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  • Writer's pictureJoshua U.

NBA Finals: The Celtics & The Perils of Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is defined as the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s already existing beliefs or theories.

Despite the Boston Celtics’ historically dominant regular season in which they won 64 games, their just-as-dominant postseason to this point and their 2-0 lead in the 2024 NBA Finals vs the Dallas Mavericks — NBA fans at-large seem to be surprised at just how dominant they’ve been in these first two games of the Finals.

Jrue Holiday celebrates during Game 2 of the 2024 NBA Finals.
Jrue Holiday has been as instrumental in Boston's 2-0 Finals lead as anybody, scoring a team-high 26 points in the Celtics' Game 2 victory.

Game 1 was a Boston blowout from the get-go, 107-89, as big man Kristaps Porzingis returned from a calf strain suffered on April 29th that sidelined him for 5 weeks and 10 playoff games. Porzingis, the former Dallas Maverick, who was unsure about how effective he’d be when asked before the game, quickly & loudly made his presence felt both offensively & defensively. Porzingis came off the bench for the first time as a Celtic and finished with 20 points of 8-of-13 shooting, 6 rebounds and 3 blocked shots, including a spectacular rejection of an audacious Josh Green fastbreak dunk attempt towards the end of the first quarter.

Porzingis again served as Boston’s sixth man in Game 2; an ugly affair from both teams as the Celtics and Mavs shot a combined 16-64 from three-point range in a 105-98 Celtics win.

The Celtics are still a fantastic team even without the services of KP, as evidenced by their 9-1 record in the 10 postseason games he missed. Boston had been an excellent team over the past several years before trading for Porzingis this past offseason, as evidenced by their five Conference Finals appearances since the inception of the Jaylen Brown/Jayson Tatum era. A bitter loss to their arch-rival Miami Heat in last year’s Conference Finals, however, signaled to Celtics’ President of Basketball Ops Brad Stevens that this group, despite their immense talents, needed a shakeup to finally get over the championship hump.

Celtics' Kristaps Porzingis celebrates during Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals.
Kristaps Porzingis has been just what the doctor ordered in the first two games of the Finals, presenting a major matchup problem for his former team in Dallas.

Across NBA history, championship organizations have tended to have this one quality in common: the art of successful risky swing-taking in tinkering with their roster to take it from good to great.

Marcus Smart was selected sixth overall by Boston in the 2014 Draft and had served as the team’s “heart and soul” for the following nine seasons. Smart, with his green-dyed hair and his Swiss army knife style of play, became a beloved figure in Boston. Smart was adored within the organization, of course — but the fans in Boston took that love to another level. Smart was instrumental in the Celtics’ run to the Finals in 2022 after winning Defensive Player of the Year in the regular season; an award that is not usually won by 6’3” guards.

But as the Celtics finalized their pursuit of Porzingis, Smart was shipped out to Memphis as part of a three-team deal with Boston and Washington. Celtics fans were hurt bitterly by the loss of Smart, a fan-favorite who consistently tugged at Bostonians’ heart strings with his nonstop hustle and overall basketball fervor. As the season started and Porzingis immediately showed how comical of a mismatch he would be in Boston with a 30-point, 8-rebound, 4-block and 5-three performance on opening night at New York against the team that drafted him, Celtics fans started to get over the whole Smart thing, rightfully so.

Marcus Smart served as the "heart and soul" of the Celtics for nine seasons but was mercilessly dealt to the Grizzlies this past offseason.

Another thing NBA championship organizations tend to all have in common: luck.

Boston’s mascot is literally a leprechaun named Lucky, so I think they have a little more good fortune than every other franchise, typically.

Official stat: Kyrie Irving is now 0-11 (including playoffs) vs Boston since stepping on Bostonians' precious "Lucky".

The Celtics’ lucky ways were made clear as a result of one of their rivals atop the Eastern Conference making a huge, risky big-swing deal of their own. As part of the Milwaukee Bucks’ blockbuster deal for perennial All-Star Damian Lillard, the Bucks shipped the highly valued NBA champion guard Jrue Holiday to Portland. Holiday, a proven winner currently at the back end of his career, clearly wasn’t going to be a part of Portland’s rebuilding endeavors on the court, so he was made available to interested contenders. And one contender in particular now had a glaring need for a defensive-minded & clutch point guard.

