Celtics vow to maintain fight even with commanding Finals lead

Although the Celtics hold a commanding 3-0 lead over the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, Boston coach Joe Mazzulla realizes the fight is far from over.

Mazzulla has been showing the Celtics UFC highlights during the team’s film sessions in an attempt to show them that there’s a very fine line between victory and defeat, regardless of the circumstances.

“If you’ve ever been in a fight with someone and you think you’re about to beat ‘em, you usually get sucker punched,” Mazzulla told reporters before Boston beat Dallas 106-99 in Game 3 on Wednesday night. “The closer you are to beating them up, the closer you are to losing.”

With the Mavericks entering Wednesday down 2-0 in the series, Mazzulla and the Celtics were bracing for Dallas’ best shot, and they got it in the fourth quarter.

Boston was up 91-70 following a 3-pointer from Derrick White with 11:07 left in the game, but the Mavericks then ran wild. Dallas scored 22 of the next 24 points, pulling within 93-92 when Kyrie Irving knocked down a jumper with 3:37 to go.

But the Celtics never gave away the lead, and now they are one win away from the 18th title in franchise history.

Teams that have won the first three games of a best-of-seven playoff series are 156-0, but that figure doesn’t necessarily instill a sense of security for Boston. In last year’s Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics found themselves in the exact same position that the Mavericks are currently in, and Boston came all the way back to force a Game 7 against the Miami Heat.

However, Celtics star Jayson Tatum sustained an ankle injury just 26 seconds into that contest, hampering him for the rest of the game. He finished with just 14 points, and Miami blew Boston away 103-84.

“We really felt like we were going to come back,” Tatum said of the series with Miami. “We almost did. … We were a sprained ankle away from having like a real shot. So, you know, we are not relaxing or anything like that. You know, not even focusing on winning or (Game 4) or whatever.

“However long it takes, that’s our motto. However long it takes, that’s what it’s going to take.”

And the Mavericks don’t plan on just throwing in the towel.

“It’s not over till it’s over. We just got to believe,” Dallas star Luka Doncic said. “Like I always say, it’s first to four. We’re going to stay together. We lose together, we win together. So we got to stay together.”

Doncic will try to redeem himself in Game 4 on Friday after a nightmarish fourth quarter on Wednesday.

The Mavericks were only trailing by three when Doncic tried to step in front of Jaylen Brown to draw a charge, but he was called for a blocking foul, his sixth personal, with 4:12 remaining. Dallas challenged the call, which stood, leaving the Mavericks without their best player down the stretch.

Four of Doncic’s fouls came in the fourth quarter, when he had just two points on 1-of-5 shooting.

In Dallas coach Jason Kidd’s eyes, struggling in the Finals — and learning from it — is just one step on the path to greatness.

“I think the history is there for us to learn from, when you look at great players and the struggles,” Kidd said Thursday. “You look at (Michael Jordan) and the struggles that he had against Detroit. You look at some Magic Johnson struggles. You look at LeBron’s first time around. … But as the great ones, 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.

“When you look at the Celtics, they lose to the Warriors two years ago. They lose to Miami in Game 7 (last season). So just experience of understanding that you’re not promised to get back, that you’ve got to work.”