Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) shoots against Dallas Mavericks...

Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) shoots against Dallas Mavericks forward Maxi Kleber (42) during the second half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals, Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Dallas. Credit: AP/Tony Gutierrez

DALLAS — Joe Mazzulla is a big fan of UFC matches and splices highlights of fights into some of the basketball film he shows the Boston Celtics for their video sessions.

He doesn't do it for entertainment purposes or to make players laugh. He does it for a simple reason. He wants the Celtics to have a fighters' mentality.

“If you’ve ever been in a fight with someone and you think you’re about to beat ’em, you usually get sucker-punched,” said Mazzulla, the second-year Celtics coach. “The closer you are to beating them up, the closer you are to losing.”

Translation: He wanted the Celtics ready for a fight. And in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, they were.

A pair of big runs — 23-8 in the first half, 20-5 in the second half — represented what became the knockout blows in this game, and maybe this series. Boston frittered away almost all of what was a 21-point lead before winning 106-99 to take a 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals, moving one win away from what would be their record-setting 18th championship.

As is often the case with fights, the judges — in this case, the referees — had a big decision to make and it wasn't one that was popular. Luka Doncic fouled out with 4:12 remaining, a call that held up under review despite Dallas' arguments that Jaylen Brown initiated the contact on that play, and the Mavs were without their best puncher in what amounted to the 12th round of this fight.

Doncic fouled out with the Mavericks having gotten to 93-90; there was no miracle finish. Boston did enough to hang on, and now a championship could be in its hands as early as Friday night when the teams meet in Game 4.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, left, dribbles against Dallas Mavericks...

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, left, dribbles against Dallas Mavericks forward Derrick Jones Jr. during the first half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals, Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Dallas. Credit: AP/Sam Hodde

And the big punch — sometimes early, sometimes not — has been a theme for Boston throughout this series.

Control of Game 1 was seized early with a 23-5 run by the Celtics. In Game 2, a 15-4 run in the second half proved to basically be the difference. Mazzulla warned the Celtics that any spell where focus is lost could cost them games. Clearly, they've listened.

“Closer you think you’re going to submit someone, is usually when you get submitted,” Mazzulla said.

There's no championship belt, like the ones fighters get, coming when this series is over. But the trophy is within sight now.

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