BOSTON — After watching the Miami Heat eliminate his Boston Celtics in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, Brad Stevens, Boston’s president of basketball operations, went looking for ways to upgrade the roster. He thought the group could use some more size, and that its interior defense could be better. He also thought they could use some variety on offense, a curveball to go to when opposing defenses locked in on the Celtics’ drive-and-kick game. And so, when the opportunity to trade for Kristaps Porzingis arrived, Stevens pounced. 

Porzingis wasn’t going to come cheap. To get him, the Celtics were going to have to part with Marcus Smart, an integral piece and the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2022. But, in Stevens’ mind, the chance to add someone with Porzingis’ skill set was too good to pass up.

“To be able to throw the ball in the post and just shoot over a switch, and doing so efficiently and effectively is a big deal, let alone being able to play behind the line, shoot the ball, or drive it,” Stevens told reporters after the June 23 trade to acquire Porzingis from the Washington Wizards. “He brings a lot to our team. You can envision, as I can envision, kind of some of the lineups we can put out there size-wise right now — pretty intriguing. And without dropping any skill at all. So that’s a good thing.”

Porzingis spent the entire season vindicating Stevens’ decision. His presence, on both sides of the ball, helped the Celtics make a leap from a very good regular season team into an all-time great one, winning 64 games and finishing with the fifth-best scoring margin in league history. 

Yet Thursday night, as Porzingis pulverized the Dallas Mavericks in the Celtics’ 107-89 win in Game 1 of the finals, Stevens looked prophetic. Porzingis finished with 20 points—on 8-for-13 shooting — six rebounds and three blocks in 21 minutes. But that stat line undersells his impact. The better way to put it is that Porzingis was the first player in this series to take control of a game. 

“He was great on both ends of the floor, defensive execution, game plan, playing for a spot in the offensive end, being physical, and making plays on both ends of the floor,” Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said. “That’s the KP that helped us get to where we are today.”

A calf injury had sidelined Porzingis for the Celtics’ previous two rounds, and he was anxious to return in what would be his NBA finals debut. “It’s tough to not play for a month and then jump into the highest intensity game in the finals,” Porzingis said. He spent the period between pregame introductions and tip-off hopping around the Celtics’ sideline, trying to shake out the nerves. “The adrenaline,” he said, “was pumping through my veins.” Mazzulla brought him off the bench, something he hadn’t done all season, and when Porzingis first entered the game, a little less than midway through the first quarter, the Celtics led by one.

He proceeded to display every skill Stevens had referenced back in June. He buried a midrange jumper over a smaller defender. He dusted Mavericks center Derrick Lively on a drive for a dunk. He buried another midrange jumper after the Mavericks once again switched a smaller defender onto him. He drilled a deep triple in transition. He was prancing and smiling. And in the middle of all that he swatted three Maverick shots to go along with his 11 first quarter points. 

When the buzzer for the quarter sounded, the Celtics had turned that single point lead into a 17-point one.

 “I mean, he looked pretty healthy to me,” Mavericks center Daniel Gafford said. 

“He knocked down shots. He changed shots. He blocked shots. He gave them a spark when he came off the bench,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said. 

Porzingis unlocked everything for the Celtics, and left the Mavericks reeling. Dallas’ defense had suffocated opponents during its romp through the Western Conference playoffs, in part by packing the paint and daring opponents to finish over its two ace rim-protectors, Gafford and Derick Lively II. Porzingis spotting up from 27 feet away ruined that scheme. The Celtics converted all 15 of their attempts at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass, and, thanks to all the runways to the rim, were able to launch 42 three-pointers — more than half of their field goal attempts, most off of drive-and-kick action. They hit 16 of them.

 The Mavericks were so shaken that late in the first half Kidd rolled out a lineup with the more agile Maxi Kleber at center instead of Gafford and Lively, abandoning the scheme that he’d ridden to the finals. 

The Celtics, meanwhile, executed theirs to perfection. It was a simple one, too. Force the Mavs’ dynamic duo of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving to do all the scoring themselves. No double teams were sent to either player. There was no blitzing of pick-and-rolls or scrambling over from the weakside. If the Mavericks were going to win, they would do so with Doncic and Irving converting tough looks over big defenders.

Doncic finished with 30 points. But Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, one of the few players in the NBA with the right combination of size, speed and smarts to hang with Doncic on defense, hounded him into a 12-for-16 night. Irving had just 12 points on 6-for-19 shooting. 

More notable, though, was that the Mavericks dished out just eight assists. Doncic had just one, a season low. The Mavericks, who entered the game on a record pace for playoff alley-oops per game, didn’t convert a single lob. The corner triple, a staple of their offense, was nowhere to be found; they attempted just three. They finished the game with an offensive rating of 96.7, which, as a comparison, is 20 points per 100 possessions worse than the league-worst mark posted by the Memphis Grizzlies during the regular season. 

“The ball just stuck too much,” Kidd said. 

On the other end, the Celtics made a point of attacking Doncic whenever possible. Especially Brown, who, after Porzingis’ initial burst, carried the Celtics. He finished with a team-high 22 points, along with six rebounds, three blocks, three steals and two assists, though the amount of points he generated off his drives was much higher. 

“What you saw tonight is kind of the challenge he took for himself coming into the year. Not wanting to be defined by one thing,” Mazzulla said. “Wanting to make plays. Wanted to be a well-rounded player.”

The Mavericks did make the Celtics sweat coming out of halftime. A 22-9 run trimmed what had once been a 29-point lead down to eight. The crowd inside TD Garden fell silent. The angst was palpable. 

Mazzulla called time out. He let the players talk among themselves for two minutes before joining the huddle. 

“We just said, just breathe. The game is starting now. Just breathe,” Brown said. “Just breathe, just keep playing basketball. If you got a shot that’s open, take it with confidence, no turnovers, take care of the basketball and just play our game. We got to get some stops. They made some big shots. Just navigate the run.”

The Celtics responded with a 14-0 run of their own. Not long after, they were walking off the court with a victory, and just three wins away from hanging banner No. 18. 

“It’s kind of like a blur to me right now,” Porzingis said later that night. “I was completely just in the game. That’s the best feeling. Like, I had the most fun. I hope to have more of those moments going forward.”

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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