The Dallas Mavericks entered Game 3 of the 2024 NBA Finals knowing what was at stake. They were looking to avoid going down 3-0, which would basically be a death sentence for their title hopes. Being at home, they had the advantage of being in friendly confines, giving them a golden opportunity to make it a series against the Boston Celtics — especially with Kristaps Porzingis out due to injury.

Things started out well for the Mavericks; they went up by 13 in the first quarter, 25-12, while Kyrie Irving looked like he finally came to play after struggling with shooting the basketball in the first two games of the series. However, the Mavs blew that lead rather quickly and lost all control of the game in the third quarter as the Celtics built a 20-point lead that they would not overcome despite a late comeback, falling 106-99 to come to within one loss away of seeing their Larry O'Brien dreams vanish.

This defeat would be heartbreaking as it is had the Mavericks lost in a blowout. But the Mavs actually showed some fight, even cutting the lead to one with 3:37 left in the contest. They had all the momentum in the world after they turned up their defense, forced a few turnovers and some difficult shots on the Celtics' end. But they did not have enough to power through to the finish line.

All in all, with the Mavs staring elimination at the face to become the 29th team to fall in the 2023-24 season, they have had a solid season. Nothing can take that away from them. But with the lights being at their brightest, these players have to take a look in the mirror and figure out whether or not they have four more heroic performances left in them as they look to make history with the first 3-0 comeback in NBA playoff history.

Luka Doncic fouls out, continuing his trend of questionable defensive work

Luka Doncic's defense has been a major concern for the Mavericks all throughout the 2024 NBA Finals. The Celtics have targeted him relentlessly on screening actions to force switches, and they have made it a point to get the ball into the paint to force help defense to come so they could create great looks from three.

The Mavericks, at least for the first few minutes of Game 3, were on point with their rotations. It always helps when the team is making shots so they don't have to scramble back in transition, which usually results in a few cross-matches. However, Doncic's subpar defense became more prominent the more he became exhausted, and it cost the Mavericks big time in what was a must-win game.

Doncic, in addition to getting beaten off the dribble on multiple occasions, was ball-watching on a few plays. Afraid of the Celtics' drives to the hoop, there were instances when Doncic would be overzealous in getting into help position, and the Celtics would simply give the ball to the open shooter. This happened multiple times with Sam Hauser, a man who shot 42.4 percent from deep on 5.9 attempts per contest in the regular season. Hauser proceeded to nail three of his four attempts from beyond the arc on the night.

There was also a play towards the end of the third quarter where the Celtics brought Hauser up to screen for Jaylen Brown. Doncic was Hauser's man, but he was in the wrong spot, covering Hauser's left when the Celtics sniper screened towards his right. This paved the way for a resounding Brown jam that may be the best play of the 2024 NBA Finals thus far.

And then in the fourth quarter, Luka Doncic racked up four fouls — fouling out of a must-win game with 4:12 left. The Mavericks had to challenge as a last-ditch attempt to keep Doncic in the game, but it was clear that Doncic was not set when he bumped into Brown.

In fact, some of Doncic's fouls were simply head-scratchers. In addition to the blocking foul that he absolutely should not have taken knowing his foul situation, the Mavericks star picked up an offensive foul while hooking on Brown in the post, a cheap reach-in foul on Payton Pritchard and a frustrating foul while guarding the post with the shot-clock winding down.

Doncic's other fouls are also worth dissecting. He picked up his second foul during the third quarter on an ill-advised steal attempt in the backcourt against Derrick White, and then his first foul came when he got entangled with Jayson Tatum in a play that even ESPN play-by-play commentator Mike Breen called “silly”.

As the Mavericks' best player, he has to know that he is responsible for delivering when his team needs him the most. But how could he deliver on Wednesday night if he couldn't even be on the floor? The only arguable Doncic foul call was the one on the post against Jaylen Brown, but even then, there was a ton of contact on the play and it could have gone either way.

From this point on, Doncic has zero margin of error. He has to be perfect and he has to nail down all the little things defensively so as to not put the Mavericks in a difficult position. Given his heavy offensive burden, his drop-off on defense is understandable. But those who sit atop the league's all-time totem pole know how to contribute on both ends of the floor when their team needs them the most, and Doncic should be no exception.

Mavericks gambled with Tim Hardaway Jr. and lost

Since arriving on the Mavericks in 2019, Tim Hardaway Jr. has been one of the team's most important players. He can get hot in a hurry, provide some secondary scoring, and space the floor on both rhythm spot-up looks or difficult movement shots from deep.

Hardaway's defense, however, is below-average. He has some speed which allows him to stay with his man on the perimeter, but his feel for defense is not as good as it could be. The Mavericks have thus decided to cut him out of the rotation for most of the 2024 NBA Finals. Head coach Jason Kidd, however, decided that the team could benefit from the additional scoring punch Hardaway could give.

But heartbreakingly enough, Tim Hardaway Jr. was better on the defensive end than he was on offense — which should paint a picture as to how dire his Game 3 performance was. Hardaway kept in stride with his man, was not responsible for some egregious blown coverages, and there were times when the Celtics would simply make difficult shots over him. But on offense, Hardaway was a car crash.

Hardaway only took five shots, but it seemed like he took and missed 50 with how backbreaking some of his misses were. He started off the game with a missed open look from three during the second quarter, and it snowballed from there. He then missed a wide-open look from three in the third quarter and followed it up with a botched one-man fastbreak in which he took the ball strong to the hole against Derrick White and saw his shot get sent back emphatically as the wheels began to fall off for the Mavs in the period.

When Luka Doncic fouled out, Kidd called upon Hardaway yet again so that the Mavericks would have at least another player on the court who could create offense. Hardaway did none of that. In another moment of devastation, Hardaway missed another wide-open look from three with the Mavs down by six, 104-98. Had he made the three, he would have at least closed the gap to three and kept them within striking distance. But he wasn't even close on his three-point try, clanking it off the left iron despite shooting it on the right wing.

In the end, Hardaway, 19 minutes of play, was a game-worst minus-16, and his negative impact on the night was very much seen both in the box score and via the eye test. The 32-year old wing may have had a few postseason games in which he shot the lights out of the ball, particularly in 2021, but in Game 3, Hardaway looked like a shell of his former self, which explains why he barely gets any minutes these days.

Mavs' supporting cast has to be better

The 2024 playoffs have provided a platform for a few of the Mavericks' role players to break out. Derrick Jones Jr., PJ Washington, Dereck Lively II, and Daniel Gafford all came out of the Western Conference Finals looking like a million bucks. But in Game 3 of the 2024 NBA Finals, those four simply were not good enough.

Lively, at least, redeemed himself after looking out of sorts in the first two games against the Celtics. Washington hit some big shots during the Mavericks' comeback attempt, keeping in line with the way he has come up huge for them throughout the playoffs. But Jones was a negative on offense and the Mavs decided to just give him 16 minutes, while Gafford was late to a few defensive rotations, especially in the third quarter when the Celtics dissected their defense with a few well-timed cuts.

The Mavericks' role players have to be on point in Game 4 with their backs against the wall.