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After two games, Mavericks have no answers for Celtics: ‘We’ve just got to be better’

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BOSTON — All season, the Dallas Mavericks have had answers.

They’ve found them in many places, some expected and some once bewildering to even themselves. The team bought into preseason lessons and trusted its coaching staff’s intentions. It leaned on Luka Dončić, one of the best players in the league. It acquired players it needed at the trade deadline while relying upon others it never planned to have this impact. It made in-game tweaks that fueled comebacks and mid-series adjustments to twice rally from one-game deficits during this run to the NBA Finals.

But the answers they’ve found all season are tougher to find against this opponent. There’s no astrology or complicated science to explain what has Dallas in the precarious position of being down 2-0 in the NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics after Sunday’s 105-98 loss. This opponent has Dallas’ search for answers coming up emptier than ever before.

“They’re just better,” P.J. Washington said. “At the end of the day, they are better than all the teams we’ve played. It’s the finals, and we’ve just got to be better.”

The Mavericks failed Sunday despite Boston handing them a recipe perfect to succeed. The Celtics, who led the league in 3-point makes and attempts this season, shot 10 of 39 from long range — they were even worse for much of the night before a late flurry.

The Celtics survived on paint points without their offense’s hallmark. After the Celtics shot a perfect 15 of 15 at the rim in Game 1, they followed it up with a 20 of 27 performance in Game 2. Dallas was the league’s best defense during the last 20 games of the regular season due to a suffocating rim defense that stifled opponents point-blank as often as it deterred them from getting there.

On Sunday, Dallas did neither.

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The Mavericks built their defense around a simple fact: Every opponent has some player(s) they don’t need to respect from 3. The one team in the league that doesn’t offer that charity is Boston. Dallas can’t leave any Celtic rotation player open — and still conceded 39 attempts despite that emphasis — but that shift allowed Boston to attack the rim.

Jayson Tatum drove constantly and finished with 12 assists on his attacks despite a ho-hum 6-of-22 shooting night.

Dallas faces a complicated dilemma in this series: Do the Mavs adjust to what the Celtics do or stick with the principles that brought them here? The team has tried doing both. It has asked so much of its defenders to remain in lockstep with one another, but that was far easier against the teams it faced in the past three months than this one.

Dončić’s mobility — hampered in Game 2 with yet another injury; he isn’t even sure how it happened — and Irving’s spaciness have sometimes turned them into defensive liabilities throughout their careers. Both have been better than average this postseason, but that’s come with a defensive scheme that ensures help is there behind them. That comforting feeling, one that imbues the two stars with the solace that getting beat off the dribble is OK and even encouraged, has propelled them to a defensive level almost unseen in their careers.

The LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves must have been infuriated that even the supposed weaknesses of the Mavericks defense weren’t offering soft spots. In truth, those teams couldn’t exploit the issues that have, at times, plagued these two guards. Boston can. That’s why it finished with the best regular-season record in the league. Much like Dallas frequently made its opponents look inferior to their regular-season capabilities, Boston has done the same in reverse.

It showed in head coach Jason Kidd’s frantic search for a player spark in the third quarter. Dončić, who finished with a 32-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist triple-double, had finally forced Boston to blink, hitting enough ridiculous midrange shots against one-on-one defending that Boston began shading help off above-the-break shooters. The Celtics were not sending hard double-teams — they rarely did against pick-and-rolls in the regular season — but they were noticeably shifting attention toward Dallas’ star that left some of his teammates open. Dončić, who had one assist in Game 1, picked up his second midway through the second quarter but finished with 11.

It could have been much more. As Boston’s defense preemptively tilted toward Dončić in the second half for the first time this series, his teammates began to find space. Yet as Dončić found them, they consistently failed to punish Boston for its dismissiveness of them.

Kidd tried Josh Green, the first guard off the bench most of this postseason. Green missed all three of his 3s. Kidd gave two minutes in the third quarter to Jaden Hardy, a second-year guard who shined in the last round against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It wasn’t the right option, either. Kidd finally went back to Dante Exum, a crucial regular-season cog who has struggled in the playoffs and was not even part of the planned rotation in Game 1. The situation was so dire that Exum making one open above-the-break 3-pointer was enough to earn him seven straight minutes in the third and fourth quarters.

“It was good to see Exum knock down an open 3,” said Kidd, unprompted, in his postgame news conference.

These are small tweaks the Mavericks can make to juice their stagnant offense. Irving’s 7-of-18 shooting night, yet another dud after a poor Game 1 outing, didn’t help matters. Only Dončić overcame Boston’s pressure, and when his teammates were given the chance in the second half, they largely demurred from the opportunities he literally and figuratively created.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to make some more shots,” said Dončić, before quickly taking unnecessary blame for the loss. “I think my turnovers and my missed free throws cost us the game. So I’ve got to do way better in those two categories.”

There are ways Dallas can be better. Dereck Lively II, the rookie center who has looked overwhelmed through the first two games, could drastically improve Dallas’ defense if he could tap back into his ability to switch and recover. Dallas has always found answers in the past. It needs to again.

But the present is the Boston Celtics, the best team it has ever faced, and one that is historically great in a way that has nullified the qualities that have made Dallas so formidable this postseason.

Irving said he and his team still believe they can come back in this series.

“It is going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Irving said.

(Top photo: Peter Casey / USA Today)

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