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The NBA Finals Were Too Late for Dallas’ Luka Doncic to Watch as a Kid. Now, He’s in Them

BOSTON (AP) — Luka Doncic didn’t stay up all night to watch NBA Finals games as a kid. They usually started at something like 3 a.m. in his native Slovenia. He had school to get to a few hours later. He’d wake up and find out who won.

Make no mistake, though: Doncic was paying attention.

“Every kid who plays basketball dreams about this,” Doncic said. “I was one of them.”

Dreams become reality for Doncic on Thursday night, when the 25-year-old makes his NBA Finals debut for the Dallas Mavericks as they take on the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of this year’s title series. He could become the first player to win a scoring title and a championship in the same season since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, and a title would surely only add to the argument that Doncic — who leads all players in this postseason in points, rebounds and assists — may be the best player in the game right now.

“This is going to be the international finals,” said Kyrie Irving, Doncic’s backcourt mate in Dallas. “Everybody’s going to be watching. Every finals is international, but the world is watching.”

He didn’t have to clarify why. Yes, the NBA Finals have long been available in more than 200 countries and territories, broadcast in something like 50 different languages and dialects. And it’s hardly a new thing for foreign players to star on the NBA’s biggest stage; two of the past three NBA Finals MVPs were Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo for Milwaukee in 2021 and Serbia’s Nikola Jokic for Denver last year.

Doncic — who became a father for the first time this season, calling that development “the greatest thing in the world” — is a global corporation by himself, a player who speaks four languages fluently and has an enormous following everywhere. And a championship would only add to his rapidly growing legend.

“Luka is at a spectacular, stratospheric level,” Hall of Famer and NBA legend Pau Gasol said at an event in Spain this week. “What he has done … is within the reach of very few in the history of this sport.”

The numbers back up what Gasol is saying.

Doncic is averaging 28.7 points per game in his six regular seasons; only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain — both at 30.1 — have a higher career average. He’s the only player in NBA history to have averages of at least eight assists and eight rebounds per game. He’s one of two players with at least 10,000 points, 3,000 rebounds and 3,000 assists through his first 400 career games; Oscar Robertson is the other.

“Game’s too simple, too easy,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said late in the regular season, when asked why voters haven’t rewarded Doncic with an MVP award yet. “He makes it look too easy. Unfortunately, that’s what happens with some of the greats … we take for granted their talent.”

Doncic wants no part of talk that winning is easy. He may make it look easy — he had a league-best 73-point game this season, 13 different games of scoring at least 40 points in the regular season, and that number could have been even higher considering he scored exactly 39 points on eight other occasions.

Stopping Doncic in these finals is not an option, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. Containing is the goal.

“You’ve just got to be very aware of what you’re willing to live with and what you’re willing to take away and when it’s time to adjust,” Mazzulla said. “There’s not one coverage. There’s not one player. It’s going to take multiple coverages. It’s going to take multiple players. It’s going to take a team effort.”

The numbers don’t just happen, Doncic insists. Nor do the wins. Doncic was a proven pro before he even got to the NBA after starring as a teenager for Real Madrid, a club he has remained very close with. But his star has continued shining brighter in each of his NBA seasons — and now, kids in Slovenia will be waking up over the next couple weeks to see how their hero did in the finals.

“It’s very hard to win,” Doncic said. “You watch a lot of film and go to work. And it’s very hard. I don’t think people understand how hard it is to win games in this league, especially in the playoffs. So, I think we earned to be here. We deserved that. Because every game we’re playing in the playoffs, it’s really hard to win.”

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By TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer

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