Dallas star Luka Doncic following footsteps of LeBron, MJ, Olajuwon with familiar lesson

BOSTON — A star struggling to win his first NBA championship is not a new story. It's woven into NBA history.

A 22-year-old LeBron James shot 35.6% from the field and 20% on 3-pointers in his first NBA Finals against San Antonio in 2007. He struggled to get back in the next three seasons, and when he returned for his second Finals in 2011, Dallas took away his strengths and exploited his weaknesses.

Michael Jordan had three consecutive first-round losses, a second-round loss and two consecutive conference finals losses in six seasons before breaking through and winning his first title seven years into his career.

Hakeem Olajuwon reached the Finals in his second season, losing to Boston, and didn’t return and win a championship until eight years later. Jerry West lost in seven consecutive Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers before finally winning a title.

And of course, newly crowned champions Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics endured multiple playoff setbacks before finally winning a championship.

OPINION:Boston Celtics' record-setting 18th NBA championship is all about team

The playoff setbacks and lessons learned from those losses made them better players and helped them understand how important each possession is.

Now, it’s Dallas star Luka Doncic’s turn to learn and to grow and return a better player with the hope that he can lead the Mavericks to a title someday following Boston’s championship-clinching Game 5 victory Monday.

“They're a great team,” Doncic said after Game 5 as the Celtics celebrated on the court. “They have been together for a long time, and they had to go through everything, so we just got to look at them, see how they play, maturity, and they have some great players. We can learn from that. We got to fight next season.”

Dallas star Luka Doncic following footsteps of LeBron, MJ, Olajuwon with familiar lesson

Asked about his emotions, Doncic said, “Sad we lost.”

The Mavs added Kyrie Irving last season and P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford at this season’s trade deadline. They peaked at the right time, beating three 50-win teams in the Western Conference playoffs.

“I would say we've been together for five months,” Doncic said. “I'm proud of every guy that stepped on the floor, all the coaches, all the people behind. Obviously, we didn't win Finals, but we did have a hell of a season and I'm proud of every one of them.”

Mavs general manager Nico Harrison needs to continue reshaping the roster, as Celtics president Brad Stevens did until he found the right combination of players.

Doncic, 25, had his moments both good and bad in the Finals. In the series, Doncic averaged 29.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.6 steals and shot 47.2% from the field. But he also shot 24.4% on 3-pointers, 58.6% on free throws and committed 4.6 turnovers per game.

The Celtics’ offensive and defensive versatility made the game difficult for Doncic on both ends. Boston used several defenders on him, didn’t have to double-team him as much as other teams were forced to do, and they made him expend energy on the defensive side.

“They were physical a lot. They have great defenders,” Doncic said. “They're a great team. That's what they do.”

He absorbed the most criticism after Game 3 when he fouled out with 4:12 remaining in a three-point game, was 11-for-27 from the field, 1-for-7 on 3s, complained often about the officiating and was not at his best defensively.

But he rebounded in Game 4 with his best performance and made sure the Mavs avoided elimination. He had 29 points, five rebounds and five assists. His 28 points on 12-for-25 shooting (2-for-9 on 3s) plus 12 rebounds, five assists, three steals and seven turnovers were not enough in Game 5.

“There's going to be bumps and bruises along the way. So, for him at the age of 25 to get to the Finals, to be playing his basketball at the level that he's playing is, now it's just being consistent,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said.

“Again, always being in the talk for MVP because when you have one of the best players in the world, you should be always fighting for a championship.”

Throughout the playoffs, the Mavs listed Doncic on the injury report with multiple injuries – first a sprained right knee and left ankle soreness and then he sustained a bruised chest that required pain-killing shots in the Finals.

“It doesn't matter if I was hurt, how much was I hurt. I was out there. I tried to play, but I didn't do enough,” Doncic said.

Doncic said he will decide soon on playing for Slovenia as it attempts to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics but said, “I'm just trying to get a little bit healthier."

Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on social media @JeffZillgitt

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