DAN BICKLEY

It’s time for the Phoenix Suns to get their vaunted killer instinct back

May 2, 2022, 10:30 PM | Updated: May 3, 2022, 11:54 am

PHOENIX — Every NBA playoff series has a life of its own. But some die sooner than others.

It’s time for the Suns to get ruthless.

“We’ll take the win,” Suns guard Chris Paul said after Monday’s 121-114 victory over the Mavericks. “It’s not always going to be pretty.”

For most of their Game 1 victory in the Western Conference semifinals, there was a distinct feeling that the Suns had been liberated, unlocked, reset in all the right ways. They looked like the team that dominated the regular season for six months.

Then the lid went back on the basket. The Mavericks outscored the Suns 35-25 in the final quarter. The outcome was never in doubt, but the visitors left the floor with something to build on, something of a moral victory, with their dignity intact.

It didn’t have to be that way.

“I think it speaks to, one, we can be better,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “We scored 121 with that fourth quarter, so I know our guys are feeling that (way). But we can’t have those kinds of quarters against a team like that and give up 35 (points).”

Overall, the game was full of bright spots. Devin Booker was playing fast and driving hard to the rim, erasing any lingering injury concerns. Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson each made a trio of three-point shots. Then consider the divergent tale of two Arizona sports stars who share the same name.

On a day when Cardinals’ star DeAndre Hopkins was suspended six games for failing a PED test, souring all hope and momentum spawned from the recent NFL draft, Deandre Ayton continued to grow his own playoff legend.

Ayton scored a team-high 25 points. His touch is so refined that it’s surprising to see him miss from anywhere on the court. While the grind of the regular season makes him drift on occasion, the playoffs seem to conjure up the best of Ayton. And he enjoys a huge matchup advantage against the Mavericks, a team that doesn’t highlight the kind of hulking center who can take a toll on Ayton.

But once again, Ayton was unplugged from the offense just as he was cooking.

Bottom line: The Suns look very comfortable against the Mavericks, just like they did in last year’s second-round sweep of the Nuggets. Luke Doncic scored 45 points but missed 15-of-30 shots. The Suns ran him through a defensive grinder, and near the end of the third quarter, he walked downcourt with a hangdog look of defeat. And in the fourth quarter, JaVale McGee picked his pocket and raced downcourt for a breakaway dunk.

For a muted home crowd that clearly doesn’t fear the Mavericks, that was as loud as Footprint Center would get in Game 1. And yet that play seemed to signal to the Suns that the game was over. Which it wasn’t.

It’s only one game, of course. But the Suns are due for a run of dominance, a team that struggled in a first-round series for a myriad of reasons: the Pelicans were way better than a traditional No. 8 seed; they were coached by a former assistant who knew too much, who seemed to have Phoenix cheat codes in his back pocket; and because the Suns lost a bit of their edge, having coasted to the finish line of the regular season.

And too often this postseason, the Suns have done the same, letting an overmatched opponent hang around deep into playoff games. They watched the Pelicans dominate most third quarters. And now they’ve let the Mavericks do the same in the fourth quarter.

“If we could’ve made a few more shots in the fourth, it would feel a lot better, if you will,” Williams said.

Maybe. But the Suns are still missing too many open looks. And for now, they’re still missing a chunk of their vaunted killer instinct.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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