There’s an adage about the NBA playoffs that claims, “The series doesn’t start until a home team loses a game.”

It’s absurd if taken at face value, of course. A series could finish in seven games without a road team winning, and you can learn a great deal about two teams in the first two games of a series.

But the purpose of the adage is to remind people not to overreact to a couple games on one team’s home floor before the other team has a chance to play at home. And the Dallas Mavericks are hoping their results turn around at home, because, through two NBA Finals games, it sure looks like the Boston Celtics have them all figured out.

Boston – halfway to gaining a record 18th NBA championship – came out strong in Game 1 at TD Garden, leading big early and withstanding the only real run Dallas had in the third quarter. Then Dallas threw a punch in Game 2, only for the Celtics to come away with a win despite an off-shooting night.

So is this series due for its first twist after Wednesday night’s tipoff in Dallas (8:30 ET, ABC)? Or is this matchup over before it ever really began?

Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong for the Mavericks and if enough of the flaws are fixable.

NBA title chances
Percentages according to the Team Rating Adjusted for Conference and Roster (TRACR) projection model.

The Mavericks’ Reasons for Optimism

The biggest reasons for hope for the Mavericks? Their best player, of course, and the fact they’re playing at home.

Luka Doncic wasn’t aggressive enough early in Game 1, but that changed in Game 2 when he racked up a triple-double with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.

The Celtics have refused to double-team Doncic frequently, as they do with most players. They’ve relied on their defenders to play with less help, allowing Doncic to score a lot while also making it more difficult for him to get other players involved.

With Boston giving him more opportunities to attack and get in the paint, Doncic got off to a quick start and hit several step-back jumpers that seemed unstoppable. When a smaller defender like Derrick White (who is a terrific defender but is lacking in size) or Payton Pritchard was on him, Doncic didn’t hesitate to get to his spot and shoot over the defender. The only player who gave Doncic any trouble was Jaylen Brown, who finished with three steals and forced Doncic into some bad turnovers.

The Celtics don’t have an easy counter to Doncic going off on offense, either. Even if they wanted to blitz more, the Mavericks got a couple of lobs off the handful of times Boston decided to put two on the ball (whether as a reaction to the play or a change of pace).

The Celtics have stymied Dallas’s lob game for the most part by refusing to put two defenders on the ball, and they’ll continue to take the tradeoff of Doncic having more ways to get to his spots. He should continue to aggressively attack, and, in Game 2, he generated more assist opportunities by getting into the paint and finding teammates.

However, Doncic has to cut down on the live ball turnovers. The Celtics have four players who can grab the ball and go, and an entire team of good shooters and decision-makers. Giving them a live-ball turnover and a man-advantage the other way is basically handing over free points.

It would help Doncic if his costar could get right in this series. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Mavericks offense is the lack of production or efficiency from Kyrie Irving.

Irving hasn’t gotten it going at all in the first two games of the NBA Finals, totaling 28 combined points on 37 shots. He’s missed all eight of 3-point attempts and has taken only two free throws. Quite simply, this isn’t good enough for a player the Mavs need to be a superstar.

Boston’s advantage coming into the series was its versatility and depth of star players. Dallas’s advantage was the scoring combination of Doncic and Irving. For the Mavericks to make some noise at home, their two stars have to be the top-two offensive players for either team.

Irving’s postseason resume contains some of the more massive moments in league history, so there isn’t concern about the moment being too big for him. Boston has done an excellent job defending him and been incredibly disciplined on his ball fakes. All of its perimeter defenders have made it a point to not foul him, and he’s resorted to taking some tough midrange shots. He may hit some of those, but he’s not going to hit them at the rate as Doncic, and he doesn’t have the size of Doncic to shoot over some of Boston’s smaller defenders.

The Oklahoma City Thunder had a similar game plan against Irving a couple of rounds ago and were mostly successful in reigning him in. He shot just two free throws over the final four games of that series and had two single-digit scoring games.

But against the Thunder, Irving picked his spots and took over a couple times for long stretches. Against Boston, Dallas needs more. Irving can’t just be good for stretches, he needs to be a consistent scoring threat. His jump shot coming back would help and he needs to force the issue and get to the foul line at least a few more times in Game 3.

 It’s not just Irving who needs to find his shot. The entire Mavericks’ team except Doncic has gone frigid from behind the arc. Doncic is 8 for 21 (38.1%) on 3-pointers in the first two games of the Finals. The rest of the team is 5 for 32 (15.6%).

