2024 NBA Finals: The elephant in the room — Luka Dončić’s defense isn’t good enough for the Mavs to win a title

DALLAS — For such a copycat league, NBA teams use different terminologies for the same concepts. When a player is traded, understanding a new playbook is more like learning a new language, another dialect, for the same actions and ideas his previous employer described differently. The playoffs, for example, are littered with All-Stars calling for ball screens, forcing a switch of defenders, allowing that playmaker to isolate against his preferred matchup. The Mavericks call this “elephant hunting” as these Western Conference champions routinely found optimal opponents for Luka Dončić or Kyrie Irving to ambush on islands across the first three rounds of this postseason.

Rudy Gobert was one such victim, the “elephant” Dončić hunted at the end of Game 2 in Minnesota. And as these NBA Finals shifted back to Dallas, with the Mavericks facing the same 2-0 deficit to which Dončić’s dagger sunk the Timberwolves, Dallas was sure to prioritize picking on certain Celtics defenders in all of Dončić’s and Irving’s perimeter pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs.

DALLAS, TEXAS - JUNE 12: Luka Dončić #77 of the Dallas Mavericks reacts in the third quarter against the Boston Celtics in Game Three of the 2024 NBA Finals at American Airlines Center on June 12, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)

“We were trying to put Al Horford in it, any other elephants, and try to get the mismatches,” Mavericks center Dereck Lively II said Wednesday night after a 106-99 Boston win that has the Celtics up 3-0 and within sniffing distance of the franchise’s 18th championship. “Get the space and get the shots that we like.”

Those elephants can also be the smallest members of Boston’s deep roster. “When you have Luka going against Payton Pritchard or [Derrick] White in the post, somebody else in the post, we feel really good about it,” said Irving.

The major problem for Dallas, the elephant in the American Airlines Center, is that Dončić poses as that very target for Boston’s ball-handlers. For all his gifts, for all his wizardry orchestrating the Mavericks’ offense, for his no-look dishes and his step-back triples, Dončić lacks the foot speed and the awareness on too many defensive possessions that have opened floodgates for the Celtics’ stable of scorers. He has tested the limits of what one-sided NBA brilliance can truly achieve, and now Dallas is failing its toughest exam. His final two fouls in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, the fifth and the sixth that disqualified him from a postseason game for the first time in his playoff career, came as Dončić couldn’t keep Jaylen Brown in front of him twice in the span of 26 seconds. “Yeah, he's definitely got a bull's-eye on his chest,” Dallas head coach Jason Kidd said of Dončić.

There were enough instances in Game 2 on Sunday — of Dončić’s man blowing by his lackluster stance, of the All-NBA superstar being lost in space, uncertain of which Celtic to guard — to compile 73 seconds of lowlights. Throughout Game 3, Dončić was again targeted and toyed with by Brown, Jayson Tatum, White and whoever else the 6-foot-7 guard ended up marking. “They are putting him in every pick-and-roll and iso,” Kidd said. The Celtics, too, have also been masterful at forcing Dončić to fight through off-ball screens, while coaxing smaller defenders, like Irving, to stand sentinel under the rim, so when Boston’s drivers have danced past Dončić, there’s little resistance remaining at the basket.

“When you have those guys on the backside making decisions, playing high IQ, they're going to make you pay for your mistakes,” Irving said.

Dončić handles one of the largest offensive loads in the league. He dragged one leg and an ailing knee past the Los Angeles Clippers, before adding a sprained ankle to his medical chart in the Mavericks’ second-round victory over Oklahoma City. And then Dončić was listed as questionable before Game 2 in Boston with a “thoracic contusion,” a chest bruise that, according to ESPN, required a pain-killing injection for Dončić to play. The Mavericks were plus-9 in minutes when Dončić was on the floor Wednesday in a game Dallas only dropped by 7 points. And yet, he was resigned to watching the contest’s final 4:12 from the sideline with those six fouls, while his complaints about the officiating continued throughout the evening and through his postgame news conference.

When asked by Yahoo Sports about his perspective of being the elephant that Boston is hunting, and what responsibility Dončić can take for his defensive shortcomings, he again pointed to the whistles before acknowledging his own responsibility. “Every time they draw it, [the officials] basically call a foul,” Dončić said. “I try to be better. So, got to get better.” When he was later asked about the fouls called against him in the fourth, Dončić deflected his role in the matter. “We couldn't play physical. I don't know. I don't want to say nothing. You know, six fouls in the NBA Finals, basically I'm like this …” Dončić motioned with his palms out. “C'mon, man. Be better than that.”

He’s proven to stand up when he’s motivated to shuffle his feet. Dončić stayed with Brown on the left wing at the end of Game 2’s comeback effort to force a crucial stop. He stonewalled White early in Game 3. But there are far more examples of Dončić stranding himself in no-man’s land, too far to contest a closeout, his head and body turned to allow weak-side cutters free tickets to the rim. Boston doesn’t plan to let him off the hook anytime soon, either. “I don't think he gets worn down,” said Boston head coach Joe Mazzulla. “He looks pretty fresh out there. I think we could do a better job of being intentional in the offense with the spacing at times, but I don't see him getting tired at all.”

Maybe this series can prove to be an inflection point in Dončić’s development. These Celtics have certainly swallowed their lumps and learned their lessons from falling to Golden State in the Finals two years ago, then falling down 3-0 to Miami in last spring’s Eastern Conference finals. Dončić is just 25, having powered the Mavericks to the West finals twice in three years and to this championship stage, with a young roster that, outside of Irving, has little playoff experience. Lively is merely a 20-year-old rookie. Trade deadline acquisition P.J. Washington never reached the postseason until this very run. Daniel Gafford saw just five playoff games with the Wizards in 2021.

These foibles for Dallas’ franchise face, though, are nothing new. They follow him in FIBA play, where Dončić was ejected from Slovenia’s quarterfinal against Canada in last September’s World Cup, thanks to two technical fouls. Dončić may have been available for the closing stretch of Game 3 had he not whacked his way to a silly foul early in the third quarter, 90 feet from the Mavericks’ basket, out of frustration for his own no-call. He had picked up Pritchard full-court, only to get called for another foul. For Dallas to avoid a sweep, for Dallas to fare better the next time it reaches the Finals — if there is a next time in this league’s current landscape, where nothing is guaranteed — Dončić’s defense and his approach to all that entails may be the biggest hurdles left to climb.

“It's not the first time a team has tried to target Luka on the defensive end,” Irving said. “So for us, we're just trying to put a great shell defense around not only him, but the rest of the team.

“He's got to be able to guard and understand that we're there to protect him and help him if he does get beat,” said Kidd.