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    NBA Finals: Celtics look to complete sweep of Mavericks for 18th title
    • June 13, 2024

    By TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer

    DALLAS — It’s over. That’s what the numbers say. There will be a record-setting 18th championship for the Boston Celtics to celebrate soon, maybe very soon. They have a 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals, a lead that has never been wasted in any NBA series, ever.

    The stats are absolute.

    The Celtics, to their credit, are taking nothing for granted.

    On perhaps the next-to-last day of the NBA’s 78th season, the Celtics – who could finish off the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 on Friday night – were desperately trying to keep things as close to business as usual as could be expected, given that the team’s first title in 16 years is now just one win away.

    “At the end of the day we’re the most vulnerable in this,” said Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, who, at 35, could be the youngest coach to win a title since Bill Russell won one as a player-coach for Boston in 1969. “So, we have to remain with a sense of urgency. We have to have an understanding of our environment. We have to know that we’re just as vulnerable as anybody else in this situation, and how we handle that will determine our fate.”

    His point: Don’t let up. A team that has gone 79-20 in its first 99 games of the season – on pace for the second-best single-season record in Celtics history – would likely be wise to keep doing what’s worked all year, one more time.

    “Either you survive or you don’t,” said Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, repeating something Mazzulla told the team earlier Thursday. “That resonates with me.”

    It might seem puzzling that it’s the Celtics – the team with the 3-0 lead – talking about survival and vulnerability. The reality is, obviously, that it’s the Mavericks who are backed into the corner that no NBA team has ever successfully escaped from.

    They’re 0-5 against Boston this season. They’ve been outscored nearly 2-to-1 from 3-point range in this series. They saw a 13-point lead turn into a 21-point deficit on their home court in Game 3. It’s hard to find the proverbial silver lining right now, though the Mavs insisted they still have hope.

    “We’re not in the offseason yet,” Mavericks star Luka Doncic said. “They’ve still got to win one more game. Like I said, we’re going to believe until the end.”

    There were no concession speeches from the Dallas side on Thursday, no outward signs of surrender whatsoever. But there was an understanding of how tall this mountain is to climb, and how nobody in the NBA has managed to scale it.

    Boston came close last year, rallying from a three-game deficit to force a Game 7 at home against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals, only to lose. And that came after the Celtics lost the 2022 NBA Finals to Golden State, that series ending in Boston as well. Those were learning experiences. These Finals will be one as well for the Mavs.

    “When you look at the Celtics, they lose to the Warriors two years ago. They lose to Miami in Game 7 (last season). So, it’s just experience of understanding that you’re not promised to get back, that you’ve got to work,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “You see the group that is out there today. They know how to play. They’re a really good team.”

    By Friday night, they could be a championship team.

    The only way for the Celtics to lose this series, obviously, is if they lose the next four games. Never mind the stat about how teams with 3-0 series leads in a best-of-seven series are unbeatable – 156 teams have gone up 3-0, 156 teams have eventually prevailed in that series. Consider this one instead – the last time the Celtics lost four consecutive games in the same season was in May 2021, two coaching changes and a whole slew of roster turnover ago.

    “I think from our experiences over the past couple of years, the thing that we’ve really gotten a lot better at is not relaxing, not being complacent. From game to game or series to series, we always want more,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said. “Maybe in recent years we took things for granted at some points or were happy to make it to certain rounds, where (now) we’re not satisfied. Even now up 3-0, nobody is celebrating or anything. We still feel like there’s a lot more that we can do. There’s a lot more that we want to do.”

    There’s really only one thing left for this Celtics team to do. One more win and Banner 18 – one that would break the tie with the Lakers for the most championships in NBA history – will finally be secured.

    Mazzulla doesn’t care when it happens, just that it happens.

    “There’s four rounds left in this fight,” he said. “And however long it takes, whatever it takes, we’ll see how it goes.”


    Doncic winced ever so slightly as he stepped onto the stage to address reporters a day after his Mavericks fell behind 3-0.

    A rough first Finals for the 25-year-old superstar, no doubt – an injury-filled postseason punctuated by fouling out for the first time in his playoff career, thanks to a four-foul fourth quarter in a 106-99 loss to the Celtics in Game 3.

    Near the end of six seasons filled with comparisons to LeBron James, here’s another for Doncic. Just like the player he idolized as a teenager, Doncic is on the verge of having to weather failure on basketball’s biggest stage before getting more chances to experience the ultimate success.

    “I didn’t really study the first Finals of some people,” Doncic said Thursday.

    Doncic did remember the first Eastern Conference finals – two, actually – for Michael Jordan in Chicago a generation ago.

    “Obviously, there’s the story of MJ against Detroit,” the five-time All-Star said. “That was a big thing. I think he just learned from it. You’ve got to go through lows first to go on top. I think that’s great experience.”

    After finally breaking through against the Pistons, Jordan won the title in his first trip to the NBA Finals in 1991, the start of a 6-0 run in the title series over an eight-season span.

    Doncic is at risk of the same fate in his first Finals as James, who was swept with Cleveland against San Antonio in 2007. James lost again with Miami – against Dallas, no less – in 2011 before winning back-to-back titles with the Heat.

    Asked if he thought his game could improve in the offseason, Doncic said, “Oh, definitely, a lot of holes,” before reiterating he would learn plenty from his first Finals.

    The end is near for Dallas because Doncic didn’t get enough help from co-star Kyrie Irving in the first two games, or from his supporting cast in any of the first three.

    Still, the Slovenian sensation has had his own difficulties, particularly in Game 3. The Celtics relentlessly targeted Doncic’s defense, which has been solid to good overall in these playoffs.

    The four fouls came so quickly in the fourth quarter, his sixth forced a challenge that Dallas lost with 4:12 remaining. The Mavs were on a 20-2 run when Doncic was disqualified, and scored again to get within a point before Boston held on to avoid blowing a 21-point lead with 11 minutes remaining.

    With a long history of complaining to officials, Doncic made a point earlier in the playoffs to go back to having fun. He’s had trouble sustaining it, and didn’t have kind words for the refs after fouling out in regulation for the first time in his career.

    “I just really want to win,” Doncic said. “Sometimes I don’t show it the right way, but at the end of the day, I really want to win. I’ve got to do a better job showing it a different way.”

    Doncic is 3 for 3 on miserable fourth quarters in the Finals, with more turnovers (four) than baskets (three) and zero 3-pointers. Before the rare foul-out (the third of Doncic’s career), he sat most of the fourth with the Celtics comfortably in front in Game 1.

    Dallas’ best closer hasn’t been closing in this series, and added a chest contusion to a postseason litany of ailments that included a sprained right knee and a sore left ankle.

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    Although the chest injury – sustained in Game 1 – was the only one on the latest injury report, it’s significant enough that Doncic confirmed to ESPN the network’s report that he had been taking a pain-killing injection by acknowledging he would probably have another one before Game 4.

    “My message to him is he’s not alone in this,” said Irving, who bounced back from a sluggish offensive start to the series with 35 points in Game 3. “He’s played as best as he can despite the circumstances, just injuries and stuff. He’s been giving it his all. It’s not all on him.”

    The spotlight in still on him, just as it was for Jordan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and James before the first of his four titles nearly 20 years ago.

    “I think the history is there for us to learn from, when you look at great players and the struggles,” Kidd said. “But the great ones, they use that going into the next season or the next couple seasons to try to get back there because now they understand experience is a big thing.”

    Doncic won’t do that until this season is officially over.

    AP sports writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this story.

    ​ Orange County Register