Dallas' new deep threat and Boston's new defensive groove: Keys to pivotal Game 4s

After a pair of pivotal Game 4s took place in the conference semifinals Sunday, two more are on deck Monday night.

On Saturday, the Boston Celtics took control of their series with the Cleveland Cavaliers behind a pair of big performances from stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, earning a 106-93 victory to bounce back from a Game 2 loss. The Dallas Mavericks got a second straight lift from P.J. Washington, who scored 27 points and hit five 3-pointers to power Dallas to a 2-1 lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

All four teams will once again square off Monday night, with the Celtics and Mavericks looking to move to the brink of advancing to the conference finals, and the Cavaliers and Thunder trying to even things up and turn both series into best-of-three affairs.

Here’s a look at how both series got here, and what will be the keys to watch for each team entering Game 4.


How the Celtics built a 2-1 lead

After their last pair of uneven performances at home in the playoffs, continuing a trend that’s carried over the past few postseasons, Boston put together an exemplary defensive performance in Game 3 to take back control of this series.

While Donovan Mitchell had another sensational game, going for 33 points and hitting seven 3-pointers, the rest of the Cavaliers combined to score 60 points and went 5-for-24 from 3-point range. Remove Evan Mobley’s 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the equation, and the numbers get even bleaker: 43 points on 33% shooting.

There’s a lot of focus on Boston’s league-leading offense and the amount of 3-pointers the Celtics shoot, but at their best they also have a suffocating defense, with few weaknesses — especially in their starting lineup — that can wear down its opponent. In the two games in this series Boston has won, that’s been the formula: Let Mitchell get what he wants, and limit the rest of his teammates.

Key for Boston: Al Horford’s energy

Although the Celtics won Game 3, there was one concerning trend — if not for this series, but as the playoffs continue: Horford looked tired.

It’s hard to blame him. Horford, three weeks shy of his 38th birthday and in his 17th NBA season, played 40 minutes in Game 3. He finished 1-for-7 from the field — including 0-for-6 from 3-point range — and struggled to defend drives. That was especially noticeable when getting switched onto Mitchell; the Cavaliers are averaging 1.64 points per direct pick on 30 on-ball screens when Mitchell is the ball handler and Horford is the screener defender, per ESPN’s Stats & Information.

This is where the loss of Kristaps Porzingis could have an effect on Boston as the playoffs progress. At this stage of his career, Horford should be much closer to the minutes total he averaged during the regular season — 26.8 per game — than playing close to 40.

Game 3 was the first competitive matchup the Celtics have played since Porzingis was injured. This is something to monitor going forward, as even when Porzingis comes back, there are going to be some limitations on his availability as he recovers from a calf strain.

Center Luke Kornet has played some solid minutes, but Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla always defaults toward shooting when possible, and Horford hit 41.9% of his 3s during the regular season. So, if the game is close, he’s likely to be out there for heavy minutes.

Key for Cleveland: Finding offense beyond Mitchell

Can Cleveland change anything for Game 4 besides just knocking down more shots?

The obvious move to consider is using a different starting lineup — specifically, replacing Isaac Okoro. Okoro went 3-for-8 from deep in Game 1 and shot 39.1% on 3 attempts per game during the regular season, but Boston has had no qualms sticking Horford on Okoro and letting him take open looks.

While Okoro was sensational in Cleveland’s Game 2 win, with his energy helping turn the game in Cleveland’s favor, in its two losses he’s a minus-38 in 45 minutes played. Okoro was also minus-17 in 17 minutes in Game 3 after missing all four of his 3-point attempts.

Cleveland could also opt to increase Dean Wade’s minutes. Wade returned after a lengthy absence with a knee injury in Game 3, and while he was 1-for-4 from 3 in 17 minutes, he was plus-12.

— Bontemps


How the Mavericks built a 2-1 lead

Dallas’ star duo of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving has averaged a combined 40.3 points per game so far in this series, 19.2 points less from their regular-season production.

The Thunder, the league’s third-ranked defensive team, have succeeded in containing one of the league’s most explosive tandems. Dallas is dealing with Doncic’s sprained right knee and sore left ankle and Luguentz Dort’s bruising defensive prowess. Irving is patiently picking his spots, not wanting to force against an Oklahoma City defense that’s scheming to load up against him, as the Thunder are doing against Doncic.

But the Mavs have still managed to build a 2-1 series lead, thanks in large part to the sudden turn of Washington, who has averaged 28.0 points in Dallas’ consecutive wins.

“We’re not built on one guy. We’re built on the team,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said after Game 3. “So if Luka is hurting, next man up and someone’s got to pick him up. It’s not just Kai, it’s the other guys. … That’s what makes the beauty of sport, that it’s a team. It’s not golf where we just have a player and a caddy. This is a group that believes.”

Key for Dallas: Washington staying hot from 3

“P.J. Washington,” Thunder superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander groaned when the surprise star of the series was mentioned, shaking his head. “Mmm, mmm, mmm.”

With Doncic and Irving as the focal points of Oklahoma City’s defensive game plan, the Thunder entered the series willing to live with Washington getting decent looks from 3-point range. It’s a statistically logical strategy, considering that Washington shot 32.0% from beyond the arc this season. And he actually dipped to 31.4% after being traded to Dallas at the deadline despite playing alongside two premier playmakers.

Washington, however, might make the Thunder reconsider. He has made 12 of his 23 3-point attempts in the past two games and 7 of 15 in the corners in the victories over OKC. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Washington is 16-of-35 (45.7%) on corner 3s in the playoffs, the most makes and attempts from that location by any player this postseason.

“He’s open for a reason,” Irving said. “That was part of their game plan, so we have to make them pay for that. Now that he’s had two good games, we have to expect in Game 4 that they’re going to come out with a different adjustment. We just want to continue to feed him confidence. Keep that right elbow tucked on the shoe poster because it looks beautiful right now.”

Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault has a decision to make. Will the Thunder continue playing the percentages by daring Washington to shoot or stop helping so aggressively off him and risk the Mavs’ stars getting in a groove?

Key for OKC: Getting production from the role players

Daigneault has steadfastly stuck with Josh Giddey in the starting lineup through plenty of ups and downs throughout the season.

“I think it’s important with every player — good, bad, whatever it is — zoom out and see the big picture, and the big picture is he’s been a very productive player for a long time,” Daigneault said the day after Game 1. “He’s 21 years old. He’s going to be a very productive player for a long time moving forward.”

The smaller picture is Giddey has not been a productive player in this series, and Daigneault has responded by drastically cutting the guard’s playing time. Those limited minutes have still been a massive problem. Oklahoma City has been outscored by 28 points in the 41 minutes Giddey has played in the three games and is plus-37 in 103 minutes with him off the floor.

The Thunder need production, particularly perimeter shooting, from the reserve alternates for Giddey.

Aaron Wiggins, Cason Wallace and Isaiah Joe combined to go 7-of-11 from 3-point range in Oklahoma City’s Game 1 win. They are 6-of-17 in the two losses, including a combined 2-of-10 from Wiggins and Wallace.

The Mavs’ primary defensive focus is clogging the driving lanes for Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams, which will create open looks for others. Oklahoma City needs its role players to rise to the occasion the way Washington has for the Mavs.

— MacMahon

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