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The Mavs are out of answers and out of time

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If the Dallas Mavericks were going to make a stand and turn the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics into a competitive series, it had to happen in Wednesday's Game 3.

There was the urgency of the moment, of course, given that no team in league history has come back to win a series from a 3-0 deficit. But the stars were also aligned so that the Mavs could assert some control in this matchup. Back home, crowd roaring, Kristaps Porzingis unavailable for Boston, Kyrie Irving finally rediscovering his jump shot, an early double-digit lead ... it was all right there for them.

The Mavs defensive process looked much improved in the early going. They were clearly making more of an effort to keep Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively on the back line, playing the type of one-man zone that helped jam up a similar five-out Thunder offense in the second round. On offense, Irving and Luka Doncic were getting to the rim at will. Porzingis' absence made both aspects easier, and for a moment, it looked like it might be impactful enough to turn the tide of the series.

But the Celtics stuck with their impeccable defensive game plan to shrink the court and keep Dallas in the mud of one-on-one play. They started generating stops that turned into transition points at the other end. They kept incessantly hunting a hobbled Doncic, kept driving and kicking and bombing away from deep, and eventually built a 21-point fourth-quarter lead in a manner that's begun to look extremely familiar.

Irving and Doncic got their points (they finished with 62 combined), but not enough to overcome the fact that Boston - with its ability to switch, stay home on corner shooters, help from above the break, and recover back out to any Maverick with a slow or hesitant release - again erased Dallas' role players from the offensive proceedings. Those role players aren't being given advantages to attack, and outside of the odd P.J. Washington bully drive, none of them are remotely equipped to create the advantages for themselves against a defense this good.

The Mavs generated just 10 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts in the game, while the Celtics created 27. Dallas has now assisted on just 40.5% of its field goals in the Finals after assisting on 58% through the first three rounds. In Game 3, the Mavs managed to score efficiently in the open floor for the first time in the series. But that didn't matter much because Boston's pristine transition defense forced them to play over 90% of their possessions in the half court.

Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBA / Getty

This felt like the game that finally broke Doncic. The star guard has been playing through injuries throughout the postseason but had yet to look as out of sorts on both ends as he did Wednesday night. Doncic's improved defense has been a big part of Dallas' run, but he has backslid dramatically in the Finals amid Boston's nonstop mismatch-hunting.

Game 3 was a new nadir for Doncic on that end because he didn't just get exposed on the ball. He got undressed off the ball as well. Jaylen Brown and Jrue Holiday burned him with backdoor cuts, and Holiday skirted past him for multiple offensive rebounds. When Doncic got beat on the perimeter, he frequently neglected to re-engage with the play or peel off to whichever Celtic sprung open when one of his teammates had to step up to help him.

The Celtics entrusted everyone from 38-year-old Al Horford and 6-foot-1 Payton Pritchard to slow-footed Sam Hauser and Porzingis replacement Xavier Tillman (playing his first minutes of the series) to switch onto Doncic. And all of them, at various points, held their own on an island against him. The way Boston is making him work on defense, coupled with the 38% usage rate he's being forced to carry on offense because of how Boston is blocking off his playmaking avenues, is clearly taking a toll.

The Celtics gifted the Mavs a second life by abandoning their successful offensive formula to bleed clock after building that 21-point lead in the fourth. (This, too, has become a familiar sight in Boston's games. It was almost a carbon copy of what happened down the stretch of Game 2.) A 20-2 Dallas run in about five minutes made it a one-possession contest with over six minutes to play. Neither team scored over the following two minutes, but Doncic picked up his fifth and sixth fouls during that stretch to effectively seal his team's fate.

Quibble with those foul calls if you want, but they represented the culmination of a night in which Doncic played undisciplined basketball while frequently letting frustration get the best of him. And though injuries have played a part, the Celtics deserve a ton of credit for making one of the three or four best players in the world look confounded and helpless.

The Mavs have tried having him attack smalls, they've tried having him attack bigs, they've tried running him off of off-ball screens, they've tried putting him in the post, they've tried empty-side actions, and they've tried screening for him at half court. Each option has been moderately successful but not enough to break Boston out of its base defense. Doncic has scored 29.7 points per game in the series, but he's done so on below-average efficiency (54.6% true shooting) with nearly as many turnovers (15) as assists (18). The fact that attacking Jayson Tatum one-on-one has become his most reliable source of offense pretty much says it all.

There are some three-man actions Dallas could probably stand to use more often - double drags, split action, Spain pick-and-rolls - but the Celtics can switch their way through those, too. At the other end, you can argue the Mavs should work harder to avoid switching themselves into the exact matchups Boston is hunting. However, little evidence suggests that having Doncic try to hedge and recover or play drop instead will produce better outcomes for their defense.

Throughout the Western Conference playoffs, the Mavs demonstrated their ability to outmaneuver various opponents who all presented unique challenges. In the Finals, they've at last been confronted with a puzzle they can't solve. They're almost out of answers, and they're almost out of time.

Joe Wolfond writes about the NBA for theScore.

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