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Redemption-minded Celtics set to match up with opportunistic Mavericks in NBA Finals

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BOSTON (AP) — As the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics prepare to tip off the NBA Finals, the four biggest names in the series are looking at this moment through different lenses.

Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – the Celtics’ most tenured and scrutinized stars on their roster – see it as a chance at redemption after falling just short two seasons ago and then failing to return last year.

“You think that you’re young, if you’ve been once, you’ll continue to keep going,” Tatum said. “We realized that last year. We kind of took it for granted at certain moments.”

And now?

“I’m not thinking about what it would mean for my legacy or anything like that,” he said. “Just excited to play some basketball … and go out there and try to get the job done.”

Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving see it as their first opportunity to make good on a partnership that began late last season after Irving was traded from Brooklyn following a tumultuous run of two-plus seasons with the Nets.

But the duo was still learning to play with each other during their truncated time together last season and didn’t make it to the postseason. After a slow start this season, they found cohesion after the All-Star break and emerged from a deep Western Conference field.

For Irving, it has been a reminder that success can be fleeting. He won his lone championship with Cleveland in 2016 and has played with three teams over the past eight years. His time in Dallas has reinvigorated him.

“These young guys are very hungry. They want a championship. I want a championship,” he said. “So our feelings are very mutual. But I’ve always reminded them that this is a process. Failure is going to be part of this, too. Get it out your mind that this is about to be a clean sweep or everything is about to feel good throughout this journey and all that.

“I’m just very real, very honest. That’s what’s helped me grow as a leader.”

Doncic credits the partnership with Irving for uncorking the potential of a team that entered the postseason as a fifth seed.

“His leadership is amazing,” Doncic said. “The way he connects us. I think me and Kyrie are the leaders of this team, but he’s the one that’s been in the Finals. He’s the one that won in the Finals. He’s the one that is really leading it.”

They’ll matchup with a Boston team playing like a group that has learned from its recent shortcomings. That was exhibited during a 64-win regular season that established it as a favorite to raise the franchise’s 18th championship banner entering the postseason.

Through the first three rounds, the Celtics have met the challenge, losing just two games along the way under the guidance of second-year coach Joe Mazzulla.

They’ve also benefited from an offseason shakeup of its roster that saw longtime emotional leader Marcus Smart and former NBA Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon traded in favor of 7-footer Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday, who won a championship with Milwaukee in 2021.

Brown said a core that features seven players from the 2022 team that lost in the Finals to Golden State, is up to the challenge.

“I think this is a special group. I really do,” Brown said. “We’ve been able to go through the experiences of having success but not having success at the same time. I think to solidify the ultimate goal is to get over the hump and win. I think that will add a lot to our legacy. But as of right now, that story is kind of still untold.”

COACHING PERSPECTIVES

This stage is nothing new to Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who is in the Finals for the fifth time as a player or coach.

He has experienced lows, such as losing back-to-back trips to the Finals in 2002 and 2003 as a player with the New Jersey Nets. He has also seen success, earning his lone title as a player with Dallas in 2011 at age 38 and one as an assistant on the Lakers 2020 championship team.

The biggest lesson he has taken away is to approach it like business and be ready to live with the results. That has been his message to his team throughout these playoffs.

“This is the best of the best at the highest level,” Kidd said. “It’s fun. That’s what the Finals are all about, is seeing what team is going to step forward and take advantage of mistakes.”

Mazzulla was an assistant on Ime Udoka’s staff in 2022. What he learned from that experience is that the details of winning never change, even on this stage.

“The toughest team will win,” Mazzulla said. “The team that makes the most plays will win. The team that can execute the details at a high level will win. It’s no different.”

FRIENDS AND COMPETITORS

Irving is ready for what he expects to be an icy greeting from Boston’s home crowd for Game 1 on Thursday.

Celtics fans haven’t held a high opinion of him since he ended two disappointing seasons in Boston by leaving for the Nets and joining Kevin Durant in free agency in 2019.

He then rankled the Boston faithful even more when he flipped his middle finger at fans after making a shot during Brooklyn’s first round playoff series loss to the Celtics in 2022. But he said he is looking forward to matching up with “brothers” and former teammates Tatum and Brown.

“They’ve gotten tremendously better. They’ve led their team to this point. So I’m proud of them,” Irving said. “I’m looking forward to the competition because this is what we’ve all strived for since we were kids, basketball at this level playing against the best of the best.”

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

By KYLE HIGHTOWER
AP Sports Writer

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