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2024 NBA Finals: Kristaps Porziņģis lifts Celtics in return, reminding Boston of what it’s been missing

2024 NBA Finals: Kristaps Porziņģis lifts Celtics in return, reminding Boston of what it's been missing

BOSTON — Kristaps Porziņģis ripped off the shirt that said “Walton” on it, rising to a standing ovation upon playing for the first time in a month — then proceeded to play like the missing piece from the second-to-last Celtics championship.

Players from the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks honored the late NBA great, Bill Walton, by wearing a shirt with his name on it to start the NBA Finals, and Porziņģis, perhaps unknowingly, evoked the best possible tribute to the fan favorite.

He didn’t solely set the tone, but everything he did was loud as the Celtics struck first in this best-of-seven series and sent a resounding message in Game 1 with a 107-89 win at TD Garden.

Loud was the theme — like Walton’s unmistakable laugh, like Jaylen Brown’s relentless defense on Luka Dončić, like the Celtics crowd being in a full lather of anger whenever Kyrie Irving touched the ball.

But it’s Porziņģis who completes this team, whether as a starter like he’s been throughout his whole career, or off the bench, as was the case for just the second time in his nine-year career. The parallels are almost too delicious for the syrupy Celtics fan base, as the team honored Walton before the game, showing his family in a luxury box. Walton was the missing piece for the 1985-86 team, arguably the best of the Larry Bird era. Beset by injury following such a promising start to his career that featured a championship and MVP, Walton merely needed to be a complementary piece to the legendary frontline of Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

In short, Walton would’ve carried Bird’s bags if Bird demanded it, but his passing, rebounding and activity did wonders.

For Porziņģis, his highs haven't touched the sky the way Walton’s did in his heyday, but he found the perfect place in Boston — the 3-point happy team leaves plenty of room for him to operate from deep or at the free-throw line against smaller defenders, and its swarming individual defense funnels unsuspecting drivers off the freeway and into a brick wall at the rim.

Kristaps Porzingis celebrates a 3-pointer during the first half of Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Finals. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

He touched them all in the first quarter, turning the game into a rout before the horn sounded. It was hard to believe he seemed unsure of how well he would play after suffering a calf injury in the first round against the Miami Heat, and he wasn’t playing possum.

Twenty points and six rebounds later, even he couldn’t be pessimistic with himself any longer.

“Yeah, I think obviously what helped me is just even from the walk out before the game and then getting on the court, getting that kind of support was unreal,” Porziņģis said. “The adrenaline was pumping through my veins and that definitely helped. Obviously it wasn't ideal that I was out for such a long time, but I did everything I could to prepare mentally for this moment coming back and it paid off.”

Brown has been one of his biggest supporters, and saw Porziņģis back at full bore even before Porziņģis knew it himself.

“Was it the first or second quarter? He just went on a run where he just, he hit the three, hit the middy, then ran back, got the block at the rim in transition,” Brown said. “He was just making play after play and it was just like, all right, he's back, there was no question about it then.”

The Celtics battling undermanned teams throughout their run allowed Porziņģis to sit until he was fully healthy, and now, Voltron is formed. Brown led the Celtics with 22 points, six rebounds, three blocks and three steals. Jayson Tatum scored 19 with 11 rebounds and five assists.

Ideally, Porziņģis’ presence along with Jrue Holiday and Derrick White will keep the two mainstays from feeling like they have to do all the scoring.

Five-part harmony.

Even Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who only coached Porziņģis for a year before he was traded, praised his skill set and almost seemed ready for what was to come.

“We're a good team when guys are down, but we're really, really special when we have everybody,” Tatum said. “I said it earlier, how seamless his transition was after being away for six, seven weeks, and coming into the game and having a first half like that, that was a big spark for us to start the game.”

Tatum admitted to nerves before the start of the game, but he said they were the good kind — like the first day of school type, when you lay your best outfit out on your bed the night before, and your sneakers are extra clean because you want to impress everyone around, to set the tone.

Tatum didn’t have to be the all-everything type, even though it’s likely to be required from him before this series ends. But it was Porziņģis who took center stage.

“I know the story line has to be, what's he going to look like because he was off for a month, but that's what he's been doing his whole career,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “He's a great player. He's been great for us. The reason why we are here is because of what he's done. It doesn't matter how long he takes off, the guy is going to make plays because of how talented he is and the work he puts in.”

It’s the addition of Porziņģis and relative health that puts the Celtics in almost an unenviable position: Just winning isn’t enough. They have to dominate and do it with style.

Any lulls will be dissected on end. Perhaps it’s playing for the Celtics that does it. Perhaps it’s having come up short but being so close to tasting champagne the last couple years.

But it’s probably the presence of Porziņģis, who was rescued from the Bad News Bears in Washington after two years in anonymity. A great team became a dominant one, and it was on display as the Celtics cruised to a 29-point lead before halftime.

“I think you guys got a pretty clear picture of that throughout the season, when we were healthy for most of that and how we played and how effective we were on both ends,” Tatum said. “KP had a big hand in that and the success that we had this season.”

Of course, there were the frustrating moments, the stretches where the Celtics lost themselves, got a little too 3-point happy and the Mavericks showed some worth in this series, cutting the lead to eight early in the third quarter.

But the Celtics quickly remembered, shutting down the lane where Dončić and Irving began to plant a little real estate, and re-established order with a 14-0 run. Dončić led all scorers with 30 points, but his one assist was the lowest mark in his playoff career — as the Mavericks were an anemic 3-of-15 from 3 outside of Dončić’s output.

And it did nothing but force the Mavericks to go down the lane, where Porziņģis, Al Horford, Tatum and Brown were waiting. Porziņģis and Brown had three blocked shots each, with Brown swatting an Irving layup out of bounds, much to the delight of the still salty Celtic crowd at Irving’s 2019 departure.

“Every game has its own story,” Brown said. “We just got to stay ready, stay composed, and take it one game at a time.”

The story of this one was remembering the smiling redhead, and squinting to see the similarities in the man lumbering down the sideline to cheers that lifted him to the sky.

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