How the Celtics turned a crucial moment into a Game 1 win over the Mavs

In his first game in over 5 weeks, Kristaps Porzingis scored 20 points (8-13 FG) in just over 20 minutes of action.

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Boston — Under the banners he won and the jersey numbers worn by some of the NBA’s most famous “sixth men” — like Frank Ramsey, John Havlicek, Kevin McHale, and Bill Walton — Kristaps Porzingis etched his name for one night in their ranks.

Playing in his first game in more than five weeks, the 7-foot-2 center came off the bench to spark Boston’s 107-89 win in Game 1 of the Finals on Thursday at TD Garden.

the moment

Coming off the bench for just the second time in 473 games during his nine-year career, Porzingis — returning from a right calf injury — came into a red-hot situation with 7:17 left in the first quarter with his team trailing 12-11.

“To get that kind of support was unreal,” he later said. “Adrenaline was pumping through my veins.”

the influence

Over the remainder of the quarter, Porzingis lit up the Mavericks with 11 points. He personally outscored Boston 26-8 near that period, and added seven more points in the 5:41 he played in the second quarter.

Porzingis was up 15 in 13 minutes by halftime and outscored the entire Mavericks bench 20-4 through three quarters. That included a deep sequence in the third set after Dallas got back to within 72-64. Two drives later, Porzingis attempted a 3-pointer, missed, and then raced to the basket. Jayson Tatum grabbed the rebound and passed the ball back to the right winger for a slam dunk. The Celtics went on a 14-0 run and regained the lead at 86-66 heading into the fourth.

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His size helped defensively as well, as he competed with Dallas’ big options up front — Daniel Gafford and Derek Lively had just 10 points and eight rebounds — while clogging up space where the Mavs’ dynamic guards generally like to drive.

Let’s not neglect the emotional jolt Porzingis brought to the Celtics and the sold-out arena. It was one thing to get through 37 days of the NBA postseason without a starting center — they went 9-1 in his absence against Miami (against whom he was injured), Cleveland and Indiana. But it will be a much bigger challenge for Boston to deal with Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving and the pogo stick centers in Dallas without Porzingis’ three levels of scoring and rim protection.

what are they saying:

Porzingis on performance: “It’s kind of a blur for me now. I have to rewatch the game, what happened and so on, but I was in the whole game. This is the best feeling.”

Celtics coach Joe Mazzola: “Listen, I know the story should be, what’s it going to look like because he’s been out for a month, but that’s what he’s been doing his whole career. He is a great player. It’s been great for us. The reason we are here is because of what he did. It doesn’t matter how long he’s out, the guy is willing to make plays because of how talented he is and the work he does.

Porzingis on Mazzola talks to him about the role of the substitutes: “I know he knew I’d be okay with anything, you know, so he just told me, what do you, like, think about this. And I said, of course, let’s do it. And that’s it. It wasn’t a big deal and I trust “Joe and he trusts me.”

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Celtics Center Al Horford: “KP got to an unbelievable place there early in the first half, in the first quarter, and I felt like he really got us going and took us to another level as a team.”

Teammate Jaylen Brown: “It was great. No one is prouder and more excited for him than me. … He’s a big reason why we’re the best team in basketball in terms of records, at least, and to have him back and playing well and to the level he was at during the season is very important for us.” Because you’ve got another defender, another shooter, out there that you have to respect.

Porzingis wonders about rust, conditioning or calf“A little bit of everything, right. It’s difficult not to play for a month and then move on to the most intense match in the finals. … I did everything I could to prepare for this moment, mentally for example, and then I went out and played almost instinctively and trusted my body.

What then

It’s unknown if Porzingis can contribute at this rate for the rest of the series or even in Game 2 on Sunday. Neither he nor anyone else knew late Thursday how the calf would respond to the demands placed on him or how he would feel in the coming days.

The Mavericks will adjust to what they saw from him and try to test his stamina, and perhaps mobility, more than they did. The adrenaline Porzingis felt likely won’t be as available next time.

In the best tradition of, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, Porzingis will likely continue as the Celtics’ sixth man. For the franchise that invented the role.

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Steve Ashburner has been writing about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here , find his archive here and Follow him on X.

The opinions expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the NBA, its clubs, or Warner Bros. Discovery.

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