Mavs coach Jason Kidd on Luka Dončić: 'Give my man a break. Let him play the game'

DALLAS — Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd mounted an impassioned defense of Dallas superstar Luka Dončić before Game 4 of the 2024 NBA Finals, following two days of criticism of the MVP finalist’s defensive effort and on-court temperament after he fouled out with 4:12 remaining in the Mavericks’ Game 3 loss to the Celtics.

During his pregame session with reporters Friday, Kidd was asked about what it’s been like to watch Dončić navigate everything he’s had to deal with in this series — the massive offensive workload he has to shoulder against the Celtics’ swarming defense, the constant targeting by a Boston offense intent on exploiting his defensive shortcomings, and myriad injuries, including a thoracic contusion for which he reportedly received a pain-killing injection before Game 2. Dončić said during an interview with ESPN’s Malika Andrews on Thursday that he expected he’d need another before a Game 4 in which he and his fellow Mavericks will hope to stave off elimination.

Kidd declined comment on Dončić’s physical health: “I don't get involved with the medical; I just repeat ‘questionable,’ or ‘probable,’ or whatever he's [listed as]. So that's between medical and the player.” But he did comment on what he sees as unfair sideswipes of his lead playmaker.

“Luka has been incredible up to this point and has still been incredible,” Kidd said. “For whatever reason, there has been some personal attacks on him, but he will learn from them. And he will be better when he comes back from it.”

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. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)
Mavericks guard Luka Dončić heads to the locker room after Game 3 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Dallas. The Celtics won 106-99. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Asked later if there was a specific personal attack that bothered him, Kidd raised his frustration at the notion that a 25-year-old product — even one as decorated and celebrated as Dončić — should be not only finished, but flawless.

“I think, when you look at today's athlete, the game of sport is not to be perfect — it's just, you know, to win,” Kidd said. “And when you look at what's come out here in the last day or so … if you've watched the Mavs, Luka has improved his defense. But we are asking him — or some are asking him — to be a shutdown defender. Well, he's never been on an All-Defensive Team, but he's been on five All-[NBA] Teams, first team. So that means he's one of the top five players in the world. And he's playing the game the right way, where he can find open guys.

“But when you're on the biggest stage, there's got to be — someone's got to poke a hole,” Kidd continued. “This will only make the great ones better. When you look at — we talked about it yesterday, with LeBron [James], Michael [Jordan], the greats, the G.O.A.T.s. They all were poked at, and they came back stronger and better. I truly believe Luka will come back stronger and better.”

Even as he has struggled to consistently knock down shots against the multiple defenders Boston has thrown at him (after shooting 69% inside of 8 feet and 40.1% on stepback 3-pointers during the regular season, he’s down to 58% on the up-close tries and 26% on stepbacks in this series) and battled fatigue late in games (he’s scored just eight points on 3-for-15 shooting in fourth quarters in the Finals), Dončić has been the primary driver of the limited success Dallas has had in scoring against a dominant Celtics defense.

The league’s leading scorer during the regular season is averaging a series-high 29.7 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 39.4 minutes per game in the Finals, shooting 56.5% on 2-point tries. Through three games, the Mavericks have been outscored by just four points in the 118 minutes he’s been on the court and have been hammered by 28 points in the 26 minutes he’s sat.

Dončić isn’t the first young star to scuffle in a high-profile matchup against a superior team. And he’s not the first one to come under fire when that opponent shines a glaring, megawatt spotlight on the remaining holes in his game, laying them bare for all to see. But to Kidd — a 10-time All-Star and six-time All-NBA selection during his playing career, who lost in the NBA Finals two times as the star point guard of the New Jersey Nets, and won a ring as the elder statesman facilitator on Dirk Nowitzki’s 2011 Mavericks — the barbs levied at Dončić have gone over the line.

“This is a free country. Everybody has the right to their opinion,” Kidd said. “It's just sometimes we might take it a little bit too far, right? And understanding: If you put yourself in that person's shoes, could you stand up to the barbecue? Sometimes we want to fry someone, but if you reversed it, and it was you being fried, would you like it? Most likely not, right? That's just the nature of the business. But this young man has done nothing to anyone but play the game of basketball. And when he's asked the question, he's never run from it. He's answered it. And he's 25 years old.”

And when the focus goes to the few things a player isn’t great at as opposed to the many things he does do well, as Kidd sees it, the NBA conversation as a whole suffers.

“I think that's what I'm more disappointed in is that we are at the highest stage, where we have one of the best players in the world, playing the game the right way, but we want to criticize some of the things that he does not do well,” Kidd said. “But when he does do them well, we are going to come back and want to talk to him. And then, when he says, ‘No, I'm going to pass,’ then what happens, right? I think sometimes it's just unfair or unwarranted to say those things. No one in this room is perfect, right?

“So, like, give my man a break. Let him play the game. Because we are all here to watch him play, and so let's just enjoy it. He's 25 years old. He will be better. Hopefully he's better tonight.”