Dallas Mavericks players, including Luka Doncic, far left, look on...

Dallas Mavericks players, including Luka Doncic, far left, look on during the final seconds of Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals against the Boston Celtics, Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Dallas. The Celtics won 106-99. Credit: AP/Sam Hodde

DALLAS — Luka Doncic winced ever so slightly as he stepped onto the stage to address reporters a day after his Dallas Mavericks fell behind Boston 3-0 in the NBA Finals.

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, the eve of Game 4 in Dallas with the Celtics on the verge of an 18th championship, which would break a tie with the Los Angeles Lakers for the most in the NBA.

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.

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) looks on as referee...

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) looks on as referee John Conley (79) gives a review on a play against the Boston Celtics during the second half in Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals, Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Dallas. Doncic fouled out in the fourth quarter. Credit: AP/Sam Hodde

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. Then he paused.

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

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.

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic heads to the lockers after...

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic heads to the lockers after Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals against the Boston Celtics, Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Dallas. The Celtics won 106-99. Credit: AP/Sam Hodde

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.

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,” Dallas coach Jason 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.

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