After the Celtics’ deal for Porzingis on June 23rd, the Celtics again struck gold on the trade market, acquiring Holiday on October 1st. With the move, the Celtics top 6 of Holiday, Brown, Tatum, Porzingis, Al Horford, and Derrick White appeared to be the league’s best on paper. It played out exactly that way on the court with their 64 regular season victories.

The Celtics dominated right out of the gate this season, and quickly made the NBA’s central talking point this season; “The Celtics or the field?”

Quite a few people were taking the field and had their reasons for doing so as well. As noted previously, the Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals their home since 2016, but only had broken through to the NBA Finals one time in ‘22, losing in six games to the Golden State Warriors. In that Finals, Tatum had a notoriously poor series, putting up a horrific assist-to-turnover ratio and an abysmal percentage on two-point shot attempts.

Jayson Tatum: Playoff Riser or Shrinker?

Celtics' Jayson Tatum.

It’s easy to forget that Jayson Tatum is just 26 years old; it feels like he’s been in the NBA for quite a while. He has never missed the playoffs through his first 7 NBA seasons, including leading the injury-ridden Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals in his rookie season at just 20 years of age. Few players in history have been more playoff-seasoned at the start of their career than Tatum has.

Tatum, for his career, carries an average of 23.1 PPG in the regular season, and that number climbs to 23.9 PPG in a remarkable 110 postseason games played to this point. However, when you look deeper into the numbers, his efficiency has historically taken a step back in the playoffs.

After Tatum’s less-than-satisfactory performance in the 2022 Finals, Tatum’s ability to rise in big playoff moments began to get called into question quite a bit, which was unfortunate given the splendid work he put in to get Boston into the Finals to begin with. Tatum led the charge with stellar two-way play to sweep the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving led Nets in the first round of those playoffs as he averaged 29.5 points in those 4 games. In the next round vs reigning Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics found themselves down 3-2 in the series facing a road Game 6 in a hostile environment. With the C’s on the brink of elimination, Tatum had what is arguably his best playoff performance ever; a 46-point, 9-rebound, hyper-efficient masterclass of a performance to push the series to a 7th game in Boston that the Celtics would win, slaying the champs in the 2nd round. Tatum put up a 26-10-6 line in another Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals at Miami to send Boston to the Finals.

In the following postseason, the Celtics again met an MVP in the 2nd round; this time facing Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers. In Game 5 at Philly, with the series tied 2-2, Tatum played about as poorly as a star could play to start the game; hitting just 1 of his first 15 shots. In an incredible turnaround, however, Tatum turned his stinker into success, peppering the Sixers with 4 made threes in the 4th to set up a Game 7 back in Boston, where all he would do there is score an NBA-record 51 points in a Game 7 to advance to yet another Conference Finals. In one of the strangest series in NBA history, the Celtics went down to their familiar foe Miami Heat 3-0, with Tatum getting outplayed by Jimmy Butler. After a remarkable comeback by Boston to win three straight games and force… yes, another Game 7, Tatum suffered a nasty ankle sprain at the start of the game and could almost muster 14 points in a convincing loss on his home court.

Nobody doubts Jayson Tatum’s talents; you’d be foolish to do so. At 6’10” tall, he can do anything you need on a basketball court from a star player. He can score and play-make on offense, and guard other teams’ best wing on defense.

He also was drafted into the quintessential situation for a young NBA star. The Celtics were loaded at Tatum’s arrival and have largely remained as such to this point, with no previous iteration of the Tatum-era Celtics being more loaded than this current group.

What you believe Tatum to be in the postseason depends on your angle, given the evidence provided. He’s a 26-year-old star with 5 Conference Finals appearances through his first 7 seasons, sitting 2 wins away from his first championship. If he gets that done, Tatum would have won his first title sooner than notable NBA greats such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Shaquille O’Neal. Those are the facts.

On the flip side, it’s due to Tatum’s poor showing in his first Finals appearance for why the Celtics aren’t already champions. He’s also had his handful of objectively poor playoff games, with an alarming 25 games scoring 18 points or less. Those 25 games account for roughly 23% of Tatum’s postseason career. The Celtics have managed to win a huge bulk of those low-volume Tatum games due to their overwhelming talent, buoyed by co-star Jaylen Brown and others. In these playoffs alone, when Tatum shoots worse than 40%, the Celtics are 6-0 in those games, an unconscionable statistic. In the first two games of these Finals vs Dallas, Tatum has shot a combined 12-38; that’s a meager 32% from the field. The Celtics are up 2-0 by virtue of their egalitarian offensive attack and their stifling defense, both of which Tatum has played a huge part in. Tatum, woeful shooting splits aside, is averaging 17-10-8 to open these Finals. The Celtics have outscored the Mavs by 25 when Tatum’s been on the court thus far. Naturally, Tatum’s contractors are going to want to see him come up big in a big moment at some point in these Finals. He may have his opportunity starting with Wednesday’s Game 3, as Dallas is sure to be rocking with the Mavs’ title hopes on the line.

