Brilliant Doncic answers critics, keeps Mavs alive

DALLAS — Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd passionately defended his 25-year-old superstar before Friday’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals, saying some of the “barbecue”-hot criticism of Luka Doncic over the previous couple of days had gone “a little too far.”

Then Doncic responded in the best possible way, putting together a dominant, poised performance to lead the Mavs to a season-extending 122-84 win, preventing the Boston Celtics from celebrating their record-breaking 18th championship on the American Airlines Center court.

“I think he made a few people eat their words in a healthy way,” Mavs co-star Kyrie Irving said.

Doncic finished with 29 points and 5 assists in 33 minutes, resting the entire fourth quarter along with the rest of the starters on both sides in the third-most lopsided game in Finals history. He had 22 points in the paint, more than all of the Celtics combined in the three quarters that he played. But Doncic’s offensive brilliance has never been in doubt.

The criticism in the wake of Doncic fouling out with 4:12 remaining in the Game 3 loss that put the Mavs on the brink of elimination primarily focused on two facets of the game: his defense and his tendency to allow his focus to be affected by his frustration with the officiating. He made a public vow on the day between games to significantly improve in both areas and followed through on his promise.

Doncic, as he did during his 31-point triple-double in the pivotal Game 5 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round, made a point to avoid complaining to the officiating crew Sunday. He channeled his energy into defensive effort and enthusiastic interactions with his teammates.

“We were locked in, especially on the defense end,” said Doncic, who had the game’s best plus-minus at plus-30. “We played with pace. It helped them. I’m here to help them in every way I can. We just got to play like that.”

Doncic, who had struggled as the Celtics relentlessly hunted him on defense through the first three games of the series, had by far his best performance of the Finals on that end of the floor. Doncic, who had taken great pride in his defensive improvement throughout the season, forced four turnovers and held the Celtics to 2-of-9 shooting as the primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking.

“I think what you’re seeing is him just taking accountability as best he can at this point in his life,” said Irving, who had 21 points and 6 assists to snap his personal 13-game losing streak to his former team. “He’s a young person, still trying to figure it out. I give him that grace. Also, we have to give him a little tough love where we let him know and reiterate you got to stay off those [referees] a little bit.

“I think it’s just lessons being learned. When he is locked in like that, not paying attention to the refs, he’s a huge, impactful player for us, and a great leader for us. We want him to stay consistent on that and not be too hard on himself either.”

Doncic’s relatively poor Game 3 performance, when he scored 27 points on 27 field goal attempts before fouling out, was an outlier in what has been an outstanding playoff run. He became the fourth player in NBA history with at least 600 points, 150 rebounds and 150 assists in a single postseason, joining Nikola Jokic, LeBron James and Larry Bird, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

And Doncic isn’t done, as the Mavs kept hope alive that they can become the first of 157 teams to come back from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA playoff series.

“Like I said at the beginning of the series, it’s first to four,” Doncic said. “We going to believe until the end. So we just got to keep going. I have big belief in this team that we can do it.”

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