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Boston, Dallas, and the Swinging Pendulum of the NBA Finals

As the Celtics and Mavericks play to determine the NBA’s champion, the perceptions and reputations of players and teams hang in the balance

The great thing about a championship round in sports is that it is where the stories of a franchise, players, and coaches are written. The greatest tales and legends that we talk about amongst family and friends are predicated by what happens when everything is on the line. In the books that are written about the games that we love they are the climax.

The NBA Finals are underway and there is no shortage of balance altering storylines that could come to define the players and teams involved in this series. The beauty of this series is that both the Celtics and the Mavericks have the incentive to win now. There is no “just happy we made it this far” or conversely, “this is the end of the road” narrative at play. These are two teams that are at the peak of their powers trying to define who they are in the annals of this league. Let’s explore who has the most on the line in this series.

Luka Doncic

In this playoff run, the Mavericks best player has scored less than 20 points only twice. He has been magnificent, leading the fifth-seeded Mavericks to their first NBA Finals appearance since 2011 when Dirk Nowitzki won Finals MVP. On the way to this point, Doncic has had to navigate a Clippers team with star power (albeit somewhat hobbled), an upstart Oklahoma City team with an MVP candidate, and a Minnesota team that employs a player that may be the face of the league someday. But it seems that it is Luka’s time to elevate, meaning that he may have the most on the line.

When Doncic entered the league in 2018, he was perhaps the most decorated prospect from Europe that we had ever seen. At 19 years old he was the MVP of the Euroleague and a national hero for Slovenia. The expectations were that he was going to be a prodigious scorer albeit without elite athleticism. Whatever the projections were for his talent, it is safe to say that he has exceeded them. He was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2019 and has been an All-Star and in the top eight in MVP voting every year since then.

The nagging issue for Luka has been the same label that has plagued James Harden throughout his career. While the numbers are impressive and the shot making is incredible, can you win a championship with a high-usage heliocentric initiator? Harden came close in 2018 by taking his Rockets team to game 7 against the Warriors only to be undone by a historically bad shooting night.  Luka has a chance to change all of that in this series. He has a chance to show that he is the best player in the world, that it was him who should have won the MVP this year and not Nikola Jokic.

If he comes up short, especially if he doesn’t play well in the process, then the conversation around him starts to shift. The comparisons to Harden will start to creep up again, that Luka is a great stats player but not necessarily a winning player. More than most in this series, Luka’s entire perception as a basketball player is on the line in this series. Will he just be another great scorer, or will he ascend to the level that we all know that he can reach? It certainly feels like this year is the year of Luka’s elevation to the next level of superstardom.

Jayson Tatum & Jaylen Brown

Oftentimes, when two players play together for so long you talk about them as a package deal. For Boston’s dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown this is the case. They have been playing together since 2018 when Brown was a second-year player and Tatum was a rookie. Since then, the Celtics have been to the playoffs every year, been to four conference finals, and now two Finals. In that time, they have amassed a record of 360-194, winning 65% of their games. All that is missing from the equation is a championship. The irony for these two is that they are both still young and, in their primes (Tatum is 26, while Brown is 27). But because we have seen them so much in the playoffs, we may be fooled into thinking that they are underachieving veterans at the end of their run.

There is a certain pressure that comes with being a Celtic that few fan bases truly understand. This is a franchise that has seventeen championship banners in the rafters. It is a franchise that was integral to the early days of the NBA and helped to save the league along with the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s. To put it plainly, the Celtics matter a lot in league circles and winning there is no small feat. This is a franchise that has had iconic players like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bill Russell, and Kevin Garnett wear their jersey. As a result, the expectations are always high.

This is especially the case this year, as both players approach their late 20s and cannot use the “they’re just young” card for much longer. The Celtics have also upgraded their roster with Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, two players that scream “win now”. The team has stayed relatively healthy throughout a playoff that has been defined by injury, with only Porzingis missing major time this postseason. The Celtics enter this matchup with their two stars playing well and fully healthy. Everything is set up for them to etch their chapter in Boston lore much like Paul Pierce did in 2008.

The conversation about Tatum and Brown hinges heavily on the outcome of this series. If they win, both players will enter Boston sports history alongside Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. If they lose, the conversation will shift to them being unable to win when it matters the most, and we could see some shakeups in coaching and roster construction sooner rather than later. Whether it is fair or not, this is the price of excellence, and they will be forced to pay it if they falter.

Kyrie Irving

Once upon a time, Kyrie Irving was looked at as the future of the Boston Celtics. Irving had requested a trade from Cleveland to be the focal point of a franchise and to finally step out of the shadow of LeBron James. Irving got his wish and the two years he spent in Boston while productive statistically, ended in false promises by Irving to stay in Boston. What has happened since then has been a whirlwind. Irving teamed up with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, lured James Harden there for good measure, missed games due to his vaccination status, and finally forced his way off that team and was acquired by Dallas.

In Dallas, Irving is playing free-flowing and inspired basketball. He looks happy on the court and off it for the first time in years. It is the ultimate irony that he left Cleveland to be the star of the show, then went to Brooklyn to form a triumvirate with Durant and Harden, only to end up back in a co-star role alongside Luka Doncic. Some may look at that as Irving folding under the pressure while others may consider it personal growth. I tend to think that it is more indicative of him realizing what will help him win in this league and having the maturity to accept it.

The discussions about Irving in a historical sense as an all-time great sidekick have already begun. Since he won a title with LeBron James in Cleveland as the proverbial “Robin”, winning one with Doncic would place him in rare company in the hierarchy of second fiddle superstars. To me, that list begins and ends with Scottie Pippen and Klay Thompson, but there is an argument to be made in Irving’s favor if the Mavericks can win this series. That moment would culminate in the perceived rehabilitation of Irving, a return to form and dominance for a player that is one of the most gifted small guards we have ever seen.

If the Mavericks fail to win this series, then we may return to the discussions about Kyrie no longer being a winning player, that he as a secondary scorer alongside Luka is perhaps a mistake. Again, like the other star players in this series, the pendulum swings severely the other way and the criticisms would start all over again. It is a shame really, because the Kyrie renaissance is something that should be acknowledged regardless of the outcome but sadly that is not in the nature of many basketball discussions.

Why It Matters

You may be wondering why any of this matters, why trajectories and arcs of star players mean anything. I would counter that criticism with an understanding that basketball is as much a game as it is storytelling. More so than other sports, when we tell basketball stories there is a romanticism about them that is filled with art and drama. There is often adversity to overcome, whether that is in a series or through the course of a career. The trajectories in front of us today could help to shape the potential future of the league.

A missed shot here or there could mean the outlook for these teams could look vastly different in a few years. Let’s say the Celtics win this series, hypothetically. It could be the moment that propels the duo of Tatum and Brown into winning multiple titles over the next 6-7 years. The East is noticeably weaker than the West is currently and with good health, it is not beyond the scope of reality to think that the Celtics could be headed to multiple championships once they achieve the confidence that is gained after winning your first. If they lose then they are looked at as failures and perhaps more pressure and tension builds up leading to the disassembly of this core of players.

On the Dallas side, Luka and Kyrie have an opportunity to elevate their standings in the league today but also in a historical context. This succeeds with a Finals win but with a loss further seeds of doubt are created and the path that could be traveled by both players becomes precarious. These moments are what makes the NBA so intriguing and provocative. It is what makes the Finals must see television for so many people, and this year we have been gifted with storyline after storyline that truly capture the imaginations of the masses.

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