Luka Doncic's 1st NBA Finals experience could prove educational

Struggles and criticism may provide Dallas' 25-year-old superstar with valuable lessons for future playoff runs.

Luka Doncic discusses what he has learned after losing Game 3 and what the Mavericks have to do to win Game 4.

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DALLAS — Michael Jordan banged on the door several times while the Detroit Pistons banged on him.

LeBron James got swept out of his first NBA Finals and didn’t return for four more years.

And the late, great Jerry West lost in the Finals seven times, suffering year after year until, at age 33, he and the Lakers finally won in West’s eighth trip.

The first two guys mentioned above hold down spots on many fans’ and insiders’ NBA Mt. Rushmores. This suggests there is time and opportunity for Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks’ star guard and NBA scoring leader, to scale his sport’s heights and win one or more championship rings.

This year? Not so much. Doncic and Dallas are at the bottom of a 3-0 hole against Boston. That’s a deficit from which no NBA team has climbed to win a best-of-seven playoff series, never mind a Finals.

With Game 4 set for Friday (8:30 ET, ABC) at American Airlines Center, the Mavericks will have their hands full just laboring to avoid a sweep. Doncic’s ongoing education as a catalyst, focal point, leader and budding legend likely will soon be interrupted.

The husky, 6-foot-7, 230-pound playmaker caught criticism after his performance in Game 3’s defeat Wednesday. He scored 27 points but needed 27 shots to get them, including a 1-for-7 showing from 3-point range. He got to the foul line for four free throws, less than half his average.

NBA TV's experts discuss how the Celtics took advantage of Luka Doncic's defensive struggles.

Worst of all, he fouled out with 4:12 to play and his team within 93-90. The irony was that an offensive-minded player known for a laissez faire attitude toward defense would bother to play it enough in a crucial game to get called for six fouls.

Hard lesson. Lumps taken. And more likely to come, which might be what Doncic needs to find himself doused in champagne, hugging the Larry O’Brien Trophy someday.

“Yeah, I think the history is there for us to learn from, when you look at great players and the struggles,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd told reporters Thursday. “You look at MJ [Jordan] and the struggles that he had against Detroit. You look at some Magic Johnson struggles. You look at LeBron’s first time around.”

Kidd himself reached the Finals in his prime with the Nets in 2002 and ’03 but didn’t win a title until he was 38 years old with Dallas in 2011. Nothing is guaranteed, and the sooner a player gets schooled in the ways of winning, the better.

“It’s there to learn from,” Kidd said. “But as the great ones, they use that going into the next season or the next couple seasons to try to get back there, because now they understand experience is a big thing.

“When you look at the Celtics, they lose to the Warriors two years ago. They lose to Miami in Game 7 [in the East finals last year]. So just experience of understanding that you’re not promised to get back, that you’ve got to work.

“For great players, you have to fail to understand how to be successful at the highest stage.”

Doncic, a veteran of six NBA seasons, turned 25 in February. His resume is dazzling for his age:

But some flaws in his game have been on full display through three Finals games: defense, whining and conditioning.

The Celtics aren’t alone in targeting Doncic almost every time downcourt, they’re just doing it under the brightest lights. He isn’t tenacious defensively and he isn’t mobile, which means the ball handler generally can blow past him unimpeded. That leads to easy baskets or at least sends Dallas’ other defenders scrambling.

“In this playoff [run], when you talk about from the Clippers [in the first round] to today, his defense has improved,” Kidd said. “But when you look at being involved in every pick-and-roll, there’s going to be mistakes that take place. That’s just the game of basketball. We’ve just got to limit those mistakes.”

Backcourt mate Kyrie Irving spoke after Game 3 of the other Mavs helping Doncic by being more disciplined in their shell defense around him. That means helping, rotating and picking up slack that starts with him. Doncic can commit more of his energy to that half of the floor, too, if Dallas can find others, from Irving to P.J. Washington to role guys like Derrick Jones Jr. or Dante Exum, to generate more scoring.

Doncic does them all no favors when he gripes to a referee about a call or non-call. He occasionally will jog back if he wasn’t successful on a scoring play, either unhappy or just tuckered. And sometimes he intertwines all three: poor defensive fundamentals, complaining to the ref and lingering too long behind the play.

Granted, it’s possible the Mavericks weren’t built to beat the Celtics. One NBA scout who worked the first three rounds of the playoffs talked about matchups in play this spring.

“Minnesota was a bad matchup for Denver, Dallas was a bad matchup for Minnesota and Boston looks like a bad matchup for Dallas,” he said. “I happen to think Denver would have been a bad matchup for Boston, mostly because of [center Nikola] Jokic. But the Celtics are a problem for these guys.”

Said Doncic: “I mean, they have great players. Basically, all five players that are on the floor, they can really score. They can shoot. Our strategy was just trying to make them drive more and then be on the wheel, on the rotations. I think I have to do a better job on that, just keeping in front.”

Doncic isn’t alone in whining at refs. The Timberwolves have two such gripers in Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. Frankly, Jokic does a fair amount with the Nuggets. It’s a dead end as far as winning games, though it can lose some.

As for Doncic’s conditioning, his physical appearance suggests he could spend an offseason getting into peak shape. “He might just have the body he’s going to have,” the scout shrugged. “The thing I wonder about is the wheels falling off. He’s been playing long seasons for a lot of years.”

Indeed, Doncic has talked of participating soon with the Slovenian national team in a bid for the Olympics.

Think of the player Doncic could be in 2024-25 if, instead, he focused this summer on addressing the above and more.

Jordan transformed himself through rigorous personal training. West kept grinding.

Doncic, asked about an offseason regimen, said: “Oh, definitely, a lot of holes [to plug], I think, still. I’m 25. I’ve got a lot of things to learn. This is my first NBA Finals, so I’m going to learn from it, for sure.

“But we’re not in the offseason yet.”

Nabil Karim, Sam Mitchell and Earl Watson breakdown how Game 3 was a lost opportunity for the Mavericks.

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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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