Luka Doncic has yet to truly grasp what defined Jordan, LeBron -- and these Celtics

Windhorst sounds off on Luka's NBA Finals performance (1:25)

Brian Windhorst sounds off on Luka Doncic's performance after the Mavericks' star player fouled out in Game 3. (1:25)

IN AUGUST 2021, Jason Kidd had been on the job as coach of the Dallas Mavericks for just over a month when he flew to Slovenia to meet with Luka Doncic, the 22-year old superstar who would determine his success or failure as a coach.

Kidd had been a superstar in his own right as a player and played alongside the greatest Maverick of them all, Dirk Nowitzki, when Dallas won an NBA championship in 2011. He guided a young Giannis Antetokounmpo as the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks and -- as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers -- he helped an aging LeBron James win a championship in 2020.

In other words, he has had plenty of experience with transcendent stars. Each of them were different, of course. But Kidd has told all of them the same thing.

"I'm not here to argue or fight with you. I'm here to help you," Kidd told ESPN in 2022. "And I'm always going to tell you the truth."

In the three seasons he has coached Doncic, Kidd has told him several truths: that he needed to stop making enemies of officials with persistent whining; that he needed to give a more consistent effort on defense; and that he needed to get in better shape to be at his best when his team needed him.

Kidd has said these things publicly and privately. So have Doncic's teammates in Dallas and on the Slovenian national team.

Kidd has built him up, too, lauding Doncic's otherworldly talent, competitiveness and toughness. He has marveled at the basketball knowledge and skills that have made him a five-time All-Star and an MVP runner-up.

The praise is as consistent as the harsh truths he has delivered. So when Kidd provided an unvarnished assessment of the ways the Boston Celtics have exploited the lingering holes in Doncic's game as they've built a 3-0 lead in the 2024 NBA Finals, it could only be interpreted as one last chance to get through to Doncic before the Mavericks' season potentially ends in Game 4 on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC).

"For great players, you have to fail to understand how to be successful at the highest stage. This is the highest level," Kidd said Thursday. "The history is there for us to learn from, when you look at great players and their struggles: [Michael Jordan] and the struggles that he had against Detroit, Magic Johnson's struggles, LeBron [James] first time around."

It is a testament to Doncic that at age 25 he can already be put in the same sentence as all-time greats like Jordan, Johnson and James. But it also speaks to the hill he still has to climb.

Jordan had to learn how to trust his teammates and elevate them to become a champion, to solve the so-called "Jordan Rules," the selfish play the Detroit Pistons used to bait him into. Johnson and James had to become better outside shooters to force defenses to play them straight up and create space for their teammates to operate.

As with Doncic, none of these flaws was a secret. If anything, they were endlessly debated and criticized until each player finally conquered his shortcomings and won a title.

This is Doncic's first time on this stage. The Finals have a way of revealing character and exposing it in all the best and worst ways -- all Doncic has to do is look across the court at his opponents.

THE CELTICS HAVE been where Doncic is now. During the 2022 Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum ran out of gas and wilted under the pressure thrown at him defensively -- a sort of "Jordan Rules" for the modern NBA style meant to turn strengths into weaknesses.

That summer, Tatum vowed never to let that happen again and trained every day to be stronger to avenge that loss. But the Celtics didn't even make the Finals in 2023, felled in the Eastern Conference finals by a lack of consistency, a Miami Heat team that knew how to exploit their weaknesses, and an untimely injury to Tatum after they had come back from 3-0 down to force a Game 7.

"Last year, just falling short on your home floor ... it was embarrassing," Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said. "I felt like the team was relying on me. JT got hurt in Game 7, and I dropped the ball. To me, it was embarrassing. It drove me all summer, drove me crazy."

Brown has atoned for last season's failure in these playoffs. He's the favorite to be named the Finals MVP if the Celtics can close out the series Friday night. And if they do win, it would complete the journey Brown and Tatum have been on in their seven seasons together.

That Finals loss to the Warriors, along with three conference finals defeats, has given them a lot of experience and losing to learn from.

Doncic has only been close to this level once -- in 2022, when the Mavs fell in the Western Conference finals to that same Warriors team that defeated the Celtics in the Finals. He hasn't felt the sting of losing on the biggest stage or the consequences of not dealing with his shortcomings.

He's so talented that he hasn't had to make the profound changes to his game, body and attitude that Kidd and others have been trying to help him make.

He has tried, to some extent.

He has shown improvement as a defender ... at times. He has taken offseason conditioning more seriously ... to some extent. He has cut down on his technical fouls ... a bit.

But he hasn't done enough and the Celtics have exploited his weaknesses -- especially when they attack him on offense.

According to Second Spectrum, Doncic has allowed the three highest blow-by percentages on drives in a playoff series in the past 10 years. In the first round, the LA Clippers drove past him 65.2% of the time. In the second round, the Oklahoma City Thunder blew past him on defense 59% of the time. Against the Celtics, that percentage has ballooned to 67.7%.

"That's what the Celtics are very good at doing, is making sure when they go hunting, they get the guy that they want," Kidd said.

He didn't name Doncic as the guy the Celtics are hunting, but he didn't have to. All Kidd added was that the Mavericks have to "do a better job of protecting Luka."

But there's no point in sugarcoating with the Mavericks' season on the brink. Not with Doncic complaining about officiating and fishing for fouls instead of getting back on defense.

Not after he fouled out of Game 3 by trying to draw an ill-advised charge on Brown with less than five minutes remaining in the game and the Mavericks having whittled a 21-point deficit down to three points.

If the "Jordan Rules" are now being applied to Doncic, with the spotlight on him, it's yet another lesson that Kidd hopes his star player can absorb no matter how this series ends.

"When you look at great players and their struggles," Kidd said, "[they] use that going into the next season or the next couple seasons to try to get back there because now they understand experience is a big thing."

DONCIC WAS JUST 12 years old when the Mavericks won their only title in 2011 by beating James and the Miami Heat in six games. Wednesday night marked the anniversary of that title-clinching game, and the Mavericks honored key members of that team during Game 3.

Kidd was the elder statesman on that team, and he remembers how Dallas challenged James to prove he could shoot from the outside and dared him to take over down the stretch, even though Dwyane Wade was more comfortable in that role.

James could not rise to meet those challenges that year. He wasn't ready yet, even though the San Antonio Spurs had done the same things to him during his first NBA Finals in 2007.

These hills can be more like mountains sometimes, even for the great ones.

There is no easy way up and over the summit.

"Any time you feel like you get to the top of the mountain and you fall off, there's definitely a personal failure," James said after losing those 2011 Finals. "It was a failure in '07 when we lost to the Spurs when I was in Cleveland, it's a failure now for myself losing to the Mavericks."

Eventually James did learn from those failures. We're about to find out whether Doncic can do the same.

"Sometimes I don't show it the right way, but at the end of the day, I really want to win," Doncic said Thursday. "I've got to do a better job showing it in a different way."