2024 NBA Finals

Luka Doncic keeps Mavericks alive with impressive Game 4 performance

Dallas' star guard rebounds from a tough Game 3 with an all-around effort to help the Mavericks stave off elimination.

Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving combine for 50 points and the Mavericks extend their season with a historic rout in Game 4.

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DALLAS — That was Luka Doncic. This is Luka Doncic.

If Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said it once, he said it a half dozen times. He wanted to verbally hit a reset button on the narrative surrounding his superstar guard, which in Kidd’s opinion got tilted way too far toward the negative through the first three games of the 2024 Finals presented by YouTube TV.

So when Doncic dominated Game 4, scoring 29 points and driving an attack that blew out Boston 122-84 Friday night at American Airlines Center, there was nothing redemptive about his performance in Kidd’s view.

Doncic was fine. Doncic is fine.

“He was Luka. He’s been Luka,” the coach said. “There wasn’t a different Luka out there. He played at a high level. He was great. He’s been great.

“He’s one of the best players in the world. As much as we want to criticize, he’s a hell of a player.”

Luka Doncic drops a game-high 29 and Dallas routs the Celtics to push the Finals back to Boston for Game 5.

Two things can be true at once, of course. Namely, Doncic’s status as one of the NBA’s brightest young stars and the Mavericks’ runaway most valuable player could remain unquestioned, even as the team dropped the first three Finals games and Doncic looked in Game 3 Wednesday like he was throwing a piston rod.

He struggled mightily in three areas – lazy defense, incessant complaining and an apparent lack of stamina. Never mind his stats that night – OK, mind the 27 shots he needed to score 27 points – the real letdown was picking up four of his six fouls in the fourth quarter. He was disqualified with 4:12 left in a one-possession game, the precise time Dallas needed him most. His team lost by seven.

So he was asked about it and so were his coach and teammates. Nothing unusual there.

“I think obviously Luka has to hold himself to a high standard,” Mavs backup guard Dante Exum said late Friday. “Him fouling out doesn’t give us the best position to win. Obviously, we need him on the court and he knows that.”

Doncic exited early again in Game 4. With 1:29 remaining in the third quarter, the Mavericks in front 92-57. Boston coach Joe Mazzulla had conceded, taking all five of his starting pieces off the board during a timeout moments earlier.

Doncic’s line this time: 29 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals (not bad for a shoddy defender) and only turnover. He missed all eight of his 3-point attempts – he’s 1-for-15 in the past two games and 9-for-36 through four. But the way he ran the game, unstoppable at one end and solid at the other, saw him post a plus-30 in 32:33 minutes.

Having brushed aside hard questions after Game 3, Doncic did the same with rosier ones Friday. He had said the key for him going forward was to yield to the referees and try to have fun. He stuck with that after Dallas’ first victory.

“Just helps out my team,” he said. “We were locked in, especially on the defense end. We played with pace. It helped them. I’m here to help them in every way I can.”

Rookie center Dereck Lively II, so precocious at age 20 on the court (11 points, 12 rebounds), was pretty insightful. Of Doncic, Lively said: “You know, he trusts us to know he’s going to play the best defense he can with as much energy as he’s got. If they get by him, he knows we’re going to back him up. He knows exactly what we’re going to do and how we have his back.

“Only thing I told him, ‘Look, going out there, first two times you get fouled, don’t say nothing to the refs. That’s all I got. Just please don’t do that.’”

Dallas, at its best, builds a shell defense around Doncic while he hides against an opponent’s lesser scorer, for obvious reasons and to conserve energy. Boston makes that near impossible with shooters up and down its lineup.

Seizing the game from the start and getting the Celtics to blink achieved the same result. Dallas pummeled them in the paint all night, a 60-22 advantage, and held them to season-low in points and nearly that in shooting (36.2%).

Look, the Mavericks had a bunch of factors from which to draw motivation. Getting swept is embarrassing, undercutting so much of what they accomplished through the playoffs’ first three rounds.

Nobody wants an opponent to celebrate a title on their court. And Dallas hadn’t played close to its best basketball through the first three games. Its corner 3s, its lob dunks, its energy had been absent.

But having Doncic pushed into an early summer was wrong, too. Neither he nor his teammates wanted that ringing in their offseason ears. So for a night, he and they did something about it.

The 25-year-old is who they thought he was. Let the Celtics field the redemption questions for a couple of days heading into Game 5 (8:30 ET, ABC).

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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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