Entering a pivotal Game 3, Kyrie Irving still hasn’t shown up for the Mavericks

Entering these NBA Finals, and after seeing the Dallas Mavericks rampage through the Western Conference playoffs, the Boston Celtics made a bet. Instead of trying to take the ball out of the hands of the Mavs’ two dynamic playmakers, they’d force it into them. 

The basis of the bet was a simple one. For one, the Celtics believed the Mavs were more dangerous when the entire team was thriving, as opposed to just Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. They also believed that their core group boasted enough strong defenders that the Celtics could both execute this make-Dončić-and-Irving-score strategy and keep Dončić and Irving from catching fire and winning multiple games by themselves. 

“Just trying to wear on those guys, be as physical as we possibly can, full team effort,” Celtics wing Jaylen Brown told reporters Sunday night. “Just keep touching them. That’s it.”

So far, that bet has paid off. The Mavs entered the finals sporting a 115.2 offensive rating, an elite rate. In the series’ first two games, that mark has plummeted down to 100, with the Celtics — following their 105-98 Sunday night victory, their eighth in a row — now in possession of a 2-0 series lead. Game 3 is Wednesday night in Dallas.

There are many reasons behind the Celtics’ hot start. Jaylen Brown (21 points, seven assists, three blocks) is playing some of the best basketball of his life. Kristaps Porzingis has repeatedly pummeled the Mavericks in the mid-post and walled off the rim. Jayson Tatum has been relentless knifing his way into the paint. But somewhere high up on that list is that Irving thus far has failed to punish the Celtics for guarding him one-on-one.

Irving finished Game 2 with 16 points and six assists. It wasn’t a terrible performance, but it also wasn’t nearly good enough. He was inefficient, going just 7-for-18 from the field. Through this series’ first two games, he’s scored just 28 points on 35 percent shooting and misfired on all eight of his deep looks. Most notable might be the fact that he’s only attempted two free throws.

How disappointing has Kyrie Irving been in the NBA Finals?

“A little disappointed in myself not being able to convert a lot more on my opportunities that I have in the lane,” Irving told reporters after the game. “Obviously, I’m going against Jrue Holiday and Jaylen Brown a few times, but I feel like I have the upper edge on certain possessions where I’ve just got to convert.”

Dončić, meanwhile, has racked up 62 points on 51 percent shooting to go along with 12 assists in the series’ first two games. He’s done his part. Irving has not. 

When was the last time we saw him have this much trouble shaking loose like this—even if it is against a great defender?

And when was the last time an opponent felt comfortable leaving a lumbering center alone with Irving on an island? 

The Mavericks’ offense is predicated on the idea that Dončić and Irving can repeatedly break down defenses, triggering rotations and scrambles. This leads to easy, in-rhythm jumpers or cuts or rim-runs for the supporting cast. 

When those breakdowns disappear, so do the corner triples and alley-oops that propelled the Mavericks into the finals. Instead, players like P.J. Washington and Derrick Jones Jr. are relegated to spotting up for deep, above-the-break, out-of-rhythm triples, an area where neither excel. The non-Dončić Mavericks were only able to launch 17 three-pointers, and they only drilled two of them. The Mavs have also only connected on one alley-oop in their two games against the Celtics, after averaging nearly four per game entering the finals. 

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“It wasn’t all on me, but I’m definitely taking the majority of it because my teammates look to me to convert a lot of these shots and ease the burden of not just Luka but everyone else and settle our team,” Irving said. “Offensively, I have to play better.”

Irving actually came out strong in Game 1. On the Mavericks’ second possession of the game he blew by Derrick White for a layup. Two minutes later, he drilled a long jumper. Two more lay-ups in the first quarter gave him eight points. 

The Celtics did a better job the rest of the game of sitting on Irving’s right hand. “Pushing me to my left end a little bit more,” he said. They’re also once again showing why they were the second-best defensive team in the league this year. Irving’s far from the first guard to be locked up by the Derrick White-Jrue Holiday backcourt. Give the Celtics credit, too, for collapsing on Irving in the paint, and using their size and length to take away his passing lanes. 

And yet, with all that being the case, Irving was still able to get off some decent shots. 

“He had great looks,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said. “They just didn’t go down.”

That’s fine for a game. Maybe two. But given how well the Celtics are playing, there’s no more margin for error. Either Irving turns things around now, or the Mavericks will be watching on their home floor as the Celtics celebrate a title. 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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