NBA Finals: Celtics vs. Mavericks comes down to dueling backcourts

Stan Van Gundy selected his words with thought.

He called Dallas Mavericks star guards Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic “the most talented backcourt in NBA history.”

The TNT analyst was careful. He didn’t say “best” backcourt in history. He said talented. It’s a distinction.

Doncic and Irving have prompted a discussion about their place among the all-time great backcourts.

That’s sports talk show debate, and at the very least, it’s a worthwhile conversation so that great backcourt combos are remembered in historical context. Knowing what Detroit’s Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars brought to the game is as important as understanding the impact and contribution Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have had.

More specificly, Doncic and Irving are the best shotmaking guards in the same backcourt the league has seen in a long time. Yes, Curry and Thompson have an argument, but in terms of creativity and proficiency, Doncic and Irving are a unique pair with their outside shooting and nifty work near the rim.

Do they have enough shotmaking – and defensive grit – to beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals? Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is Thursday in Boston.

Celtics will counter with Tatum and Brown

And the Celtics also have two talented shotmaking perimeter players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Doncic and Irving, and Tatum and Brown are the stars in the series, and while others will help determine the outcome, those four will have the biggest impact.

Irving has a title with the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers, but Tatum and Brown or Doncic will win their first NBA title – the kind of achievement that begins to cement legacies.

This is Doncic’s first Finals appearance, and Tatum and Brown lost to Golden State in the 2022 Finals. Irving will play in his fourth Finals, and he is responsible for one of the biggest shots in Game 7 Finals history, making the go-ahead and winning 3-pointer against Golden State with 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter.

The Doncic-Irving combination has worked in Dallas. It took time. The Mavs had searched for the right player around Doncic and tried with Kristaps Porzingis, who is now with Boston. Dallas acquired Irving from Brooklyn at the 2023 trade deadline, but the Mavs missed the play-in game and the playoffs (intentionally so they could retain their lottery pick in the draft).

Doncic, who finished third in this season’s MVP voting, averaged a career-high in in points (33.9) and assists (9.8) and posted 9.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 48.7% from the field and 38.2% on 3s, another career-high.

Irving had an unappreciated season and just missed a spot in the respected 50-40-90 club. He shot 49.7% from the field, 41.1% on 3s and 90.5% on free throws and averaged 25.6 points, 5.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals.

They have continued that production in the playoffs. Doncic and Irving have scored 51.6 points per game in 17 playoff games. Doncic has eight playoff games with at least 30 points, and Irving has six.

Each scored 36 points in the decisive Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, marking the fourth time in this season’s playoffs that they have each scored at least 30 in the same game – an NBA record for a backcourt duo in the same playoffs.

“It’s a beautiful combination,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Those two play off of each other, and you can see that they care about one another. They’re in competition right now with who’s playing the best defense. And that’s kind of cool to see because we used to look at Kai and Luka a lot of times they’re not known for our defensive guys, but they’re competing and it’s fun to see internally and it’s a healthy thing.”

Can they keep that offense going against the Celtics? The Mavs just beat Minnesota, which owned the league’s best regular-season defense. Now, they get the Celtics, who were No. 2 defensively and have better perimeter defenders than Minnesota when you include All-Defensive selections Jrue Holiday and Derrick White alongside Tatum and Brown

Boston will make it difficult on Doncic and Irving with double-teams on Doncic and different defenders on both players. The Celtics will try to wear them down. Will Doncic and Irving have enough to give defensively against the Celtics who have four wings capable of scoring 20 points? That’s the next challenge, and so far, the Mavs have aced whatever comes their way.

Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on social media @JeffZillgitt

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