Sunday, June 16, 2024
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NBA Finals: Luka Doncic reminded how hard it will be to finish job vs. Celtics as comeback bid falls short

BOSTON — There was a brief flash of a moment in the third quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals here when it seemed, just maybe, that Luka Doncic alone might beat the Boston Celtics all by himself. 

And that perhaps this whole winning-a-ring thing wouldn’t be too hard after all for the Dallas Mavericks superstar.

He hit a marvelous step-back 3. What had been an ugly Celtics blowout was now a 13-point game. Then a Doncic steal, the ball finding its way to Kyrie Irving, who hit a pretty fadeaway. Eleven-point game. Then, less than a minute later, Doncic hit another step-back 3. Now the lead was just eight points, and that Celtics 29-point lead from the first half seemed so long ago. That boisterous Boston Garden mass of confident fans that had been rocking and laughing and flaunting seemed to be shrinking and vanishing and fading.

Behind me, the boisterous Celtics fan who had been all cockiness and surety in the first half broke the silence. “F— no,” he said. “Doncic.”

At 25 years old, Donic is years younger than the men he will likely compete with for titles, trophies and glory. There’s only so much hardware to go around, of course, only so many rings one can win. His good friend Nikola Jokic has a title and three MVPs. Giannis has one and two, respectively. Joel Embiid has not yet won a Finals, or been to one, but does own an MVP. 

Luka has none of those things, yet, but in that glorious burst of his greatness Thursday night, under the swaying ferocity of Celtics green, it seemed he was well on his way. 

Perhaps his time was now. Perhaps there was an inevitably to this quest. Perhaps even a 29-point deficit to this deep, dangerous, hungry Celtics team was no obstacle.

Then, reality.

After Jaylen Brown made one of two free throws, and the Celtics now nine-point lead felt somehow like a 10-point deficit, Doncic pulled down the rebound, pushed the ball up the floor, and again it found its way into Iriving’s capable hands.

A 3-point shot. A shot to cut the lead to six. A chance to steal this game, this series, to turn it all around in one amazing night in Boston.

Brick.

Turns out, of course, that this attempted championship run, whether ultimately successful or not, is going to be very, very difficult. Winning always is. It’s why the line between a ring and a bitter memory can be painfully narrow to the point of cruelty. 

Getting here is so difficult you can take it for granted once you do. Getting back? That can be even harder.

Ask Giannis. He hasn’t sniffed a championship since winning in 2021. Ask Jokic, who seemed poised to restart the time-honored tradition of NBA dynasties. The Nuggets went out in this year’s second-round. You could ask Embiid, but he’s still trying to simply find his way to the Finals for the first time.

Ask the multitude of greats who have made Finals but never finished the job. The Chris Pauls, James Hardens, Karl Malones, a running list Doncic must now work very hard to keep his name off of.

Yes, Thursday night was just one game, a 107-89 beatdown though it may have been. But it was a bitter start, and a stark reminder greatness does not come easily. 

Doncic certainly did not get a lot of help. His bench was absent most of the game. Daniel Gafford and Derrick Lively II were painfully quiet. That Celtics defense swamped the Mavs all night, often leaving Donic, who finished with 30 points on just 12-of-26 shooting, including 4 of 12 from deep, often alone out there.

Even Kyrie, a late-game stalwart in these playoffs who has often ridden to Doncic’s rescue en route to this Finals appearance, did not have it in him this time. Not on his return to his old stomping grounds, pun intended. 

While Doncic scored 10 points in that third quarter that felt like a series-shifting comeback in the making, help never arrived.

A short time after Irving had missed that crucial three, Jaylen Brown mercilessly blocked his shot, and the Boston Garden found its voice again, raining down, “Kyrie sucks! “Kyrie sucks, “Kyrie sucks!” over and over and over again. The Celtics, oozing confidence once more, never looked back.

Irving does not, of course, “suck.” But he certainly looked throughout the game rattled, over matched, and largely absent. He scored just 12 points on 6-of-19 shooting. He did not make a single one of his five 3-point attempts. 

That’s another stark reality about trying to win a title: You need help, no matter who you are. LeBron James couldn’t do it alone in the 2015 NBA Finals when, ironically, Irving was injured. Steph Curry could not beat Toronto in 2019 when Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant went down to injury. And so on.

But glory, rings, and legacies don’t care about any of those things, and the Western Conference in the years to come is likely to be a frightening, brutal place. The Mavs are probably good enough to get back here. But that could be true for a scary number of teams they’ll have to go through if they hope to return.

Consider this: Even Jason Kidd this week gave his approval during an interview with ESPN to the idea that, if the Mavs win this series, Doncic could become the greatest Maverick of all time. 

All while Doncic talked this week that you never know if you’ll get back here.

That’s the fine line: GOAT status on one side, maybe-never-again on the other.

Which is why, starting Sunday, he’ll have to try to do even more to make sure he and his teammates play as if their only chance at greatness is this one.

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