Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Mavericks’ plan to stop Celtics in NBA Finals: Get them to fight among themselves

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BOSTON (AP) — Jason Kidd couldn’t figure out how to stop the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Now he’s hoping they will get in their own way.

The Mavericks coach seemed eager to sow dissension in the Boston locker room on Saturday when he singled out Jaylen Brown as the Celtics’ best player — words transparently designed to irk Jayson Tatum, an actual NBA first-teamer who was sixth in the voting for the league’s MVP.

Asked during his off-day media availability about a game-plan to defend Brown, Kidd said, “Well, Jaylen’s their best player …” prompting reporters to perk up and wonder: Did he really say that? (It was the final question of his news conference, so there was no follow-up.)

Tatum said it won’t work.

“We understand that people try to drive a wedge between us. I guess it’s a smart thing to do — or try to do,” Tatum said. “We’ve been in this position for many years, of guys trying to divide us and say that one of us should be traded, or one is better than the other. So it’s not our first time at the rodeo.”

On that, Brown agreed completely.

“We’ve been just extremely focused on what our roles and our jobs are. We have all had to sacrifice,” he said. “Right now, at this point, it’s whatever it takes to win. And we can’t let any outside interpretations try to get in between us.”

Drafted third overall in back-to-back years, Brown and Tatum have emerged as one of the NBA’s best duos, combining to lead the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals five times in their seven seasons together. But even with the success — 64 wins this year, the league’s No. 1 overall seed, and a second trip to the NBA Finals — they have had to combat speculation that there wasn’t room in the locker room for both of them.

Although Tatum’s career numbers have been better, Brown is the highest-paid player in the league — a quirk of timing and age that gave him the first shot at a supermax contract extension that will earn him more than $300 million over five years. Brown also outplayed Tatum in the 2022 NBA Finals, was the MVP of this year’s conference finals and outscored Tatum 22-16 in the Game 1 victory over Dallas on Thursday night.

That may explain why Kidd said on Saturday — twice — that Brown was Boston’s main threat.

“Jaylen’s their best player,” the Mavericks coach said. “He did everything, and that’s what your best player does. Just understanding how to play both sides — defense and offense at a high rate — he’s been doing that the whole playoffs.”

But no one else seems to think so.

Tatum averaged 27 points, eight rebounds and five assists this season, and Brown averaged 23, 5.5 and 3.6. And even with Brown outscoring him in Game 1, Tatum’s numbers are also better in the playoffs so far. (And besides: The real star of the opener was Boston big man Kristaps Porzingis.)

Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said he’s not worried about internal rivalries getting in his team’s way, as long as his players “focus on the truth.”

“What goes on in our locker room, how we communicate with each other, how we build relationships with each other and how we treat each other on and off the floor, that’s the most important thing,” he said.

The Mavericks have their own Big Two, with five-time All-NBA first-team guard Luka Doncic teaming up with Kyrie Irving to form an All-Star backcourt. Irving, who teamed with LeBron James to win the 2016 NBA championship in Cleveland even as they struggled to co-exist, said he tries not to pay attention to talk pitting him against his teammate.

“I’m just here to play basketball,” Irving said. “You’ve got to be selfless in your approach. Obviously, you’re not going to get it right all the time, but as a teammate, you just want to push those other things to the side that don’t really matter or get you better as a team. So we just leave it to everybody else to argue whose team it is and who has the most responsibility. It’s all our jobs to be prepared.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA

Jimmy Golen, The Associated Press

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