2024 NBA Finals: The obvious problem is that Luka Dončić’s defense is insufficient for the Mavericks to win a championship.

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NBA clubs refer to the same ideas using various lingo in such a copycat league. Understanding a new playbook after a player is traded is more akin to learning a new language or dialect because the same concepts and actions were explained differently by his prior employer. For instance, All-Stars frequently call for ball screens during the playoffs, which forces a defender to switch and gives the playmaker the opportunity to isolate against his preferred matchup. The Mavericks refer to this strategy as “elephant hunting,” as during the first three rounds of this postseason, these Western Conference winners frequently located the best opponents for Kyrie Irving or Luka Dončić to ambush on islands.

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One such victim—the “elephant” Dončić pursued at the end of Game 2 in Minnesota—was Rudy Gobert. And with the NBA Finals returning to Dallas, where the Mavericks were down two games to one after Dončić’s game-ending dagger destroyed the Timberwolves, Dallas made sure to pick apart specific Celtics defenders in every perimeter pick-and-roll and dribble handoff that Irving and Dončić executed.

The Mavericks center Dereck Lively II stated, “We were trying to put Al Horford in it, any other elephants, and try to get the mismatches,” on Wednesday night following the Celtics’ 106-99 victory over the Mavericks, which puts the team up 3-0 and just a win away from its 18th championship. “Acquire the area and take the pictures we like.”

The smallest players on Boston’s extensive roster may also be those elephants. Irving remarked, “We feel really good about Luka going up against Payton Pritchard or [Derrick] White in the post, somebody else in the post.”

The main issue Dallas has, the elephant in the American Airlines Center, is that Boston’s ball handlers see Dončić as their exact target. Despite all of his skills and abilities, including his ability to direct the Mavericks’ offense, dish out passes without looking, and make step-back triples, Dončić struggles with foot speed and awareness on numerous defensive possessions, which has allowed the Celtics’ prolific scoring group to score easily. He has pushed the boundaries of what true one-sided NBA brilliance can accomplish, and as a result, Dallas is failing its most difficult test. In the last two minutes of the fourth quarter on Wednesday, Dončić failed to keep Jaylen Brown in front of him twice in a 26-second stretch, which resulted in his fifth and sixth fouls of the game and his first-ever postseason disqualification in his playoff career. Dončić has a bull’s-eye on his chest, according to Dallas head coach Jason Kidd.

There were enough moments in Sunday’s Game 2 to create 73 seconds of lowlights, including Dončić’s man blowing by his drab stance, the All-NBA great getting lost in space, and not knowing which Celtic to guard. During the entirety of Game 3, Brown, Jayson Tatum, White, and any other player the 6-foot-7 guard happened to mark repeatedly singled out and played with Dončić. Kidd remarked, “They are putting him in every pick-and-roll and iso.” Once Boston’s drivers have danced past Dončić, there isn’t much resistance left at the basket because the Celtics are adept at making him fight through off-ball screens and enticing smaller defenders like Irving to stand sentinel beneath the rim.

Irving stated, “Those guys on the backside are going to make you pay for your mistakes when they’re making decisions and playing high IQ.”

One of the league’s biggest offensive loads is managed by Dončić. In the Mavericks’ second-round victory over Oklahoma City, he limped one leg and an injured knee past the Los Angeles Clippers before adding a sprained ankle to his medical record. Subsequently, prior to Game 2 in Boston, Dončić was labeled as doubtful due to a “thoracic contusion,” a bruise on his chest that necessitated an injection of an anesthetic, as per ESPN. In a game that Dallas lost by just seven points on Wednesday, the Mavericks were plus-9 in minutes while Dončić was on the court. Despite his protests about the refereeing throughout the evening and throughout his postgame media conference, he was forced to watch the contest’s final 4:12 from the sidelines with those six fouls.

When questioned by Yahoo Sports about his belief that Boston is the elephant that needs to be hunted and what accountability he can take for his defensive failings, Dončić once more pointed to the whistles before taking ownership of his own actions. Dončić remarked, “Every time they draw it, [the officials] basically call a foul.” “I strive to improve. So, things must improve. Later on, when questioned about the fouls he was penalized for in the fourth, Dončić tried to downplay his involvement. We weren’t able to play rough. I’m not sure. I’d rather not be silent. After six fouls in the NBA Finals, I’m essentially like this. Dončić held out his palms in gesture. “Go on, dude. Be superior to that.

He has demonstrated the ability to get up when motivated to shuffle his feet. Towards the end of Game 2, Dončić stayed with Brown on the left wing in an attempt to force an important save. In Game 3, he stonewalled White early on. However, there are many more instances of Dončić getting stuck in a situation where he is too far away to challenge a closeout and turns his body and head to give weak-side cutters free passes to the rim. Nor does Boston intend to absolve him of his responsibilities any time soon. Head coach of Boston Joe Mazzulla stated, “I don’t think he gets worn down.” “He appears quite young in that photo. Though occasionally I believe we should be more deliberate in our offensive spacing, I don’t see him growing weary at all.

Perhaps this series will prove to be a turning moment in Dončić’s growth. After losing 3-0 to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals last spring and to Golden State in the Finals two years prior, these Celtics have undoubtedly accepted their losses and moved on. Dončić, who is only 25 years old, has led the Mavericks to this championship stage and the West finals twice in three years despite a youthful team that lacks postseason experience outside of Irving. Lively is just a novice, at twenty. P.J. Washington, a trade deadline addition, had never made it to the postseason before this current run. In 2021, Daniel Gafford played in just five postseason games for the Wizards.

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