Celtics on the brink of an 18th title, can close out Mavericks in Game 4 of NBA Finals on Friday

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, left, goes up for a basket against Dallas Mavericks center Dereck Lively II during the first half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals, Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Dallas. The Celtics won 106-99. (Stacy Revere/Pool Photo via AP)


AP Basketball Writer

DALLAS It’s over. That’s what the numbers say. There will be a record-setting 18th championship for the Boston Celtics to celebrate soon, maybe very soon. They have a 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals, a lead that has never been wasted in any NBA series, ever.

The stats are absolute.

The Celtics, to their credit, are taking nothing for granted.

On perhaps the next-to-last day of the NBA’s 78th season, the Celtics — who could finish off the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 on Friday night — were desperately trying to keep things as close to business as usual as could be expected, given that the team’s first title in 16 years is now just one win away.

“At the end of the day we’re the most vulnerable in this,” said Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, who, at 35, could be the youngest coach to win a title since Bill Russell won one as a player-coach for Boston in 1969. “So, we have to remain with a sense of urgency. We have to have an understanding of our environment. We have to know that we’re just as vulnerable as anybody else in this situation, and how we handle that will determine our fate.”

His point: Don’t let up. A team that has gone 79-20 in its first 99 games of the season — on pace for the second-best single-season record in Celtics history — would likely be wise to keep doing what’s worked all year, one more time.

“Either you survive or you don’t,” said Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, repeating something Mazzulla told the team earlier Thursday. “That resonates with me.”

It might seem puzzling that it’s the Celtics — the team up 3-0 — talking about survival and vulnerability. The reality is, obviously, that it’s the Mavericks who are backed into the corner that no NBA team has ever successfully escaped from.

They’re 0-5 against Boston this season. They’ve been outscored nearly 2-to-1 from 3-point range in this series. They saw a 13-point lead turn into a 21-point deficit on their home floor in Game 3. It’s hard to find the proverbial silver lining right now, though the Mavs insisted they still have hope.

“We’re not in the offseason yet,” Mavericks star Luka Doncic said. “They’ve still got to win one more game. Like I said, we’re going to believe until the end.”

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic heads to the lockers after Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals against the Boston Celtics, Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Dallas. The Celtics won 106-99. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

There were no concession speeches from the Dallas side on Thursday, no outward signs of surrender whatsoever. But there was an understanding of how tall this mountain — down 0-3 — is to climb, and how nobody in the NBA has managed to scale it.

Boston came close last year, rallying from a three-game deficit to force a Game 7 at home against Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, only to lose. And that came after the Celtics lost the 2022 NBA Finals to Golden State, that series ending in Boston as well. Those were learning experiences. These finals will be one as well for the Mavs.

“When you look at the Celtics, they lose to the Warriors two years ago. They lose to Miami in Game 7 (last season). So, it’s just experience of understanding that you’re not promised to get back, that you’ve got to work,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “You see the group that is out there today. They know how to play. They’re a really good team.”

By Friday night, they could be a championship team.

The only way for the Celtics to lose this series, obviously, is if they lose the next four games. Never mind the stat about how teams with 3-0 series leads in a best-of-seven series are unbeatable — 156 teams have gone up 3-0, 156 teams have eventually prevailed in that series. Consider this one instead — the last time the Celtics lost four consecutive games in the same season was in May 2021, two coaching changes and a whole slew of roster turnover ago.

“I think from our experiences over the past couple of years, the thing that we’ve really gotten a lot better at is not relaxing, not being complacent. From game to game or series to series, we always want more,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “Maybe in recent years we took things for granted at some points or were happy to make it to certain rounds, where (now) we’re not satisfied. Even now up 3-0, nobody is celebrating or anything. We still feel like there’s a lot more that we can do. There’s a lot more that we want to do.”

There’s really only one thing left for this Celtics team to do. One more win and Banner 18 — one that’ll break the tie with the Los Angeles Lakers for the most championships in NBA history — will finally be secured.

Mazzulla doesn’t care when it happens, just that it happens.

“There’s four rounds left in this fight,” he said. “And however long it takes, whatever it takes, we’ll see how it goes.”