Can Tatum and Brown win big together?

Celtics' duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been teammates for 6 extremely prosperous years in Boston. Jaylen and Jayson. The Jays. They’re the NBA’s best wing duo since LeBron and Wade. Their styles of play are more reminiscent of each other’s than different, as both guys can score at all three levels & play deafening defense. Despite this, they haven’t had the championship win to take them to all-time heights.

The business of sports can be cruel and unforgiving. Often, young stars are built up and raised to a pedestal, only to be torn down in moments of failure. That’s pretty much been the story of Tatum and Brown. Following Brown’s ascent to All-Star status in 2021, Boston now found themselves in an interesting position. In Tatum and Brown, the franchise was in an enviable position with two young dynamos in place to build around for the foreseeable future. But there were questions on how well Brown and Tatum’s games would mesh long-term. These questions played out in the sports media world, because of course they did, but enough people within the Celtics’ organization were asking the same questions, made apparent by Boston’s covert pursuit of the disgruntled Kevin Durant in the 2022 offseason.

It was reported by superstar insider Shams Charania that the Celtics offered a package of Brown, Derrick White, and draft compensation to Brooklyn for Durant, but were turned down. This news broke Brown down enough to the point that he personally called team President Brad Stevens and Tatum after the rumors spread like wildfire into the mainstream. After doing so, Brown said this to local media:

"[KD] and JT are friends. They was working out together and whatnot," Brown said. "So, I wasn't sure what the energy was. I wasn't sure what the direction of the organization was."

While nothing came to fruition there, many talking heads have called for the breaking up of Tatum and Brown, stating that their games were too redundant and that they would struggle to play off one another in high-leverage championship situations.

They’re not the NBA’s most perfect pairing, sure. But the Celtics have won over 65% of their games with the Brown/Tatum tandem since 2017, the best record in the NBA over that span. And usually, when one star is off their game, the other has stepped up and delivered, which is a very key dynamic for a successful star duo to carry with them.

Through these Finals’ first two games, while Tatum has struggled with his shot, Brown has been as efficient as ever, averaging 21.5 points on 55% from the field. Brown is as much of a beneficiary of circumstance as Tatum is, as the Celtics have so many weapons on the court at one time, which makes it difficult to hone in on stopping just one guy. Tatum attracts a ton of attention from defenses in isolation & in post-up, which typically leaves Brown with a lot of open looks from three and a single-coverage freeway to the basket.

Brown is fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals MVP award for his performance in Boston’s 4-game sweep over Indiana; JB averaged nearly 30 points-per, shooting over 50% in each affair. After Brown’s 22-pt performance in Game 1 of these Finals, Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd took to the media, attempting to plant more seeds of uncertainty within the Celtics’ hierarchy.

[Jaylen’s] their best player," Kidd told reporters on Saturday.

Multiple Celtics players, including Brown and Tatum of course, were left to respond in their subsequent media sessions.

Brown: “I don’t have no reaction… it’s a team game… everyone has their own opinions.”

Tatum: “No reaction. This is a team sport. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have JB on our team… People try to drive a wedge between us. It’s a smart thing to do, or try to do… We’ve been in this situation.”

Al Horford also chimed in on Kidd’s comments: “Jason Kidd, man. I see what he’s doing.”

Those three played it extremely diplomatic in the media, no surprise there. Jrue Holiday, though; what say you?

“I don’t think he’s lying.”

Well, one guy didn’t get the memo.

The Celtics are battle-tested enough to tell when an opponent is trying to manipulate their locker room with mind games and trickery. Game 2 didn’t show any signs of either Tatum or Brown trying to prove a point to anyone (although Tatum did shoot the ball 6 more times from Game 1 to Game 2). Time will tell how the two stars navigate the next two games, as the phenomenon of pride & ego in the world of sports typically rear their ugly heads when the stakes are at their highest. But it must feel refreshing for Brown and Tatum to know that they are just two wins away from stamping themselves as a title-winning duo, which would wash away so many of the confirmation bias-coded narratives that have followed them throughout their shared run.

Is Joe Mazzulla a legitimate championship-level coach?

