2024 NBA Finals: Game 2 was there for the taking, but the Mavs couldn't take it

BOSTON — It's the moments the Dallas Mavericks will likely lament from their Game 2 loss to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals more than the overall performance.

Luka Dončić blamed himself, the turnovers and missed free throws in the 105-98 loss at the TD Garden on Sunday night, but he more than acquitted himself fine in the wake of an injury that had him listed as questionable before the game.

“I think my turnovers and my missed free throws cost us the game,” said Dončić, who scored 32 points with 11 rebounds and 11 assists. “So I've got to do way better in those two categories.”

Having 15 team turnovers, with possessions like gold, seems unfathomable. Missing eight free throws — 16 of 24 — when the Celtics shoot 19-o-20 could haunt them all summer.

But more than that, it’s the moments.

At least the notable ones, as Kyrie Irving could only smile and try to wash them away. Jrue Holiday and Derrick White pressuring Dončić and P.J. Washington with four minutes left, getting a steal after threatening an eight-second violation, leading to a triple that gave the Celtics some breathing room.

Or, Payton Pritchard taking all the air from the Mavericks at the end of the third quarter when Irving cut the lead to six, hitting a buzzer-beating triple from a step inside half court.

“Yeah, I just chalk that up to just being in Boston,” Irving said. “You know, some of those shots, they go up in the air, and I remember last game Sam Hauser caught it in the corner, and I don't think he even brought the ball down. It was practically all net.”

Irving hasn’t come alive yet, and he brought up the 2016 Finals when he shook off two bad games in Golden State to put together some of the best ball he’s played in his career, averaging 31 points and four assists in the final five games of that series and shooting 51% from the floor and 47% from 3 as the Cleveland Cavaliers completed an improbable comeback from a 3-1 deficit.

He was a much younger man then, and that was a different situation. But the common denominator, at least early on, is the Dallas Mavericks can see how good, if not great, the Celtics are.

“Being in the Finals before, down 0-2, I have a little experience in this,” Irving said. “Didn't play particularly well in the first two games in that series, too, that I'm referring to [in 2016].

“So now I'm just really leaning in on what I've experienced, what I've learned and some of the lessons I've been able to make sense of in how to come back in this series because it is going to be a possession-by-possession thing, and it is going to be the hardest thing that we've ever done.”

Perfect may not be required to complete a turnaround, but winning Game 2 would've made things a lot easier before the scene shifts to Dallas for Game 3 on Wednesday. Jayson Tatum's shooting percentage (31.5%) looks like he should be playing for the Red Sox rather than the Celtics, and Jaylen Brown turned the ball over six times in Game 2.

The Celtics shot just 25.6% from 3, and that type of ghastly shooting performance is just the type of night that had them dropping Game 2’s against Miami and Cleveland in the first two rounds.

But the Mavericks couldn’t convert, with their shooters going cold outside of Dončić and shooting 2-of- 17 from 3.

“Unfortunately, we just couldn't get over the hump,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “I thought our defense was really, really good. We've just got to take care of the ball. There's too many turnovers that gave them points, and then also being able to — we've got to score the ball, and right now, we've got to find someone to join Luka and Kai in that scoring category.”

Irving was good early, getting to the lane and finishing. It at least gave the impression he wouldn’t be as bothered by the Celtics' length on the wings or at the rim, but he too slowed down as the game wore on.

“A little disappointed in myself not being able to convert a lot more on my opportunities that I have in the lane,” Irving said. “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.

“Felt good in the first half, but second half the shots weren't going down.”

Unlike in the series against Minnesota, where Dončić and Irving made a living getting downhill and playing the cat-and-mouse game with the Timberwolves bigs and thus, Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford benefiting from it, defensively the Celtics are better equipped on the perimeter.

Dončić is finding himself being poked at by Brown and other curious hands. Irving, usually sure-handed, has found the ball being poked away and it has led to Celtics runouts. Dončić had eight turnovers in Game 2, with Irving having two of his own.

No mismatches, no advantages on the back end of defenses and the Celtics are keying in on Dončić and Irving — daring someone else to beat them. So far, it’s worked to perfection.

“I mean, they are physical, yeah. But they try to guard one-on-one,” Dončić said. “I think today they tried to help more. I was able to get some teammates open. But they are physical. They are very physical. We let them be physical. So they are pretty, pretty amazing on defense.”

Tim Hardaway Jr. is still on that Dallas bench, collecting DNP’s and dust. The Mavericks got a total of nine bench points out of Maxi Kleber, Lively, Josh Green and Dante Exum.

It’s not that the Celtics' bench is that potent, but their strength belongs in their balanced starting five. That’s a luxury this Dallas team doesn’t have, with Holiday leading the Celtics in scoring (26 points with 11 rebounds) and Derrick White being not far behind with 18 points — and all the timely plays.

White’s block on PJ Washington with 50 seconds left sealed the win, as the layup could’ve made it a 103-100 game. Dallas seems better equipped for close games, given Irving's and Dončić’s talents, but the Mavs couldn’t get it beyond that invisible barrier.

The Celtics haven’t conjured up their best performance, and it’s clear the Mavericks haven’t either. Going home can’t be all they lean on because otherwise they’ll be leaning on summer vacation.

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