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Analysis: It takes time to win, and that’s a lesson Luka Doncic is learning

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Michael Jordan needed seven seasons to win his first title. LeBron James needed nine seasons and two futile trips to the NBA Finals before he became a champion. Shaquille O’Neal got swept in his first finals. And the newly crowned champion Boston Celtics lost the finals in 2022 and lost in the Eastern Conference finals last year before breaking through now.

The lesson, as everyone knows: Winning the biggest prize almost always takes time. Not always. But usually.

Such is the reality for Luka Doncic. At 25, he already is one of the best players in the world, if not the very best of the bunch. But he’s not a champion. Not yet.

The wait for his first championship will extend until at least 2025, which really shouldn’t be all that surprising. Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks weren’t a logical pick in this series against the Celtics; one was a 50-win team that caught fire at the end of the regular season, the other was a 64-win team that was better than everyone from the very beginning. The smart money said Dallas would fall in these finals, and that’s what happened. It ended Monday night in Boston, the Celtics winning 106-88, an 18-point margin for their record-setting 18th title.

“They’re a great team. They have been together for a long time, and they had to go through everything, so we just got to look at them, see how they play, the maturity, and they have some great players,” Doncic said when it was all over Monday night. “We can learn from that. We’ve got to fight next season.”

Let’s be clear: Losing these NBA Finals should in no way be an indictment of Doncic. He could have played better, of course. Smarter at times, for certain. He spent some of the finals arguing too often with referees. He knows that. That said, letting a finals loss take anything away from the first six years of his body of NBA work would be ridiculous.

He’s scored 11,470 points so far, 15th most of anyone through their first six NBA seasons. Throw in his 3,472 rebounds and 3,317 assists, and Oscar Robertson is the only other player with such stats from Year 1 through Year 6. James came close. Jordan came close. But they didn’t have those numbers.

It’s not like this needs explaining, but just in case: Doncic — already a five-time All-NBA first-team selection — is on an absolute Hall of Fame trajectory.

“He’s played as best as he can despite the circumstances, just injuries and stuff,” Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving said earlier in these finals. “He’s been giving it his all.”

Doncic played through knee and ankle issues in the playoffs. He had a thoracic contusion that required painkilling injections to get through the NBA Finals. He wasn’t at his best, and he would have had to be otherworldly for Dallas to have had a real chance in this series.

He finished the playoffs as the leader in points, rebounds and assists anyway. Not the Mavs’ leader, the NBA’s leader.

“He’s one of the best players in the world, and so I think the biggest thing for him is that we all would like to be healthy, but there’s going to be bumps and bruises along the way,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “So, for him at the age of 25 to get to the finals, to be playing his basketball at the level that he’s playing, now it’s just being consistent. … When you have one of the best players in the world, you should be always fighting for a championship.”

The Mavs felt that Doncic was the real MVP of the league this season, and their argument was compelling even though it didn’t resonate much with voters. Kidd says Doncic’s greatness gets taken for granted, which may be true. When Doncic gets it going, it’s must-watch TV. He makes scoring look as easy as anyone has in this generation. He’s not a high-flyer like Jordan, not someone who plays with the force, flair and power like James does. But when he’s on, forget it.

He might not be “the” face of the league. But he’s in the conversation, especially globally. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver watched Doncic closely on the day before the finals started and, in his own words, came away with yet another “example of how international this league is.”

“Someone who grew up in Slovenia and trained in Madrid and Spain was doing interviews in three different languages,” Silver said. “Again, many of you spend time with him, but he’s an exemplar of the modern NBA.”

The Mavs bristled at criticism Doncic took during the finals, but in some ways, that’s welcome-to-the-club stuff. Jordan heard doubters. James still does. The Celtics, until Monday night, did as well. They don’t doubt nobodies. Comes with the territory, and Kidd hopes Doncic converts it into fuel for his future.

“When you’re on the biggest stage, someone’s got to poke a hole,” Kidd said. “This will only make the great ones better. When you look at … LeBron, Michael, the greats, the GOATs, they all were poked at, and they came back stronger and better. I truly believe Luka will come back stronger and better.”

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Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA

By TIM REYNOLDS
AP Basketball Writer

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