Celtics' head coach Joe Mazzulla

Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla is the youngest head coach in the NBA at just 35 years of age.

That was not by design.

Two years ago, when Boston surged through the East to the Finals, it wasn’t with Mazzulla as the head man. Ime Udoka led the charge for Boston in his first year as a head coach, establishing himself as one of the absolute best coaches in the game just 1 year into the job.

Unfortunately for Udoka, a messy situation involving an alleged affair with a Celtics’ executive’s wife resulted in his oust from the organization.

With this, Mazzulla was thrust into the role, and surprisingly to some, hit the ground running right out of the gate.

Boston won an impressive 57 games in 2022-23 in Mazzulla’s first head coaching season. The Celtics hit their fair share of roadblocks during the playoffs, though, requiring Mazzulla to step up and make key adjustments on the fly against the league’s best teams.

In the East Finals vs Miami, Mazzulla looked out of his league at times up against surefire, Hall-of-Fame, multiple-time champion coach Erik Spoelstra. The Celtics quickly went down 3-0 in the series. Mazzulla improved in the next three games; three consecutive Boston victories. A bitter Game 7 loss sent the Celtics home, though, and Mazzulla caught a lot of heat.

In the case of Udoka and Mazzulla’s coaching styles, they… could not be more different. Udoka is a no-nonsense disciplinarian who is unafraid to check his players when playing with low energy, low force, or low toughness. Mazzulla is more of a numbers cruncher — I’ll go as far as calling him a statistics worshipper. Alright, he’s a nerd. I said it. His faith in advanced stats is only eclipsed by his faith as a devout Christian. He’s a perpetually quiet guy who tends to be very short and clipped with the media.

In the machismo world of sports, Udoka’s style is seen as much more effective and worthwhile than Mazzulla’s approach. And, prior to this year’s Celtics run, the facts were the facts: Udoka got the team to the Finals in his first year while Mazzulla failed to do so.

With that, I would typically say the pressure was on Mazzulla to succeed this season, but it does not seem as if pressure ever really bursts Mazzulla’s pipes. He always appears stoic, unbothered, and unassuming.

The magic of pro sports is that from a franchise’s front office, coaching staff, to the players, there are so many different personalities that come together for one common goal; to win. You never know how all those personalities will mesh. Will they clash or come together?

It speaks to the level of character in the Celtics’ locker room that they’ve been able to make it to the Finals under two completely different coaches with two completely different personalities. This group has truly bought in to Mazzulla’s way, and as a result, now sit in the exact same position Udoka had them in: 2 wins away from a championship.

Now even if the Celtics do secure those final two victories and become champions, I’m not sure just how much Mazzulla’s rep will be elevated by the feat. Yes, winning a title as the youngest coach in the NBA is impressive by most measures. But I’ve been around sports media and fans enough to know how this stuff goes. The “anyone can win with a stacked roster” rhetoric will be alive and well. And, yes, the 2024 Celtics are a well-built, well-oiled machine. I’ll just repeat the fact that it’s still a huge task for an NBA head coach to get your players and staff to buy in to your vision. And Mazzulla’s done just that regardless of this series’ outcome.

Live by the three, die by the three

Celtics' Derrick White celebrates a made three-pointer.

For one of the rare occasions in NBA history, there has not been a repeat champion in 6 years. With commissioner Adam Silver at the helm overseeing stark changes to the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NBA has done well to increase parity throughout the league.

If there were to be a dynasty to emerge from this point forward, they’d have to excel long-term at these two skills:

Making threes at a high clip,

and stopping the opponent from doing the same.

The 2023-24 Celtics are one of the best teams I’ve seen in terms of their ability to consistently bend the three-point line to their will. The NBA is in the middle of a three-point revolution. Teams take and make more threes than ever before; it’s the central part of the game now. That carries a ton of volatility with it, making three-point shooting a tricky entity to fall back on.

The Celtics in the regular season finished just one-tenth of a percentage point behind the Oklahoma City Thunder as the leaders in three-point shooting percentage, and Boston also led the league in total three-pointers made and attempted by a wide & healthy margin. The Celtics were equally as dominant defending the three-point line as well, again finishing one-tenth of a percent behind the Houston Rockets in opponents' 3-pt shooting percentage, and that’s not by accident either. Joe Mazzulla’s philosophy is for his team to guard the corners heavily, and surrender longer, above the break threes to less capable shooters. (In these finals thus far, they’ve had no problem surrendering those long threes to the likes of P.J. Washington and Derrick Jones Jr.)

