2024 NBA Finals

Turning Point: Key moment that helps Celtics take 3-0 lead in NBA Finals

With Dallas mounting a huge comeback, Luka Doncic's 6th foul ends up being pivotal as Boston hangs on to grab a 3-0 lead.

The Celtics dedicated offensive energy on hunting Luka Doncic, and their aggressive outlook paid off in fouls during Game 3.

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DALLAS — The rap on Luka Doncic, Dallas’ perennial Kia MVP candidate and one of the NBA’s most potent, creative and versatile offensive players, often comes down to this: He doesn’t play much defense.

That’s a problem for the Mavericks … until he does. Then things can get much worse for them.

Rather than settle into his familiar traffic-cone mode Wednesday night in Game 3 of the 2024 NBA Finals presented by YouTube TV, Doncic actually got busy when the Boston Celtics had the ball. Too busy, as it turned out.

The Celtics would have been happy just to hunt out Doncic in pick-and-roll switches or, frankly, just send any Boston ball handler at him to blow by or seize the space the Slovenian star gave them. But with Doncic trying to guard, they were able to get him into foul trouble.

The worst kind of foul trouble, which proved to be the turning point in the Celtics’ 106-99 victory at American Airlines Center that put them up 3-0, one win away from the franchise’s 18th NBA championship.

The moment: As Jaylen Brown angled toward the paint from the right wing, Doncic tried to draw a charge or at least impede the Celtics player. He did neither. As Brown plowed ahead, Doncic appeared to lead with his right shoulder and the two tumbled to the floor.

Referee Kevin Scott’s verdict: A blocking foul on Doncic, his sixth personal, which meant he was done for the night.

The impact: Gee, let’s see, is it possible to overstate how significant Doncic’s exit was? Much of the air left the building, followed soon enough by disheartened Mavericks fans. Their team had pulled off a 20-2 run in the six minutes or so that preceded Doncic’s disqualification, turning what had been a daunting 91-70 hole into real trouble for the Celtics at 93-90.

Oddly, Dallas coach Jason Kidd paused the momentum of his team’s run by calling a timeout with 5:25 left. Both teams had missed shots just before that, so it wasn’t as if the Celtics had anything cooking. Then, 47 seconds and dueling misses later, Boston’s Joe Mazzulla used a timeout too.

It was when play resumed that the Mavericks’ Jenga toppled.

Doncic had missed a shot near the rim at 4:57, with Brown grabbing the rebound. That’s when Doncic tried to line up with Brown at the other end, Scott whistling the Dallas star for not having established his defensive position.

Doncic, seated on the hardwood, threw up his arms and the Mavs dutifully challenged the call. Upon review, though, the foul was upheld. The NBA’s scoring champion from the regular season was gone. Through the first 400 regular-season and 47 playoff games of his career, he had fouled out only twice.

Now it was 448 and three. And Dallas, which has spent three Finals games in search of a third reliable scorer, was down to just one: Kyrie Irving.

Irving stirred some visions when his pull-up shot at 3:37 got Dallas within one point. But Boston scored on four of its next five possessions, a 9-4 spurt that put and kept the Mavericks two possessions behind.

What they’re saying: “He’s definitely got a bull’s-eye on his chest. He’s got to be able to guard and understand that we’re there to protect him and help him if he does get beat. … They are putting him in every pick-and-roll and iso. He’s got to be able to play the game where he can rest on offense and let others carry the load.” — Mavs coach Jason Kidd on Doncic’s foul-prone defense

“It’s not the first time a team has tried to target Luka on the defensive end. So for us, we’re just trying to put a great shell defense around not only him, but the rest of the team.” — Dallas guard Kyrie Irving

“Luka is a great player. I’m going to start by saying that. He does a lot for their team. Offensively has the ball in his hands a lot. It’s a tough lift for him. He’s been tough. Even with that fourth quarter, those stats, he’s still been able to pretty much get to whatever he wants.” — Boston’s Jaylen Brown

“I mean, I don’t know. We couldn’t play physical. I don’t know. I don’t want to say nothing. You know, six fouls in the NBA Finals, basically I’m like this [motions with palms out]. C’mon, man.” — Luka Doncic on fouling out and how the game was officiated

What’s next: It was bad enough that Doncic picked up four fouls in a span of 7:34 in the fourth quarter. His fifth foul was iffy, too, called when Brown appeared to hook him on a move toward the basket. And frankly, his second foul back in the third quarter seemed borne entirely of frustration immediately after missing a shot.

What’s worse is that the Mavericks’ most important player is fading or failing down the stretch. In the fourth quarter of three Finals games, he has scored a total of eight points on 3-for-15 shooting.

Whatever Doncic, his teammates and their coaches figure out, they’ll need to be fast. Game 4 is Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the tightest turnaround between games all series. Boston will be heading home Saturday regardless – the question is whether the Mavericks go back as well.

Someone asked Kidd what tactic he might use to clear his players’ heads, seeking a reset in the face of this 3-0 hole.

“This is a quick turn, so we don’t have time to, like, go to the park or anything,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how to score the ball, take care of the ball.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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