EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns-Mavericks preview, Pt. 3: Locating Dallas’ edge; battle on 3-point line
The Phoenix Suns advanced in the playoffs and will now take on the Dallas Mavericks in the second round.
As usual, Empire of the Suns will take you through the biggest keys to the series. After beginning with how well Phoenix defends Luka Doncic, and the size advantage for Deandre Ayton, we end with how Dallas could make this a difficult series.
PHOENIX — When scanning through the numbers, it’s hard to locate where the edge is for the Dallas Mavericks against the Phoenix Suns.
The New Orleans Pelicans got to the free-throw line and crashed the offensive glass, two factors that helped them test Phoenix in the first round.
Dallas doesn’t thrive in either of those areas. They finished an OK 14th in free-throw rate and a woeful 29th in second-chance points per game.
They don’t generate a lot of points through fastbreaks (29th), off turnovers (26th) or in the paint (29th).
None of those rankings had a notable difference since Dallas’ identity changed post-Kristaps Porzingis in mid-February.
Essentially, the Mavericks take care of the ball, play solid defense, generate a boatload of 3s and have Luka Doncic.
Dallas was seventh in the percentage of its possessions it turns over, and even more impressively, was second in opposing points off turnovers and first in Cleaning the Glass’ transition defense metric.
The Mavericks were first in the amount of corner 3s, non-corner 3s and total 3s they attempt a game, per Cleaning the Glass. They shot the fourth-best from the corners and 12th-best above the break. Pretty good!
But Phoenix has been great defensively at denying 3s all year. It was second, third and second in those three areas, respectively, in terms of the frequency they gave up in the regular season. And Dallas is not a phenomenal ball-moving team to set up the trey balls. It was 20th in the percentage of its baskets that were assisted.
As you can tell by the way the first two preview pieces went, outlining the Suns’ ability to limit Luka Doncic and the ways Deandre Ayton could dominate this series, I don’t see much in favor of the Mavs besides Doncic and the shooters going nuclear.
Looking back on the last two weeks, the one thing Dallas can take advantage of is having its depth step up because the Suns’ hasn’t thus far in the postseason.
The Mavericks will continue to be without Tim Hardaway Jr. (left foot surgery), a big blow to them as Hardaway is on the shortlist of two-guards who really get up for the Devin Booker matchup. He has had some great games against Phoenix in the past.
It also takes a huge bite out of Dallas’ rotation.
Reggie Bullock (42.4 minutes per game) and Dorian Finney-Smith (43.3) rarely sat in the six games versus the Utah Jazz and the group past those two of Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell and Doncic gets shallow pretty quickly. Former Arizona Wildcat Josh Green doesn’t offer much on either end, Davis Bertans is food for the Suns’ ball-handlers in pick-and-roll and that’s pretty much it. Those nine guys.
With that said, the top-seven are pretty solid. Suns head coach Monty Williams elaborated on that group.
“Powell’s a guy that can put pressure on the rim. He can also offensive rebound off of a shot. Kleber can do the same but he also is pretty good picking and popping,” Williams said Sunday. “Then you think about the ball-handlers, they have three guys that can be pretty effective. And then they have guys around it. Finney-Smith is one of the most improved players in the NBA. Doesn’t get enough credit for that. His ability to guard, knock down shots, 50/50 balls, offensive rebounds.
“And Bullock is a guy that New York talked about how much they didn’t want to lose him and now everybody out West is wishing that he would have stayed. Those guys all fit together. Whether it’s Luka or Dinwiddie, Brunson’s like killing everybody right now.”
Brunson is the key.
He had his official breakout in the first round, averaging 27.8 points per game while shooting 48.4% from the field.
Matchup-wise, a shifty and quick 6-foot-1 guard is the type of cover Mikal Bridges would command. He needs to be on Doncic, though.
Next up would be Booker, and the question with the entire diagram of matchups is how close to 100% that right hamstring is, because he would really need to press it against Brunson.
If it’s not Booker, Chris Paul is absolutely capable but Phoenix should want him to not expend lots of energy defensively. Maybe Jae Crowder would be able to keep up with him, or perhaps his physicality is the early assignment on Doncic to allow Bridges on Brunson.
For now, I’ll bet on Booker taking Brunson. Once Cam Johnson or Torrey Craig comes in the game, they can spend time on Doncic to get Bridges on his old Villanova pal.
The task of stopping Brunson from getting to his spots is a big one. He took over half his shots from the midrange this season and converted on 50% of them, a shot profile unlike most scorers.
If Jalen Brunson can sustain #2 star numbers next round, Dallas has a chance.
Brunson absolutely COOKED Utah in the short mid-range with a combo of hesis, spins, stepbacks…the whole package. His footwork is beautiful to watch. pic.twitter.com/JTVZIWec33
— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) April 29, 2022
That shiftiness lets him get to the line a whole lot. Brunson is coming off 6.5 free tosses a night against Utah.
“He’s just unlocked the true J.B.,” Bridges said of Brunson. “He been hoopin’ all year. … I can just tell I know what kind of shots he’s going to make. I know how talented he is and how hard he works and how much of a dog he is and for them they unlocked another level of him that I know and it’s going great for him.”
And when Brunson and/or Doncic are affecting the game in the way they can, that really opens the floor up for Dinwiddie, a perfect secondary ball-handler who has a 3-point percentage north of 40% in Dallas and can run the offense too.
Dinwiddie, however, shot 36.1% on field goals against Utah and 29.4% from deep. He’s a career 32.2% shooter on 3s and his efficiency trending back in that direction again would hurt Dallas’ balance.
If that trio begins getting into the heart of the defense off the dribble, that’s mission accomplished. That’s where the 3s start raining down from and it’s why the Suns’ point of attack defense will be imperative.
“You gotta communicate,” Paul said Sunday. “They run a lot of isolations for Luka but the other guys are shot-ready, they ready to make plays.”
Stopping that penetration while also helping properly takes us back to the NBA Finals when Williams talked about the “hard truth” of trying to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo but not overhelping in those situations.
“It’s a huge deal for us because everybody in the NBA is prone to help,” Williams said. “It’s just your natural tendency from the time you played grade school basketball. You have to have guys who can guard the ball for at least 2-3 dribbles. If you’re having blow-bys and paint attacks, it’s really gonna cause you problems.
“If you can guard the ball for multiple dribbles, it helps, but again, they are one of the best teams at breaking you down and getting to the paint so our guys are well-aware of that.”
The Suns’ biggest problem last series was an inability to materialize consistent offense over the course of a few minutes. In simpler terms, runs like 11-2, 15-4, 16-7, etc.
This was because of a lack of overall contributions across the board. A takeover by Booker, Paul or Deandre Ayton was the only real way that was happening.
The time or two it occurred outside of that, it came when Jae Crowder had a nice drive to the basket, Landry Shamet dumped off a pass to JaVale McGee, Bridges made a backdoor cut, Torrey Craig grabbed a big offensive rebound, Cam Payne knocked down an eight-foot floater and so on.
That was the 64-win best team in the world we saw all season.
If that group still isn’t fully there for round two, it’ll need to be the Suns’ Big 3 offensively being the big stars. The thing is, they can be.
But if we see those areas of slippage across 4-6 minutes at a time, Brunson and Doncic (and maybe Dinwiddie) can create those types of scoring spurts on their own with the way they get buckets and set up 3s for their teammates. Then we’d be talking about more of a coin flip series like last go.
I’m not going there. I think Dallas is a far better matchup for the Suns and Phoenix will start to look more like themselves across five games that will take the Suns to their second straight Western Conference Finals.