The Mavericks, who feature two high-octane offensive hubs in Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, have not cracked 100 points in either of the first two games of the Finals, as the Mavs averaged an insanely low 93.5 PPG between Games 1 & 2. Irving, who made yet another return to Boston following his nasty departure from the organization in 2019, is 0-8 from three-point range so far in this series, and that’s not by happenstance either. Yes, Irving has proven he can get his shots off regardless of who is defending him. But the Celtics feature such length and height on the perimeter with the Jays, alongside defensive stalwarts Jrue Holiday and Derrick White, that’s clearly bothered Irving (and I'm sure the hostile Boston crowd has played a part in Kyrie’s struggles as well).

It’s been a talking point all year long with these Celtics; can they really ride the three-point line to a title? As stated previously, it has the potential to be a very volatile maneuver, as all it takes in today’s day and age is for one team to shoot poorly and one team to shoot extremely well to decide a game, regardless of any possible talent disparity. The Celtics have only lost two games at this point in the playoffs; in Game 2 of the First Round vs Miami, the Heat shot a scalding hot 53% on 43 attempts from three and won by 10, and in Game 2 of the East Semis vs Cleveland, the Cavaliers shot 46% while Boston made just 23% of their threes in a 118-94 Cavs victory.

But those are just two postseason games. They have won 14, buoyed by the power of the three. The Finals schedule offers both teams extra rest days in-between games, and I would have to say that favors Boston, as fresh legs are more conducive to better three-point shooting performance, especially for a team that has made it their calling to let it fly from deep more often than anybody in basketball.

The Celtics’ lack of a real “test” or a healthy adversary

Celtics' Jayson Tatum, Derrick White, Jrue Holiday, Jaylen Brown watching the Knicks' Jalen Brunson attempt a free throw.

Remember that “luck” word? It’s often used as a slight in the sports world. “That team was lucky to win a championship.”

I’ve seen it most used when taking injuries into account, most notably with the 2015 Warriors, 2019 Raptors, and 2021 Bucks titles. “If Player A & Player B were healthy, Team X would’ve won over Team Y.” It’s a tale as old as time, and we’ll never know the truth of those matters had injuries not been a factor.

The Eastern Conference outside of Boston was a graveyard this season. Each of the Celtics' three opponents in the East had their best player inactive for multiple games; Jimmy Butler couldn’t make it onto the court for a single game for the Heat, Donovan Mitchell missed the final two games of the 2nd round for the Cavs, and Tyrese Haliburton missed the final two games of the Conference Finals for Indy. That’s not even mentioning the Sixers missing Joel Embiid for over half the season which led to a usually upper-echelon Philadelphia squad finishing as the 7th seed.

The Milwaukee Bucks also got shot down by injuries, as Giannis suffered a calf strain in the final weeks of the regular season that sidelined him for the entirety of the Bucks’ first round defeat to the Pacers, in which Damian Lillard also suffered a lower extremity injury with an Achilles sprain.

And we can’t forget the New York Knicks, who were the best team in the league in the month of January following their trade for OG Anunoby, only to see Anunoby and other key rotational pieces Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson go down with injuries before season’s end as well.

The Celtics, as I’ve spent so much time making clear here, have been disparaged for several reasons. A lot of basketball people have been very hesitant to crown this team as title favorites & one of the best teams ever assembled — even though all the stats bear that out as truth. Instead, it’s been a heavy regurgitation of these narratives:

  • Tatum shrinks in high-leverage moments.

  • Brown and Tatum haven’t proven they can win together.

  • Joe Mazzulla isn’t a championship coach.

  • They’re too reliant on the three-point shot.

  • They haven’t played a healthy team.

If you believe the Celtics to be frauds, you’ve got plenty of confirmation bias material here to cement that as truth in your own mind, especially with Jayson Tatum shooting the ball so poorly throughout the postseason. If you believe the Celtics to be what the numbers say they are — one of the best teams ever — they have breezed through the playoffs and the first two games of the Finals and are now two wins away from a coronation to stamp that belief.

No NBA team is perfect, but the Celtics’ acquisitions of Porzingis and Holiday have formed a juggernaut, that much is clear from the objective eye. They were the favorites in preseason for that reason and have remained such every step of the way up to this point. I would just encourage NBA fans to keep their objective eye open when watching the remainder of these Finals, and remember this:

The truth always lies somewhere in the middle.

Larry O'Brien trophy. NBA Finals


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