2024 NBA Finals: Luka Dončić rebounds from heavy criticism to remind of his brilliance in Mavs' Game 4 rout

DALLAS — Less and more was required from Luka Dončić, and given the events of the past two days, Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Friday night wasn’t about the Boston Celtics' coronation or the possibility of capping off some historic season.

It was about the player with pedigree, catching the strays and hollow points from all sides and causing his coach to deliver an impassioned defense of his star player.

So, yes, it was the ultimate paradox for Dončić — more passion, less emotion. More concentration on the floor, less focus on the officials. More physical force but less forcing his plodding style that gums up Dallas' offense.

For a night it was perhaps a sign of things to come, or a mere stay of execution until the inevitable. Dončić and the Mavericks staved off embarrassment with a resounding Game 4 win on their home floor, winning 122-84 at American Airlines Center.

The tone was set 90 minutes before the game, when Mavericks coach Jason Kidd defended Dončić after two days of the superstar being skewered in the media. Kidd felt the criticism was a bit heavy handed and too far for someone who’s as decorated as Dončić.

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) reacts after a play during the first half in Game 4 of the NBA basketball finals against the Boston Celtics, Friday, June 14, 2024, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Luka Dončić found some redemption in the Mavericks' Game 4 blowout in the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics on Friday, June 14, 2024, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Kidd did it because he knows he has to with the coach-player relationship under scrutiny in today’s NBA, and Kidd has been on both sides.

“That’s my job. My job is to protect him and tell the truth,” Kidd told Yahoo Sports after the game. “I didn’t lie or do anything out of the ordinary. We just went a little too far.”

“We” is more the media, but Kidd felt Dončić has always been accountable — his weight, his basketball character and many other topics were seemingly on trial before the start of Game 4.

“He’s never run from anything. He always sat there and answered,” Kidd told Yahoo Sports. “If he was dipping and dodging the questions ... but he sat down and answered the hard questions. Shoot, guys run and hide and disappear and he understands that. But he’s front and center, and character and who he is, it showed tonight.”

If there was any nervousness, any belief the Mavericks would lay down — if Dončić would just concede to a championship celebration happening in his hallways — it was dispelled early.

If there’s a belief the Mavericks can do the improbable and bring this series back to Dallas for an interesting Game 6, it’s the belief that Dončić can have another 25-point first half, as he punished smaller guards and overworked the bigs on mismatches to finish with 29 points, five rebounds and five assists. His night was over in the third quarter because the terms of the night were long decided.

“It's going to take everything,” Dončić said. “It's going to take energy — especially energy — because it's late in the season. We played a lot of games. We got to stay together and locked in.”

Strategically, he got on the move more because Dante Exum handled the ball a little more, enabling Dončić to shed his James Harden costume and be accountable at all points of the floor.

If that’s replicable, then we’re having a different conversation. Until then, it’s probably more frustration this version didn’t show up sooner — but the Mavs likely had to be pushed into this corner of desperation to do things differently.

“Maybe. But he’s been a guy who can score,” said Kidd to the notion Dončić got off the ball more. “He’s been moving tonight and felt good. So we’re gonna need that same feeling in Boston.”

Even if the series ends in a manner most predict, this night was necessary for Dončić, in particular. A sweep would’ve been ugly but not a career back-breaker.

It wouldn’t have been some unremovable black mark on Dončić’s reputation, because better men have had more dire situations. Magic Johnson was once called “Tragic” — in big, bold headlines. LeBron James failed and failed, in the absolute apex of his career. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant suffered through humiliation and discomfort.

The ultimate lesson is what this could serve as for Dončić, so long as he doesn’t pull off the impossible and bring this team back from a 3-0 deficit. The numbers say the Celtics are one of the historic teams we’ve seen in short time — four players who’ll likely wind up in the Hall of Fame when it’s over, a squad on the doorstep of the hallowed and almost newly created 80-20 club (80 wins and 20 losses or fewer) — so there’s no shame in losing to a team that has barely lost a game in over a month.

That’s why the criticism of Dončić feels both valid and oft-putting, depending on who’s saying what. Dončić’s greatness, though, requires the high expectations. He’s shown how he can dominate a game with his force and skill, and it isn’t unfair to expect him to try on defense, if for no other reason than not to leave his teammates in consistently compromised positions.

It is tempting to say Dallas is figuring the Celtics out, little by little. Kristaps Porziņģis again missing a game — despite labeled as active by Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla — could shift the tectonic plates because he’s unguardable and difficult to contain when he’s getting to the rim to defend you.

But if he’s not there, Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford can feast a little more, for a little while. Around the margins at least.

And that’s what’s necessary for the Mavericks to even gain another win in this seres, even with it being in Boston. They feel they should’ve won Game 2 or 3, but they were the reason for their own undoing — Dončić included, if not the chief culprit.

This night, it was Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who struggled. Dončić and Irving were on the same page all night, and Irving tries his best to lead without being overbearing to his superstar teammate.

Kidd coming to Dončić’s aid didn’t go unnoticed.

“I think it shows you how important it is to have quality leaders in the locker room and somebody that has been through it, somebody that can talk through it,” said Irving, who had 21 points, six assists and four rebounds. “And also somebody that's more than willing to sacrifice themselves to take the bullets and the brunt of the responsibility.

“He knows how important it is for us to focus on the right things. We can't be focused on answering all these unfair, critical questions. Some of them may be fair, right? But if you're not necessarily out there playing with us, it's going to be hard for us to connect if you're talking s*** about one of our teammates.”

The Mavericks organization, rightfully so, is protective of Dončić. Every franchise move that’s been made has been in regard to maximizing his growth and ensuring his future is as bright as possible — hence the Irving trade and stealth scouting that landed them Lively II in the draft.

He’s not easy to build around, possibly may not be easy to coach, considering the temper tantrums to the officials and shortcomings that would frustrate even the most neutral basketball fan.

But he’s still oh-so-special and worth the maintenance.

“That's our little brother right there. He's in the Finals. He's going to make mistakes,” Irving said. “That's also why I kind of had that kind of peaceful sentiment about me after the game. I'm not about to go up to Luka and say, 'It's all your fault.' That's not how it works in our locker room. We dang sure don't want to start those bad habits now. I've been on teams where we have allowed the media or opinions to infiltrate what we have going on, and it has not worked out well.”

Kidd kept the message consistent, not changing too much to get his team away from the things that brought them to this point, and they responded.

Dončić responded, and Irving said the Slovenian shut up the critics for a night. But the critics aren’t the opponent here, the Celtics are, and the pendulum of emotion could swing right back in the other direction in 48 hours.

“I mean, it doesn't change anything. Like I said at the beginning of the series, it's first to four,” Dončić 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, so we just got to keep believing.”

Journey’s cheesy song, “Don’t Stop Believin’" blasted during one of the fourth-quarter timeouts, so maybe it was stuck in Dončić’s head. Or maybe the words easily tumble out of his mouth because that’s how he feels.

But this is impossible, right?