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Halfway through Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics had problems. Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, the Dallas Mavericks' stars, had shaken loose for a combined 37 points. Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively II, the Mavericks' rim protectors, were rim-protecting. Kristaps Porzingis' torn medial retinaculum, an extremely unusual lower-leg injury, loomed large: The 7-footer was sidelined, shrinking Boston's margin for error.

The Celtics trailed by just one point and had a 2-0 lead in the series, but knew that starting the second half poorly could give Dallas life. Hours earlier, Joe Mazzulla, their jiu-jitsu- and MMA-loving coach, had told them that, the closer you think you are to winning the fight, the closer you are to "to getting your ass kicked." He drove the point home with UFC clips, which, violent as they might have been, surely made for a more pleasant watch than revisiting Game 4 of the 2022 Finals, in which they were up by five at halftime against the Golden State Warriors with an opportunity to go up 3-1 before Stephen Curry caught fire and their offense fell flat. 

If that third quarter was a test of Boston's championship mettle, the team nailed every part of it. Quick ball reversals, smart spacing and timely cuts defanged Dallas' defense. The Celtics generated high-quality looks on their first nine offensive possessions and scored on eight of them. Desperate, the Mavericks went to a 2-3 zone. Then they tried small ball. Neither worked. Xavier Tillman, Boston's third- or fourth-string center depending on the matchup, blocked Doncic on a switch and made a corner 3. Heading into the fourth, Boston led by 15.

Even without Porzingis, this was Boston at its best: playing with pace and purpose on one end, conceding nothing easy on the other. Now that the Celtics have clinched their record-setting 18th championship, that defining stretch -- and their Game 5 victory on Monday, which followed a blowout loss in Game 4 and featured several similar surges --  can be seen as the culmination of years of trades, tweaks, trials and tribulations. Each can also be seen as a direct response to the pressure that Dallas was putting on them.

After Game 3, Jayson Tatum told Bleacher Report that losing to the Warriors in 2022 was "the worst feeling ever," and that the offseason that followed "was the worst summer I ever had." Tatum vowed to himself back then "that if I ever got back to the Finals, then I would literally do whatever I needed to do to ensure that we have a different outcome." In his postgame press conference, Mazzulla credited his team for recognizing how the Mavericks were set up, creating advantages and capitalizing on indecision -- and for doing all of it quickly.

"We found the first read, bang, right there, and we got it like six, seven, eight times in a row," Mazzulla said. "If you miss that first one, it's a nightmare to get a second and third one, and that's when you end up taking a couple shots you don't want to take."

As evidenced by the fact that they needed some late-game heroics that night and lost the next game, the Celtics don't find that kind of flow on every offensive possession. Nobody does. Whenever they lost their footing, though, they steadied themselves. To Mazzulla, this is because Boston has built a collective sense of self-awareness. When the Celtics or their opponents are on a run, they don't just feel the momentum shifting, they understand what, process-wise, has led to it.

"You just have to constantly problem-solve throughout the game," Mazzulla said. "You have to ask yourself why every single possession. Why did that happen? Why did this happen? Was this what we talked about? Was it not?"

For all the chatter about Boston beating up on inferior, shorthanded teams in the playoffs, it was missing Porzingis for most of this run and was never likely to be able to position itself as an underdog, anyway. While the 2022 Celtics were coming off a .500 year and started the season 15-17, this year's iteration profiled as a two-way juggernaut from the moment that Jrue Holiday arrived in October. Having already acquired Porzingis, Boston's front office had surrounded its stars with more shooting… and more size, more switchable defenders, more second-side playmaking, more safety valves.

Having championship-caliber talent, however, guarantees nothing. Last season, the Celtics had the league's best point differential during the regular season, but lost in the conference finals to the eighth-seeded Miami Heat, and that wasn't even their most disappointing recent finish relative to expectations. In the past few weeks, Irving has had a lot to say about his brief tenure in Boston, but nothing summed up the 2018-19 team better than Tatum saying in January, "That shit was terrible."

Those Celtics, in theory, had more than enough of everything, but they were far less than the sum of their parts. Their misery ended with four straight losses to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round; several times, Irving made the curious decision to pick up Giannis Antetokounmpo on defense. At one point during the season, guard Terry Rozier said the team was "too talented." No one would ever describe the 2023-24 group that way, even though its roster has four more collective All-Star appearances and two more collective All-NBA appearances than Boston did in 2019. 

The difference is not just that Tatum and Finals MVP Jaylen Brown have matured and improved, though they unmistakably have. It is that this is another kind of superteam. As Mazzulla reminded the Celtics in a Game 4 huddle, they wear opponents down by relentlessly attacking their pressure points, moving the ball and creating confusion. Any player can say that he simply tries to make the right reads and his shot attempts will vary based on matchups, schemes, etc., but when a team actually plays this way, it is powerful. If Porzingis or Holiday has a matchup advantage, Boston exploits it. If the defense can't stop Tatum and Derrick White's two-man game, Boston exploits that.

The Celtics approach defense similarly. If there is a non-shooter on the court, they will make sure the opposing offense feels it. They fight for little edges, they don't overreact to tough makes and they are unafraid to play unconventionally. For the first time in his career, Holiday, one of the league's best point-of-attack defenders, regularly found himself guarding guys who were not initiating the offense. Sometimes, his job was to communicate coverages and blow up actions as a help defender. Sometimes, he was matched up with the likes of Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.

"Just have to be open-minded," Mazzulla told reporters on Sunday. "Every game takes on a life of its own."

One can learn a fair amount about the NBA in 2024 by watching how Boston disposed of Dallas. How its guards worked the dunker spot, screened for wings, relocated for 3s and came up with timely blocks and rebounds. How it beat switches with slips and rejects. How it changed ends quickly, how it manipulated matchups. How, in just about every way imaginable, it made Doncic work. The newly crowned NBA champions are an elegantly constructed powerhouse, full of grown-ups who were ready to do whatever their crazy coach asked of them. By the time they got to the Finals, they had all the answers.

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