Celtics' game plan for Luka yields historic results in Game 1 win

Celtics’ game plan for Luka yields historic results in Game 1 win originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON — Conventional wisdom would suggest the key to beating the Dallas Mavericks is to stop superstar Luka Doncic from scoring.

In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics employed a different strategy: stop everyone else.

Doncic tallied a game-high 30 points on 12 of 26 shooting Thursday night at TD Garden, adding 10 rebounds while hitting four 3-pointers on 12 attempts. The number the Celtics cared about, however, was one.

Doncic’s one assist Thursday was his lowest in a game (with a minimum of 15 minutes played) since May 7, 2021. It was only the fourth time in his career he’s been limited to one assist under those minute parameters, and the first time ever he’s been held to one assist in the playoffs.

So, how did the Celtics render the All-NBA guard — who ranked second in the NBA in assists per game during the regular season (9.8) and entered the night with a playoff-leading 8.8 assists per game — a playmaking non-factor on the game’s biggest stage en route to a 107-89 win?

Rather than blitzing Doncic with double teams, Boston played almost exclusively 1-on-1 defense, relying on All-Defensive guards Derrick White and Jrue Holiday and All-Star wing Jaylen Brown to stay in front of Doncic, then switching on pick-and-rolls instead of helping off defenders and giving him passing lanes to open shooters.

The result no other Dallas player reaching 15 points; Kyrie Irving mustered just 12 points on 6-of-19 shooting, while P.J. Washington (14 points) and Jaden Hardy (13 points) were the only other Mavs in double figures.

“Just great individual defense,” Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla noted after the game. “Everybody has to take on the challenge of guarding those guys. They’re an amazing team and they put a ton of pressure on you with their ability to score. Everyone is going to take their matchup personal (and) have personal pride in individual defense.”

The Celtics are stocked with strong individual defenders, from Holiday and White to Jayson Tatum and Brown, who racked up three steals and three blocks Thursday night. That gives them the luxury of not doubling either Doncic or Irving, and in Game 1, that led to a historic lack of ball movement from Dallas: The Mavs tallied just nine assists total, becoming just the third team since 1966 to have 10 or fewer assists in a Finals game.

“Give the Celtics credit; they did a great job defending, making it tough on us,” Mavs head coach Jason Kidd said. “We had some good looks that didn’t go down. We’ve got to move the ball. The ball just stuck too much.”

Dallas will make adjustments in Sunday’s Game 2, and the Celtics should expect Doncic to be much more aggressive as a playmaker even if he isn’t seeing double teams. They also should expect better 3-point shooting from the Mavs, who hit just 25.9 percent of their deep balls (7 for 27) in Game 1, well below their postseason average of 37.2 percent.

But Mazzulla and the C’s deserve credit for executing a sound defensive game plan against one of the best offensive players in basketball.

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