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4 things the Mavs must do to pull off historic comeback against Celtics

                                Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic looks on from the bench after fouling out against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday.
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Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic looks on from the bench after fouling out against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday.

DALLAS >> After failing to pull off an epic comeback in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the Dallas Mavericks now find themselves on a list no team wants to be on.

Dallas became the 157th team in postseason history to face a 3-0 deficit and forget coming back to win the series, just making it to a Game 7 has proved to be near impossible. Only four teams, including the Boston Celtics in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, have been able to force a seventh game after falling in such a hole.

The Mavericks don’t have to just contend with a team that seems tailor made to beat them, they’re also on the wrong side of history. Kyrie Irving has been in a similar situation before as he helped the Cleveland Cavaliers become the only team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the Finals back in 2016 against the 73-win Warriors.

When asked about his mindset in the face of another massive hole in the Finals, Irving offered a metaphor any Texan could appreciate.

“Just be ready,” Irving said with a smile. “Just go home, get the ammo ready. Get the bazooka, get the .50 cal ready. Get everything ready because when we come into Game 4, we know we got to shoot our shots and we got to do it with an aggression.”

Irving has the right mentality, but it will take more than the right attitude for Dallas to battle back this series. Here’s four things that need to happen if the Mavericks are to become the first team to overcome a 3-0 deficit:

Irving and Doncic go nuclear

In order to come back against the Warriors, it took Irving and LeBron James playing arguably the best three-game stretch of their careers. Irving averaged 30 points over the final three games of that series including hitting the dagger shot over Stephen Curry. James was even better averaging over 36 points per game along with 11.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game. The two even scored 41 each in Game 5 of that series to spark the comeback.

The Mavericks will need a similar performance over the next four games from Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, but Doncic wore down as the game went on and fouled out with more than four minutes remaining in the game with Dallas only down 93-90. Irving and Doncic are capable of scoring 35 points on any given night, but the task of doing it four straight games is daunting, more daunting than what Irving faced against Golden State almost a decade ago.

“2016, we like to bring it up, that was one of the toughest series you’ve ever seen in basketball in general,” Irving said. “I don’t know if those records are going to be so easy for someone to look at and say ‘Oh, we’re able to do it too.’ But that belief should never die that you can win a series and win it together.”

The first step is both stars playing a complete game on Friday. It may take both scoring 40 or more like Irving and James did back in the day to spark another historic comeback.

Doncic must defend

No one will confuse Doncic with being an elite defender, but the way Doncic has been targeted this series has been alarming. Superstar offensive talents don’t need to be great defenders as they normally can make up for any defensive shortcomings with their scoring or playmaking ability. While they may not need to be elite, they certainly can’t be a liability either.

The Celtics’ offensive gameplan has revolved around constantly attacking Doncic on drives. Boston has blown by Doncic on nearly 68% of those drives according to ESPN. The Thunder had 59% success rate and the Clippers had a 65% success rate on blowing by Doncic. All three are the highest blow by percentage allowed in the last 10 seasons.

Dallas was able to get away with Doncic’s lackluster defense in the other two series thanks to the rim protection of Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford. But when Boston drives, the Celtics are kicking out for 3s instead of challenging the Dallas bigs at the rim. It’s how the Celtics have generated so many clean looks from 3 despite the Mavericks knowing that’s the Celtics’ primary gameplan on offense. Dallas coach Jason Kidd provided some context on Doncic’s defense, but also acknowledged he must be better.

“In this playoffs his defense has improved,” Kidd said. “But when you look at being involved in every pick and roll, there’s going to be mistakes that take place. We’ve just got to limit those mistakes, but he is involved in every possession and that’s what the Celtics are very good at. When they go hunting, they get the guy that they want. For us we have to do a better job of protecting him.”

Sure Dallas can offer Doncic more help on defense, but it all starts with his effort level and his composure. His frustration with the officiating led to multiple baskets by Boston down the stretch.

Let Tatum be Curry

Jayson Tatum finally had a breakout game in Game 3 with 31 points, including 22 in the second half. Tatum kept the Celtics in the game early while Dallas was thriving and helped Boston eventually take the lead in the second half, but his shot selection in the fourth quarter was questionable at best.

Despite being 6-foot-9, Tatum was more comfortable taking contested side step 3s than attacking the lane or mid-range. Some of that has to do with Boston’s analytics-driven offensive scheme where Boston prioritizes 3s and layups over every other shot. But a big portion of it is Tatum being okay with settling. Tatum is 37% shooter from 3 over his career, so he’s clearly capable of knocking down these shots, but he’s shooting below 30 percent from 3 this postseason run.

The Mavericks can’t simply sag off Tatum, but if Dallas can find a way to encourage Tatum to take these heavily contested shots instead of getting downhill and creating for others, that’s a win for the Mavericks. Tatum attempted 13 3s in Game 3, only making four. That’s the type of shooting performance that can open the door for the Mavericks to make Game 4, and maybe the series, interesting.

Just make an open shot

The Dallas role players have come up short in the Finals even in Game 3. Derrick Jones Jr., Maxi Kleber, Josh Green, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dante Exum combined for just seven points despite Kidd playing 11 players on Wednesday. There was a bright side though as Lively and P.J. Washington finally found some semblance of an offense in the fourth quarter.

P.J. Washington made three 3s in the fourth quarter during the Mavericks’ desperate comeback and Lively was a big piece in the comeback with some key putbacks as he finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds. Doncic and Irving just need one or two other players around them to be a viable threat on offense to create more spacing and a better flow on offense. It’s probably too much to expect the likes of Washington and Jones to play like they did in the previous series, but the Dallas role players are better than what they’ve shown on this stage.

If Irving and Doncic can’t get more help, then it won’t matter how well they play.

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