Mavs player Luka Doncic grumbles at the refs after fouling out in Game 3

DALLAS — Luka Doncic stared at the referee in exasperated disbelief after he was whistled for his sixth foul and then turned his head toward the Dallas Mavericks bench to call for an appeal of the call.

After a replay review, the challenge was deemed unsuccessful, resulting in Doncic being benched in the final 4 minutes, 12 seconds of Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

Dallas, which was down 21 points at the start of the fourth quarter, narrowed the gap to three points after Doncic was ruled out. He watched helplessly as the Mavs’ lead fell flat in Wednesday’s 106-99 loss to the Boston Celtics at American Airlines Center, putting Dallas on the brink of collapse.

Doncic, who fouled out for the first time in 48 playoff games, was called for four fouls in the fourth quarter.

“We couldn’t play physical,” Doncic said when asked about the officiating. “I don’t know. I don’t want to say anything.”

“You know, six fouls in the NBA Finals, I’m basically like that,” Doncic said, palm up. “Come on, man. Be better than that.”

The referees were not the only reason for Doncic’s frustration.

He got off to a hot start, making five of his first seven shots from the floor as the Mavs jumped out to a 13-point lead in the first quarter, but struggled offensively for most of the rest of the game. Doncic finished with 27 points on 11-of-27 shooting.

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The Celtics have also relentlessly pursued Doncic on defense, as the Mavs star is nursing a chest contusion suffered during Game 1 and has been playing on his right knee most of the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Boston scored 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting with Doncic as the primary defender. The Celtics also produced several good looks by penetrating Doncic to force the Dallas defense into turnovers.

“He definitely has a bull’s eye on his chest,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “He’s got to be able to guard and understand that we’re there to protect him and help him if he gets beat. Again, he’s carrying the offensive load. They’re putting him on every pick-and-roll. He’s got to be able to play a game where he can rely on the offense and let others carry the load.” “

Mavs guard Kyrie Irving, who struggled through both losses in Boston to open the series, snapped out of a mini-slump with 35 points on 13-of-28 shooting.

The rest of the Mavs combined to score just 37 points, as Kidd stretched his rotation to 11 players in a desperate search for contributors.

Dallas was on its way to 20-2 when Doncic was called for his sixth foul after attempting a hit on Boston star Jaylen Brown on the left wing. It happened just 26 seconds after Doncic’s fifth foul, called when he collided with Brown while defending a punt.

Doncic expressed his concerns to officials after those two calls, as he did on several other occasions throughout the game.

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“You just gotta let him breathe a little bit,” Irving said when asked about his postgame message to his co-star. “Let the human emotions come out. Just hug him. That’s it, man. It’s easy to just point the finger at him, and say, ‘You can be better.’ That’s easy to say, and I think he knows that, but yeah, he keeps repeating that I I have his back, we all have his back.

Dallas now faces tough odds. The teams are 0-156 in playoff series after trailing by the 3-0th mark in NBA history.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” Doncic said. “We just have to believe.”

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