2024 NBA Finals: Dallas vs. Boston

With Former Duke Players Representing Both Sides,
NBA Champion Certain To Include ACC/NC Connections

By Ben McCormick
North Carolina Sports Network

Three former one-and-done Duke standouts are set for a showdown in the 2024 NBA Finals, guaranteeing that — as usual — the NBA champion will have ties to both the Atlantic Coast Conference and the state of North Carolina.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum will compete against point guard Kyrie Irving and center Dereck Lively II of the Dallas Mavericks, following commanding victories in the conference finals by Boston over the Indiana Pacers and Dallas over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Duke’s NBA Finals connection extends beyond the 94 feet of hardwood, too. Amile Jefferson, a former forward (2012-17) and assistant coach (2021-23) for the Blue Devils, is an assistant coach for the Celtics. Seven years ago, Tatum was among Jefferson’s teammates in Durham.

Steve Pagliuca, a co-owner of the Celtics, is a Duke graduate as well. His sons Joe and Nick Pagliuca were walk-ons for the Blue Devils under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski. Nick was part of the program’s national championship team in 2014-15.

Finally, former Duke sharpshooter and 15-year NBA veteran JJ Redick is set to call the NBA Finals for ESPN as a color analyst.

It seems as if there is a Blue Devil everywhere you turn in this series.

For Tatum and the Celtics, this is their second trip to the NBA Finals in the last three years. This time, Boston looks to make up for its 2022 loss to Golden State.

The Celtics have been considered the championship favorites for the majority of the 2023-24 season, while boasting an NBA-best regular-season record of 64-18. They have been dominant in the playoffs, too, accumulating only two losses during the first three rounds combined (4-1 over Orlando, 4-1 over Cleveland, 4-0 over Indiana).

A 6-foot-9, seventh-year Boston superstar, Tatum is now a three-time first-team All-NBA selection — the most of any former Duke player. Grant Hill is the only other Blue Devil with a first-team selection (one, in 1997).

Tatum has been an NBA All-Star in each of the last five seasons, placing him in some rarefied company. Among former Blue Devils, only Hill (seven) and Irving (eight) have more. Tatum averaged 26.9 points and 8.1 rebounds this season.

The Celtics haven’t been strangers to deep playoff runs during Tatum’s tenure. Boston has reached the conference finals in five of the last seven seasons, including each of the last three.

However, despite being one of basketball’s most prolific brands, the Celtics haven’t won an NBA title in 16 years. Their 2008 title, under coach Doc Rivers, was their only ring since 1986.

If Boston’s championship lull is going to end, Tatum will have to etch his name in Celtics lore forever and claim a record-breaking 18th championship for the franchise.

If he continues his strong postseason play, Tatum would have a good chance at capturing the Finals MVP honor, as long as the Celtics do win the title. If that happens, he will be the first former Duke player to ever win the award.

To make that dream a reality, though, Tatum will have to go through two other former Blue Devils, including Irving, who was one of the focal points of Cleveland’s championship run in 2016.

Irving has been a controversial figure off the court for years, but one thing has been undeniable during his 13-year NBA career — he impacts winning.

In 2016, Irving averaged 27.1 points per game in Cleveland’s seven-game series win over Golden State, including a legendary 3-pointer over Stephen Curry to give the Cavs the lead heading into the final minute of the final game.

A former Boston player, Irving has had a tumultuous relationship with the Celtics since he left for Brooklyn ahead of the 2019-20 season, including an incident in the 2021 playoffs in which he purposefully stepped on the Celtics logo at mid-court after a Brooklyn victory in Game 4 of that series.

Since then, Irving has been at odds with Celtics fans, and in the coming days, he will likely face some harsh heckling from the Boston faithful.

One of the best ball-handlers in NBA history, Irving is perhaps the most recognizable former Blue Devil of all-time, professionally speaking, and his stint with Dallas has proven he is still very much a championship-level performer.

Irving’s eight NBA All-Star Game appearances are the most of any former Duke player, and he is the only Blue Devil to win an NBA ring as a star player. Now with the fourth team of his NBA career (Cleveland 2011-17, Boston 2017-19, Brooklyn 2019-23, Dallas 2023-present), Irving is looking to collect his second title.

This season was Irving’s first full year with Dallas, after being traded there by Brooklyn in February 2023. He averaged 25.6 points, 5.2 assists and 5 rebounds per game in 58 regular-season games.

If Dallas does reign victorious in the Finals, Irving will become just the third former Blue Devil to win multiple rings. Shane Battier was the first Duke player to do so, winning back-to-back with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. Quinn Cook became the second to do so, after winning in 2018 with the Warriors and again with the Lakers in 2020.

Irving would certainly be Duke’s first NBA star to win multiple championship rings, since Battier and Cook could be classified as role players.

Regardless of whether Boston or Dallas wins the NBA title this year, Duke will have its eighth all-time former player win an NBA ring. Either Tatum will grab his first with the Celtics or Lively II will lock up his first with the Mavericks.

From Duke To NBA Champion

Jeff Mullins, Golden State Warriors (1975)
Danny Ferry, San Antonio Spurs (2003)
Shane Battier, Miami Heat (2012, 2013)
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers (2016)
Dahntay Jones, Cleveland Cavaliers (2016)
Quinn Cook, Golden State Warriors (2018), Los Angeles Lakers (2020)
Jack White, Denver Nuggets (2023)

Lively II, an NBA rookie who is still only 20 years old, has been battling on and off the court. He lost his mother, Kathy Drysdale, to a prolonged battle with cancer in April, just before the start of the playoffs. Lively also lost his father at a young age, so now he is without both parents.

The big man’s story and truly passionate playing style have helped capture the hearts of Duke, Dallas and basketball fans alike.

After averaging 8.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks during the regular season, while starting 42 of the 55 games he played, Lively II received second-team All-Rookie honors. His energy and defensive presence inside have proven to be some of the missing keys Dallas needed to finally make a push through the Western Conference.

Despite battling a neck injury sustained during Game 3 of the conference finals (which was agitated again in Game 5), Lively managed to put up a historically impressive performance. His perfect 16-of-16 shooting performance was good for the most made shots without a miss in a playoff series all-time.

If Lively were to win a title this year, he would become the first Duke player coached by Jon Scheyer to win an NBA championship. That would mean it took only two years from the time Scheyer took over at Duke to the moment one of his former players climbed the highest mountain in basketball. It took 23 years for a Krzyzewski-coached player to win a title (Ferry, 2003).

No matter who wins, Duke fans are in for a treat, as at least one prominent former Blue Devil will win an NBA championship this year, or perhaps two if the underdog Mavericks can knock off the favored Celtics.