NBA Finals: Luka Dončić Responds to Criticism With All-Around Performance

While Dončić will never be more than a serviceable defensive player, Game 4 proved he can be that in Dallas’s rout of Boston to stave off elimination.
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic responded in an elimination game Friday to send the NBA Finals back to Boston with the Celtics leading 3–1.
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic responded in an elimination game Friday to send the NBA Finals back to Boston with the Celtics leading 3–1. / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As the clock ticked toward zero inside American Airlines Center in Dallas on Friday, there was Luka Doncic on the bench, again. On Wednesday, Doncic was in warmups for the final four minutes of Game 3, fouled out, forced to watch a game the Dallas Mavericks clawed their way back into in the fourth quarter slip away. Two days later, Doncic was back in his cushioned seat, this time because the Mavericks didn’t need him to close out a 122–84 series-extending Game 4 win over the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

It was 29 points for Doncic in this one. And probably a sigh of relief. He has been a piñata for pundits this series, never more so than after Game 3, when Doncic helped lead the Mavericks back from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit only to commit two sloppy fouls that allowed them to let it slip away after he fouled out. His defense was criticized. His effort, too. Coach Jason Kidd made an impassioned defense of Doncic before Game 4, warning that Doncic would bounce back but, faced with a Boston team loaded with defenders, no one believed him.

And then Doncic did. He scored 13 points in the first quarter, staking Dallas to a 13-point lead. He scored another 12 in the second. He hunted Al Horford on switches, then Xavier Tillman, then Sam Hauser. The result was the third-largest margin of victory in Finals history—and what amounted to a preseason game filled with bench players in the final quarter. 

“He was Luka,” Kidd said. “He’s been Luka.”

He was, only this time with help. Doncic earned his fair share of criticism for Dallas falling into a 3–0 hole, but he was far from the biggest reason. Kyrie Irving no-showed the first two games in Boston, and the supporting cast around them was MIA for all three. On Friday, everyone got in on the act. P.J. Washington made threes. Dereck Lively II grabbed rebounds. Through three quarters, before both teams emptied the benches, Maxi Kleber was +25. Doncic and Irving (21 points) led the effort, but for the first time this series, the Mavs’ role players showed up. 

“It’s five people on the floor,” Doncic said. “So that’s huge for us. Everybody played with a lot of energy. That’s how we got to do it.”

There was a different energy from Doncic on Wednesday, at least on the defensive end of the floor. Boston has exposed Doncic’s deficiencies in this series. The Celtics have targeted him, forced him to defend in pick-and-rolls and the results haven’t been pretty. Every blow by has been captured on social media, every scowl freeze framed for eternity.

Doncic will never be more than a serviceable defensive player, but Game 4 proved he can be that. He stripped Jrue Holiday in the first quarter, one of three steals he had on the night. He met Jayson Tatum at the rim in the second, using his 6’7”, 230-pound frame to form a wall between Tatum and the basket.

“We were locked in,” Doncic said. “Especially on the defensive end.” 

Kidd has preached about the ripple effect of an engaged Doncic, an effect that was evident Friday. Boston scored 21 points in the first quarter. It scored 14 in the second. Through three quarters, the Mavericks held a 54–18 edge in points in the paint, a 13–0 lead in second-chance points and a 38–21 edge on the glass. They defended without fouling—Dallas held a 22–11 edge in free throw attempts—and held the vaunted Celtics three-point shooters to 33.3%. 

“This is the most stagnant that we’ve been this series,” Tatum said. 

Derrick White, asked to sum up the game, called it “an ass kicking.”

Dereck Lively II dunks the basketball.
Lively dunks the ball in the Mavericks’ emphatic Game 4 win over the Celtics. / Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

It was, but now can the Mavericks do it again? Before Game 4, Kidd’s message was simple. “We go to Boston tomorrow,” Kidd said. “I hope you guys all packed.” No team has come back from a 3–0 deficit, but Dallas can’t think about that. It’s win in Boston, bring the series back to Texas and in Game 7, hey, anything can happen. 

“It’s first to four,” Doncic said. “We are going to believe until the end.”

The Celtics remain in control of this series, but Friday’s smackdown raised questions. Tatum continues to struggle with his shot, Jaylen Brown can’t make a three and with Kristaps Porzingis out, it’s unclear if there is anyone on the bench that coach Joe Mazzulla can trust. Porzingis was active for Game 4 but didn’t play a minute, a clear sign this rare left leg injury is serious. Tillman has had moments the last two games, but he isn’t the shooter or rim defender Porzingis is, which shrinks Boston’s margin for error considerably. 

“These are the moments,” Brown said, “that can make you or break you.”

Dallas didn’t break, at least not in Game 4, giving the Mavericks new life. Monday will be another test for Doncic, an elimination game in Boston, a hostile crowd, a city frothing to celebrate a championship. “It’s going to take everything,” said Doncic, and he knows he can deliver even more. The Celtics’ stars struggled Friday, but Doncic—who was 12-for-26 from the floor and 0-for-8 from three-point range—understands he can play better in Game 5, too. 

“I have big belief in this team that we can do it,” Doncic said. “So we just got to keep believing.”

In defending Doncic, Kidd invoked the names of some of the greats, from LeBron James to Michael Jordan. “They all were poked at,” Kidd said, “and they came back stronger and better.” Doncic isn’t on that level, but Game 4 reminded everyone that he can be. Down 3–0, Doncic responded. Down 3–1, he will have to do it again.

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Chris Mannix


Chris Mannix is a senior NBA and boxing writer at Sports Illustrated. He began his tenure at SI in 2003 and has covered the NBA Finals and major boxing matches since 2007. Mannix spent three years at "The Vertical" at Yahoo Sports before returning to SI in 2018. He hosts Sports Illustrated's Open Floor podcast. A nominee for the 2022 National Sportswriter of the Year, Mannix has won several writing awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America and the Pro Basketball Writers Association. He is a longtime member of both groups. Mannix graduated from Boston College in 2003.