EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Phoenix Suns deliver strong 1st punch to Mavericks, take Game 1
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns’ 121-114 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals was so lopsided in the Suns’ favor that it almost felt like the Mavericks needed that type of smack in the face and we will really see what they are about in Game 2.
The seven-point margin of victory does not fairly represent the stylistic trouncing this was by the Suns.
Monday’s Mavericks effort saw them struggle immensely to create any quality individual offense outside of Luka Doncic and their defensive rotations did a bad job making the Suns uncomfortable.
Phoenix’s offense, in particular, was much better at putting pressure on the defense in a way that led to open looks across the floor. That process even felt rudimentary at times, an unexpected sight against a conference semifinals defense, similar to the way the Suns were able to break down the Denver Nuggets in last year’s second round.
“I like the fact that we were not settling for the 3s tonight,” head coach Monty Williams said. “A lot of our guys were attacking the paint. We were getting floaters, rim shots and then we were playing in paint to great. That was the focus. Once we had a good shot, we can take it but let’s try to get a great shot.”
“That’s natural,” center Deandre Ayton added. “We take what the defense gives us.”
And the thing is, the two main factors we discussed prior to the series that are the core of the Mavericks’ offensive DNA were in their favor.
The Mavericks’ drive-and-kick game generated tons of 3s, particularly in the corner, to good results at 16-for-39 (41%)
Doncic had the superstar stat line of 45 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and five turnovers on 15-of-30 shooting but its impact only went as far as keeping Dallas afloat as long as possible.
“Anytime a guy has 45, you look at that number and you don’t like it but I look at their assist numbers. They only had 16,” Williams said of Doncic.
I say that up top about Dallas needing a wake-up call because it is coming off a six-game series against a Utah Jazz team that played porous defense and has a clear lack of cohesion that has led to rampant speculation they will be at least somewhat blowing up their roster.
The Suns could not have been more different in those two regards to start the game.
Phoenix exploded to an early 18-6 lead, flying around defensively to start the seamless good defense into good offense transition that is always when the Suns are at their best.
Dallas plays at the slowest pace in the NBA and uses it to have a set defense a lot of the time, a good defense that looked real bad when the Suns got it moving into rotations.
The Mavericks, however, kept manufacturing good 3s and a great shooting start allowed them to be within four points at 5:48 left in the second quarter despite Phoenix’s offense chugging at a really good rate as well.
That’s when Chris Paul took the reigns, scoring or assisting 12 of the Suns’ next 14 points to quickly have Phoenix back up by 13.
That was the halftime edge, even with Doncic at 26 points and the Mavs’ above-average shooting numbers.
The wear-down effect really came for Doncic in the third quarter when he was 2-for-7 from the field.
Phoenix was more than fine with Doncic living off jumpers 15+ feet out off the dribble, and the Slovenian realized that, so he hunted his 1-on-1 matchups through switches and attacked the basket. That, though, has to happen through lots of exertion and physicality, and Doncic looked like a player who was already really feeling the punishment of that.
He had no help from Jalen Brunson or Spencer Dinwiddie, the two other offensive initiators who have really untapped the Mavericks’ offensive capabilities beyond Doncic this season. Brunson (13 points) was defended excellently by Devin Booker while Dinwiddie (eight points) was honestly hard to even notice out there.
“We gotta defend,” Paul said of the defensive mentality. “That’s what we done stood on all season long. They got up 39 3s, so just keep trying to slow down the other guys. We know Luka gonna take his shots and whatnot but just try to make it tough on him.”
Dallas scored 23 points in the third quarter and 19 across the next nine-and-a-half minutes. Phoenix’s offense, meanwhile, kept the gears spinning in the third quarter to extend the cushion to 21.
The Mavericks chased the game from there, scoring 16 points in the game’s final 2:31 and cutting it down to as little as six with 53 seconds remaining while Phoenix’s offense got bogged down and missed open shots, registering a 7-for-25 (28%) conversion rate in the quarter.
“We’ll take the win,” Paul said. “It’s not always going to be pretty. We played well pretty much most of the game.”
There just wasn’t enough time for Dallas to get back in it and the Suns made their free throws to eliminate any chances of drama.
Booker’s 7-of-20 shooting night doesn’t do his terrific Game 1 justice. He contributed 23 points, nine rebounds and eight assists with one turnover, continuously showing an ability to make the right pass that would gut the Mavericks’ defense after overcommitting in his direction. His 13 points in the first quarter were the driving force behind the Suns’ immediate advantage and he was moving much, much better compared to his return from the hamstring injury on Thursday.
On that front, Ayton was the Suns’ leading scorer with 25 points, and Phoenix was still a bit inconsistent with routinely involving him. The majority of Ayton’s baskets were him getting the ball within the flow of the offense and a cozy amount of space to work with around him.
Brunson (6-of-16) and Dinwiddie (3-of-8) combined to shoot 9-for-24 (37.5%). Phoenix made it difficult to get those types of looks we just talked about with Ayton.
Doncic did not sit in the second half and played 44 minutes while Paul wound up at only 29. It’s hard to criticize the former given how Brunson and Dinwiddie performed. The latter surely was to make up for the excessive yet required workload put on Paul when Booker was out injured against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Williams, at times, had lineups out there in both halves without Booker, Paul, Ayton or Mikal Bridges, another bad sign for Dallas. Williams definitely has a couple of notches left to tighten up the rotation if he deems it necessary later in the series.
Dallas’ Maxi Kleber knocked down all five of his 3-pointers in the first half and finished with 19 points. He and Doncic were the lone sources of offense for Dallas throughout the majority of the game.
That absent scoring balance was found on the other side through Paul (19 points), Mikal Bridges (13), Cam Payne (9), Jae Crowder (11) and Cam Johnson (17). The production for the last two players especially was an encouraging development for Phoenix after the two wings had a rough offensive series in the first round.