On a night when Luka Dončić was showing a national ESPN audience why his MVP campaign should be regathering steam, he got upstaged by one of his teammates.
And the Mavericks – and Dončić – were grateful for it.
Jalen Brunson was the steadying influence for the Mavericks in the fourth quarter, when things got dicey against Boston. A once-ginormous lead had been chopped to nine, then four and finally to two points in the final moments.
But Brunson scored six points in the final 36 seconds, including four clinching free throws in the final 12 ticks, as the Mavericks hung on for a 113-108 victory over the Celtics at the TD Garden.
It was the sort of calm, confident production the Mavericks almost always get out of Luka, who was sensational with 36 points, 24 of them in the first half.
But this time, it was Brunson taking care of the heavy lifting on the final possessions.
“That’s just who he is,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s been a confident player since he got here. He’s confident, yet he’s humble. And he’s a guy who always looks in the mirror and is honest with himself.
“Tonight, it’s so important to have a guy like him that’s in his third year in the NBA, but has a lot of experience in big college games, high-pressure games. He just has a real calmness to him. He hit big free throws down the stretch, made big plays going to the basket and he got some rebounds for us.”
It was one of those plays going to the basket that stalled Boston’s rally from 23 points down in the third quarter and put the Mavericks up 108-100 with 36 seconds left.
“His rim attacks this year have been a real key to any success that we’ve had,” Carlisle said.
Said Brunson of his recent increase in penetration points: “I’m just trying to get downhill and make the defense collapse. That leads to easier threes, but obviously if they don’t help over, I’m able to finish at the basket. It’s something I’ve done a million times, so I’m confident with it.”
After going up by eight, the Mavericks hung on for dear life, surviving the last of their 20 turnovers and, when Boston got it to 109-107 behind Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, the Mavericks responded with Brunson, who calmly made all four of his free throws on the last possessions.
“That was great,” Dončić said of Brunson. “He was there the whole game, especially at the end. He did amazing things. Great job. But it’s not the first time. He does this a lot and it’s what we need from him.”
Brunson finished with 21 points, 10 of them in the fourth quarter. He hit 8-of-10 shots and his steady hand on the free throws ensured that the Celtics never got a shot to tie the game or take the lead.
It was the Mavericks’ second win in a row and pushed them to 25-21, best in the Southwest Division. They are 2-1 on this five-game trip, their longest of the season. It continues Friday at New York. It also completed a season sweep of the Celtics after February’s win in Dallas, when Dončić made two late 3-pointers to seal that game.
Dončić simply could not be stopped on Wednesday as he staked the Mavericks to a huge lead late in the first half. Fans (and potentially MVP voters) were treated to 11-of-15 shooting for the game, including 7-of-11 from 3-point range. The only downer was his eight turnovers.
But with Luka’s shotmaking setting the tone, the Mavericks had one of their best long-range shooting games of the season, going 19-of-39 (48.7 percent) from beyond the arc.
The Mavericks, who had lost their last four visits to Boston, were up by 20-something much of the third quarter until a surge by the Celtics made it 83-69.
From the start, the Mavericks looked like the team that had won 12 of their previous 15 games when Porzingis and Dončić both play.
But it would not last. The lead eroded slowly. But the key was that the Mavericks did not collapse completely.
“Anytime you beat Boston twice in one year, it’s a pretty good thing,” Carlisle said. “It means you’re playing some good basketball. And I thought when things got a little hairy down the stretch, the great thing we did was keep our poise and we were able to get fouled, make free throws and get a key basket when we needed it. We did make some mistakes. But it’s a good win.”
And it was grounded in defense. The Celtics had trouble making shots for three quarters and their stars, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, didn’t get rolling until late. Half of Boston’s 94 shots were 3-pointers. They made just 11-of-47.
Tatum had 25 points, but he had to work to get them.
“Dorian Finney-Smith had a great defensive performance,” Carlisle said. “We basically mirrored his minutes with Tatum’s. Tatum had 25 points, but it took 24 shots for him to get those. So Dorian got the defensive (player of the game) belt tonight.”