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Kristaps Porzingis Found Fit With Celtics He Never Could With Mavericks

Written by on June 6, 2024

BOSTON—Kristaps Porzingis didn’t want to talk about it.

“It didn’t work out,” Porzingis said.

Luka Doncic wanted nothing to do with it.

“Moved on,” Doncic said.

Tim Hardaway Jr. didn’t want to touch it.

“I think that’s a question for them,” Hardaway said.

It is the question of why Doncic and Porzingis, teammates for 2½ seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, didn’t pan out. In 2019, Dallas, midway through Doncic’s rookie season, made what qualified as a blockbuster trade, flipping a pair of first-round picks to the New York Knicks for a package headlined by Porzingis. In Porzingis, a then-23-year-old forward coming off an All-Star season, the Mavericks believed they had landed an ideal co-star for Doncic who would form the foundation for a title contender. Then-Dallas coach Rick Carlisle likened Doncic and Porzingis to another pair of Mavs stars, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.

“Only these guys,” Carlisle said, “are taller.”

It wasn’t. By 2022, Porzingis was gone, offloaded for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Porzingis’s numbers in his final 34 games in Dallas: 19.2 points on 45.1% shooting, including 28.3% from three.

“We had some good moments,” Porzingis said. “We had some decent moments. Overall I think it didn’t work for both sides. It wasn’t perfect.”

Said Doncic, “I don’t really know. I don’t know why it didn’t work out. We were still both young. We tried to make it work. But it just didn’t work.”

Ask around the Mavericks about the Porzingis era, one that began with Carlisle as head coach and ended with Jason Kidd, and you hear many of the same things. The relationship with Doncic wasn’t a significant issue. “It’s always been good,” Porzingis insisted. Injuries were certainly a factor. Porzingis was traded while recovering from an ACL tear and tore his meniscus late in his first full season. Porzingis resisted Dallas’s analytics-based approach. He struggled in a catch-and-shoot role under Carlisle and couldn’t find a rhythm under Kidd.

“I thought it was going well in the sense of our defense, his ability to block shots, rebound,” Kidd said. “Then offensively we looked to post him up a little bit more than Rick had used him, which was strictly on the perimeter shooting threes. Both worked. He has the skill set to do both. I thought KP did great for us. But the business of basketball, there was a pivot. So from there things changed.”

With the Boston Celtics, Porzingis has been the kind of fit the Mavericks had hoped for. He averaged 20.1 points. He shot a career-best 51.5% from the floor. He connected on 37.5% of his threes. He blocked nearly two shots per game, backstopping the NBA’s third-rated defense.

Asked when he knew Porzingis would be a good fit, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said, “right away.”

“I think all he cares about is winning,” Mazzulla said. “He’s used the experiences he’s had around the league. He’s seen a lot. He’s seen it all. He’s seen success. He’s seen tough times. He knows what the league is all about. I think at this point in his career, winning is the most important thing.”

Indeed, at 28, Porzingis has seen a lot. He was the unicorn in New York, a budding superstar … until he wasn’t. Dallas was a disaster. He put up numbers with the Washington Wizards for a team going nowhere. Boston afforded him a unique opportunity: a role he was ready for on a team that needed him to win.

“KP essentially did exactly what we needed him to do the entire season,” Jayson Tatum said. “Whether it was punish switches or space the five man and be in the corner. Sometimes that might be going possessions without touching the ball or it may be when they’re switching, we give him the ball five times in a row. I give KP a lot of credit. Especially somebody as talented as he is and obviously as tall as he is, a lot of big guys may be stuck in their ways doing what makes him comfortable. He got outside his comfort zone a little bit and it made us a better team.”

Porzingis’s ability to be that player in the NBA Finals is an open question. He has not played since late April, since a calf strain sidelined him. He says he will play in Game 1 on Thursday. Boston did not list him on its injury report. But even Porzingis admits he’s not sure how sharp he is going to be.

“I did as much as I could to prepare for this moment,” Porzingis said. “But there’s nothing like game minutes and game experience that I’m going to get tomorrow. It will be tough to jump into the Finals like this. I did everything I could to prepare for it and we’ll see [Thursday] night.”

And Dallas? Porzingis is eager to beat the Mavs. But he insists none of it is personal.

“I know at that time there were some rumors there’s like something in the locker room,” Porzingis said. “It was never like that. It’s all just noise at the end. It wasn’t just perfect for us playing together. It didn’t work out, that’s it. We moved on. There’s no, like, ill will from their side, for sure from my side. I don’t think there should be. Just didn’t work out. But I have nothing but love for Dallas and for the teammates and for everybody there.”

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