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Will Tatum's scoring improve? Five questions for Celtics-Mavs Game 3

Will Tatum's scoring improve? Five questions for Celtics-Mavs Game 3 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Game 3 of the 2024 NBA Finals technically isn't a must-win matchup for the Dallas Mavericks, but in reality, it very much is a game that the Western Conference champs can't afford to lose.

Another defeat would put the Mavs in an 0-3 hole against the Boston Celtics. No team has ever won an NBA Finals -- or any NBA playoff series -- after trailing 0-3.

Luckily for the Mavericks, they are going back home, where they own a 5-3 record in the playoffs. But aside from Luka Doncic, pretty much every Mavericks player has underwhelmed in the series so far. The Celtics have been content with allowing Doncic to do his thing and not let his teammates get into a rhythm.

Boston's defense held Dallas under 100 points in each of the first two games at TD Garden. The Mavericks scored less than 100 points just four times in their previous 17 playoff games.

Can the Mavericks make the series interesting, or will the Celtics move to within one victory of a championship?

Here are five key questions to consider entering Game 3 on Wednesday night.

Can the Mavs close the 3-point gap?

The Mavericks averaged 34 3-point shots per game over the first three rounds of the playoffs, and they hit 37.2 percent of those attempts. But in the Finals, not only is Dallas shooting 24.5 percent from 3-point range, it's taking about seven fewer 3-pointers per game.

The Mavs shot 27 3-pointers in Game 1 and 26 in Game 2. The Celtics, meanwhile, have attempted 40.5 3-pointers per game in the Finals. That difference of 14 attempts from beyond the arc is massive. The C's don't have to shoot a crazy percentage when they take 40-plus 3-pointers. The Mavs need to hit a high percentage of their 3s to keep pace if they're only attempting 27 per game.

So, why is Dallas not attempting enough 3-pointers? Credit the Celtics defense.

Boston's ability to guard Doncic and Kyrie Irving without doubling results in fewer open shooters on the perimeter. Previous playoff opponents doubled and blitzed Doncic, which often resulted in at least one Mavs role player being open behind the arc. Doncic, as a great passer, found these open teammates with regularity. These kinds of shots just aren't available to the Mavs right now.

Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd needs to find ways to create more open 3s for his team. This series will be over quickly if the Mavs can't crack 100 points, which they've failed to do in two games.

Which players could see minutes at center for C's?

The Celtics announced Tuesday afternoon that Kristaps Porzingis is "day-to-day" with a "rare" left leg injury.

C's head coach Joe Mazzulla called it a "serious injury" and added that "we've taken the decision to play out of his hands." Porzingis spoke to the media shortly after and said he will do everything he can to play.

The team hasn't released an official Game 3 injury report, as of this writing, but it's probably fair to assume that the Celtics might need to go deeper into their bench whether Porzingis plays or not.

The easiest way to replace some of Porzingis' minutes is giving Al Horford more playing time. Horford played 35 or more minutes in five of the 10 games Porzingis missed between Game 4 of the first round through the end of the Eastern Conference Finals. But with Porzingis playing the first two games of the Finals, Horford played just 30 minutes in Game 1 and 28 minutes in Game 2.

Horford is 38 years old, so it would be ideal for the C's if he played between 28 and 35 minutes. But Horford should have enough left in the tank to handle an increase workload over the next two weeks.

Aside from Horford, the C's could turn to Oshae Brissett, Xavier Tillman or Luke Kornet at center for short stretches. We could also see Tatum play center in small-ball lineups, especially if Dallas center Dereck Lively II isn't on the floor.

Will Jayson Tatum's shooting improve?

A lot has been made of Tatum's lack of efficient scoring in the Finals so far. And to his credit, the superstar forward has found other ways to make a huge impact. He nearly posted a triple-double in Game 2 with 18 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds. His seven assists in the second quarter of Game 2 were the most in a single quarter during a Finals game since John Stockton in 1998.

The Mavericks are double- and sometimes triple-teaming Tatum when he drives to the paint, and he's doing a great job of finding the open man and not settling for bad shots.

The Celtics don't need Tatum to dominate offensively to win this series, but it would certainly help if he gave them a 30-point outing or two. One area where Tatum can show significant improvement is 3-point shooting. He's hitting just 28.9 percent of his 3-pointers in the playoffs and is 4-of-14 in the series (28.6 percent).

A more efficient Tatum on the offensive end could make the Celtics nearly unbeatable, assuming their elite defensive play continues in Dallas.

Will the Celtics' road dominance continue?

The Celtics are 6-0 on the road in the 2024 playoffs and will bring an eight-game road playoff win streak (dating back to the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals) into Game 3 of the Finals. In fact, Boston hasn't lost on the road since April 9.

The Celtics aren't dominating offensively on the road, but their defense has been stellar.

Among playoff teams, Boston ranks No. 3 in defensive rating on the road, No. 3 in defensive rebound percentage on the road, No. 4 in blocks per game on the road, No. 2 in fast break points allowed on the road, No. 1 in opponent 3-point percentage on the road and No. 1 in points allowed per game on the road.

The Celtics have allowed fewer than 100 points in three of their six road games in the playoffs so far. They also excelled in clutch situations in both Game 3 and Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Indiana Pacers on the road.

This road success isn't too surprising considering the Celtics won the second-most road games during the regular season. Going into hostile territory doesn't faze this group.

Will Kyrie Irving play like a superstar?

The Mavericks won't win the series if Irving continues to score fewer than 20 points per game and shoot a poor percentage from the field.

Irving played awful in Game 1 with 12 points on 6-of-19 shooting. He started out Game 2 pretty well, scoring eight points on 4-of-5 shooting in the first quarter. But he finished with just 16 points on 7-of-18 shooting. He's 0-of-8 on 3-pointers in the series, too.

The Mavericks don't necessarily need Irving to dominate for an entire game. If the score is close late in Game 3, a five-minute stretch where Irving completely takes over offensively -- which he's more than capable of doing -- might be enough for Dallas to get a win. Irving is one of the best closers in the sport, and he won't be fazed by a clutch-time scenario late in a Finals game.

But Doncic can't beat the Celtics by himself. He needs multiple teammates to take on a large portion of the scoring burden, and one of those players has to be Irving. He has yet to score fewer than 20 points in three straight games during this playoff run. If that happens Wednesday, Dallas will be in major trouble.

Another issue for Irving is his defense. The Celtics scored 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting when Irving was the primary defender in Game 2. They are shooting 69 percent from the field when Irving is the primary defender in the series overall. He can't be that much of a liability defensively.