EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns eager for opening night rematch with new-look Mavericks

Oct 18, 2022, 7:37 PM | Updated: Oct 19, 2022, 11:10 am
Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns ...
Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns in Game Seven of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals at Footprint Center on May 15, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX –The schedule-makers knew what they were doing.

The Phoenix Suns’ first game in Footprint Center since being humiliated on their own floor and booted from the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks is against … the Dallas Mavericks! Who possibly could have seen this coming?!

In the leadup to what can be billed as a “revenge game,” the Suns are not buying the importance of one regular season game.

“Everybody will make it something more than it is,” Suns guard Devin Booker said on Saturday. “Obviously, be nice to win, but it’s one out of 82. It just happened to be the team that we got put out by. People gonna be coming in saying revenge game but whether we win by 30, lose by 30 — we still have 81 more games to go.

“So maybe later in the season when we match up against each other in the playoffs that’ll be something. We obviously want to win but I don’t think it’s gonna be what everyone hypes it up to be.”

I co-sign what the man had to say while also acknowledging this game naturally has emotion to it that an opener hosting Charlotte or Indiana would not.

Head coach Monty Williams said that on Monday and gave a nod to the human nature of it. Forward Cam Johnson confirmed that as well.

“I think we kind of had that feeling the first time we played Milwaukee here last year,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I remember it was a little vindication. It added fuel to the fire. As competitors, man, we do everything to get fuel to the fire.”

After a playoff series against a team, there is an extra level of familiarity that gets unlocked. Both squads know what the other one runs and hyper-intricate details beyond that. They know that if one player goes left when he normally goes right, that means the screen is getting set for the guy under the basket who leaks out at the elbow setting up the kick-out to the corner. See what I’m saying?

Dallas, however, is going to be a much different team this year. Guard Jalen Brunson, the second source of offense behind All-NBA guard Luka Doncic, signed with the New York Knicks this offseason.

The Mavericks replaced him with no one. They will do it through who is left amongst the ball-handlers, and also some size.

Dallas signed former Suns center JaVale McGee and traded for Houston Rockets big Christian Wood.

Suns fans know what McGee brings. He sets great screens, rolls hard, rebounds, protects the rim, finishes everything and just produces at a high level in limited minutes.

Wood is someone long-time readers will remember as a potential target in free agency I previewed two offseasons ago. He’s a great athlete with perimeter skills, and that makes the potential very high for him in ball screens for Doncic.

Williams made a smart observation on Monday that those two still present a similar dynamic to Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber as one diving big and another one that pops but it still is different.

“They’ve added a level of length that most teams don’t have,” Williams said. “Most teams don’t carry four bigs like that that are all going to play.”

They are bigger bodies on screens for wing Mikal Bridges to get through, assuming he sticks on Doncic and doesn’t switch as much as he surprisingly did in the playoff series.

Defensively, that’s where the length Williams brings up really comes into play. McGee is a good rim protector and Wood is, uh, a work in progress. Kleber and Powell are also solid. When the Suns bring the ball into the lane, someone big with long arms will be contesting that shot most of the time. It was a Swiss cheese element of Dallas’ defense last April that will be patched up more this time around.

The Mavericks, actually, were shorthanded when they defeated the Suns. They were without guard Tim Hardaway Jr., one of the more overlooked players in the league and a huge threat off the bench.

“Just watching him in the preseason, he doesn’t look like he was out with an injury,” Williams said Monday. “He can shoot the ball, he’s strong, he’s tough, he can put it down better than people give him credit. He’s just one of those guys, when you lose Brunson, how do you get that back? And I think they can get it back as far as production in different ways with a guy like Hardaway.

“I’ve always liked his game, always undervalued in my opinion. Just from his production, not a guy you gotta call plays for every game and you look at the stat sheet and you’re like, ‘Man, he had a huge effect on the game.’ We have to account for him.”

Hardaway launches 3s like a self-reloading catapult. He’s attempted at least seven a game in each of the last five seasons, which speaks to his ability to get them off. Hardaway got above 15 points per game in his first two seasons with Dallas before Brunson’s emergence bumped him down a bit, so expect him to get above that number again this year.

“Tim’s nice,” Bridges said. “Can shoot, handle, really confident too. Can shoot from range. If he hit one or two, best believe that third one can be very far out and he will make it.”

Speaking from experience of watching him up close on the sideline in Dallas, Hardaway is an awesome teammate. His guys clearly respect him and he’s an important veteran presence. He’s a big part of their team and him having a great season is something Dallas needs to get back to the Western Conference Finals.

Hardaway will present a fun and unpredictable layer to a matchup that hopefully develops into a rivalry over the next couple of years. The showdown at least has the precedence to build off after the playoff series, which is one of several bullet points on the power point presentation of why this is a big game to start the season with.

From the Suns’ perspective, it matters that the last time these two sides met, they lost. We remember last year’s revenge tour during the regular season, when Phoenix was emphatically defeating teams it had previously fallen to. Booker said at the time their memories naturally trigger the desire to get one back.

Wednesday night is going to be one heck of a chance to get one back. Doesn’t mean it’s more important than the games that truly matter, though.

“I’d rather win the series than win the first game of the season,” Bridges said Tuesday. “Ain’t too much revenge off being 0-1 or 1-0.”

INJURY UPDATES

Landry Shamet (left hip strain) is out for the season opener. In a playoff rotation, these would be the minutes I’d guess would go to Damion Lee. Phoenix, however, will presumably run a 10-man rotation and Lee is going to probably be behind Bridges on the depth chart.

That means it’ll probably be guard Josh Okogie, a stout defender that needs to prove a few things offensively to earn playing time. Duane Washington Jr. at least deserves consideration after what he’s shown in the last couple of weeks. Lee and Torrey Craig could also slot up one position to make way for Jock Landale or Dario Saric at the 4.

Kleber is questionable for Dallas because a non-COVID illness while Davis Bertans (right knee effusion) and Frank Ntilikina (right ankle effusion) are out. Kleber was great against Phoenix last postseason in a big-time role. Bertans and Ntilikina were used sporadically but were effective when called upon by Jason Kidd.

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