Luka Dončić is getting a hard lesson in the extra level the NBA Finals demand

DALLAS — In a more perfect world, the NBA would have figured out a way to retract the sixth foul call on Luka Dončić.

It’s not ideal to have the home team’s best player sitting out most of crunchtime in a game that swings the NBA Finals. Not over a can-go-either-way blocking foul. Not after their furious rally to nearly erase a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit.

With 4 minutes, 12 seconds left on Wednesday and the Dallas Mavericks down a basket in the proverbial must-win Game 3, Dončić was whistled for a blocking foul — his sixth of the game — on a bang-bang play out near the 3-point line. Jaylen Brown, charging down the court in transition, had enough of a forearm in Dončić’s chest to make it possible to be an offensive foul.

“I don’t want to say nothing,” Dončić added. “You know, six fouls in the NBA Finals. … C’mon, man. Better than that.”

The truth, though, is Dončić didn’t deserve the reprieve. This unfortunate break was earned. His perennial enmity with the officials has exhausted his grace. His bickering surpasses the NBA’s typical whining.

It’s he who has to be better. Not just because his 27 points came on 27 shots in Dallas’ 106-99 loss to the Boston Celtics. Not even because he fouled out. But because winning Wednesday, and getting his Mavericks back in these finals, required something different. For him to compete defensively. For him to play smarter, lock in and avoid lulls. For him to implore more from his teammates, somehow. It required him to find a way even while he was off.

Dončić is 25 years old and every bit magnificent. He is the truth. He’s putting up colossal numbers while playing through several ailments and had his team in back-to-back close games against what is a better team. Yet, Dallas still needs more from him.

He is learning this hard lesson on the summit of the NBA mountain: Rings from the best league in the world cost everything. The heart of Dončić can’t be questioned. Certainly not his ability. What’s been challenged by Boston, and by the gantlet of greatness, is his willingness to do whatever it takes.

The best part, of his future development, is this is how he learns. These lessons are necessary if this championship mountain is to be crested. Being so close he could probably taste it is the best hope he’ll want it even more. Enough to go about it a bit differently should he get another chance.

His beef with the refs is a symptom. It flares up when he’s most desperate. When he can feel the string on which he has the ball, the opponent, the game, slipping away. A part of him seems to believe he needs that edge, of which he’s being deprived.

That’s a good thing because experiences like this will teach him he doesn’t need that. He’s squandering possessions, moments and opportunities with distraction, wanting in effort. The refs shouldn’t have the ability to make or break him. His ability is way beyond that. The great ones dig deeper and find another way. They come to learn on this stage that the real tug of war is with the will of the opponent.

The conversation about great players and championships can be frustratingly reductive. The monumental task of achieving NBA glory is often treated by fans and pundits with the reverence of Monopoly money. As if the difficulty of championships has been lost in translation in a culture raised on career mode.

Nah, man. Winning a championship in the NBA requires more than brilliance. It requires everything, the whole of its greats. Big performances. Great teammates. Capable coaching. Strategy. Clutchness. Composure. Experience. Resilience. Health.

Then, despite all of that — after the talent, IQ and mental fortitude have been excavated — a little luck is still necessary.

Dončić’s coach, Jason Kidd, knows. He won his lone championship in his 17th season.

Luka Dončić


Luka Dončić watches the end of Wednesday’s game after fouling out. The call may have been marginal, but Dončić and the Mavericks have been thoroughly outplayed in the series. (Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

Dončić needs another teammate or two who can create offense. But he also needs to learn how to play off the ball and manipulate his gravity to empower his teammates. And he needs to discover how to compete earnestly and consistently on defense.

“Yeah,” Kidd said, “he’s definitely got a bull’s-eye on his chest. 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.”

Brown and Jayson Tatum are teaching Dončić the same lessons they learned from LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Jimmy Butler. That winning isn’t always about who’s better but who’s most willing to do whatever it takes. Dončić is the best of the four superstars in this series, and yet he’s on the verge of getting swept.

But he’s so close. He’s so good he can almost pull it off without mastering the art and labor of winning at this level.

The only remaining question for Dončić is whether he’s willing to go there. To that place of desperation. Where how a victory is obtained is less important than the victory itself. Where winning surpasses all, including righteous indignation in defeat.

Boston has attacked him relentlessly. His endurance is being exposed on this final stage. Should Dallas be unable to become the first team to erase a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game series, Dončić will spend this offseason hearing about the inadequacy of his defense and conditioning. This series has proven that as great as he is, Dončić still has another level to clear.

He belongs in the highest echelon of basketball legends. It’s a safe bet he will someday get behind the velvet rope of the game’s best. Games like this, series like these, are how he’ll do it. Because the brink is always where capacities expand.

Jordan learned to trust his teammates. Kobe Bryant learned to lead. James learned to shoot. Curry learned to fight defensively. Tatum and Brown learned to play smarter and are a win away from a championship.

Dončić will join the ranks of the ring bearers once he learns. About defense. About poise. About focus. About the margins that can tilt the scales in the clashing of greats.

He’s so good as to expect him to figure this out. It won’t be through osmosis, but instead evolution. Enhancement forged through heartbreak.

“We were close,” Dončić said. “Just didn’t get it. I wish I was out there.”

(Top photo of Dončić: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

First appeared on www.nytimes.com

Leave a Comment