The five makes and 15.6% are both catastrophes. While the Celtics defense can be credited for a good portion of the issues, the Mavericks are almost certainly going to shoot better moving forward in the series. And with just average shot-making from Irving and the rest of Doncic’s supporting cast, their offense would be good enough to give the team a chance at the end of games.

The Mavericks’ Reasons For Pessimism

The other side of the ball, however, offers a problem the Mavericks may find unsolvable.

The Celtics’ versatility and egalitarian offense have given the Mavericks fits. And it’s not unsustainable shooting or scheme issues that can be rectified. It’s quite simple: If Doncic and Irving can’t put up a better fight containing penetration, the Mavericks are toast.

Jason Kidd is an excellent defensive coach and Dallas took a massive step forward on that end when acquiring Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington and drafting Dereck Lively II. It wasn’t just about those players; the team as a whole bought into playing defense, with Doncic and Irving looking like competent defenders down the stretch and throughout a good portion of the season.

The Mavericks are great at recovering after initially allowing penetration. They did this a lot to close passing lanes for Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western Conference finals. The problem is, the Celtics just don’t care how good an opponent is at recovering. They’re better equipped to get a good shot against a scrambling defense than any other team in the league. If the floor is tilted at all in their favor, you’re dead.

Dallas seems to be trying to do a version of what Boston is doing on defense. The Mavericks aren’t trying to double Jayson Tatum or Brown, but make those players beat them and hold down the rest of the team. But the penetration of Tatum and Brown (and really any of the Celtics) has become such a problem, the Mavs have to send help or risk allowing easy layups.

The return of Kristaps Porzingis to the Celtics’ lineup hasn’t made things any easier for the Mavs. And once the defensive help comes, the Eastern Conference champion’s combination of ball handling, passing and shooting is lethal.

In the following sequence, Brown actually has the option of a pass to Al Horford for a corner 3-point attempt or go to White to keep the ball moving once he gets into the paint. He chooses the latter, and the Boston machine goes into hyperdrive.

Against a different team, perhaps the player in White or Tatum’s spot isn’t as accomplished at dribbling and passing, so the Mavericks can close out more aggressively without the fear of being punished. But this is the Celtics, so as the aggressive help comes toward White, Tatum goes toward the paint, and Jrue Holiday gets an easy corner 3.

These plays are going to happen against the Celtics – it’s inevitable. But limiting them to a degree is the difference between a workable defensive rating and one that will get a team swept.

Doncic at least made Brown work on that drive a little bit before penetration. There were too many instances of a Celtics player getting past a defender with no resistance at all, and Doncic was the biggest culprit.

The following is simply a crossover dribble, and Doncic is basically out of the play. Tatum finishes over Derrick Jones Jr. for the basket plus the foul. It’s a lot to ask of Doncic to be better defensively and shoulder the offensive burden, but that is what must happen for the Mavericks to have a shot in the Finals.

The same is true with Irving. He has to be better on both ends for Dallas to have a chance.

Kidd can scheme all he wants, and he will certainly make some adjustments defensively before Game 3. But no adjustments are going to stop the Celtics offense without the Dallas perimeter players containing penetration at a much higher level. And there hasn’t been a lot to indicate they’ll be able to do that in the series. Game 1 was a relatively easy win for Boston, but Game 2 told the story of these two teams: Neither team shot the ball well at all, but Boston still routinely generated easy looks on offense, while Dallas had to settle for more difficult shots.

Dallas can’t assume shooting luck is going to help turn the tide considering the Celtics pulled out Game 2 after shooting just 25.6% on 3-pointers.

Can the Mavs Force the Celtics to Be Clutch?

The one tiny crack in the Celtics’ armor offensively has been the team’s clutch offense, which has been a bit inconsistent this season and in past NBA playoffs.

The few possessions when the game hung in the balance, the Celtics didn’t look their best offensively. After being down 14 with 3:34 left, the Mavericks went on a 9-0 run to cut the lead to five points with 1:15 left. And if it wasn’t for White channeling his inner LeBron James and coming up with a big transition block, the Mavericks could’ve cut the lead to three with under a minute left.

As it stands, there’s been only 26 seconds of clutch time in the series. If Dallas can hang around enough to make the game competitive, the Mavericks should be at an advantage in late game situations with Doncic and Irving’s usual shot-making compared to a sometimes-stagnant Celtics’ crunch time offense. But that requires the Mavs to be within real striking distance of the Celtics late instead of needing a miraculous comeback.

The Mavericks will have a shot at getting back in the NBA Finals if they can keep Game 3 close late. But the Celtics offense over the rest of the game might make that awfully difficult.

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