EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Duel of dual superstars sees Suns edge Mavericks in afternoon thriller

Mar 5, 2023, 4:01 PM

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns goes to the basket as Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks ...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns goes to the basket as Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks defends in the second half of the game at American Airlines Center on March 5, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. The Suns won 130-126. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

When basketball reaches its apex, most of the time it’s going to come down to your best guy against their best guy. In today’s NBA, most teams have two of those guys.

The Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks certainly do, combining for four superstars.

A Sunday afternoon thriller that featured a little bit of everything ultimately came down to the production of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

Phoenix’s Durant produced 37 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two turnovers on 12-of-17 shooting while Booker matched him with 36 points, five rebounds, 10 assists and one turnover on 15-of-25 shooting.

On the other side, Dallas’ Doncic provided 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and five turnovers on 8-of-23 shooting while Irving added 30 points, four rebounds, seven assists and three turnovers on 10-of-19 shooting.

The Suns’ dual superstars won the duel, and as a result, the game, 130-126.

The second half was bonkers. Booker and Durant scored or assisted 60 of the Suns’ 71 points. Doncic and Irving scored or assisted 56 of the Mavericks’ 64 points. That means the four of them scored or assisted 116 of the game’s 135 points in the final two quarters.

Booker and Durant each played 40 minutes. They were a combined 14-of-21 from the field in the first half, but thanks to little other contributions offensively and the Mavs’ 10-of-22 3-point shooting, the Suns trailed by three.

Phoenix entered the third quarter getting away from its style of play in part of what will be the biggest adjustments with Durant. They obliged in matching the Mavericks’ go-to offense in an ugly 12 minutes full of foul and matchup hunting.

Even though the Suns’ star duo went on to score 23 of the Suns’ first 26 points in the third quarter, Dallas ended up with 31 points of its own in the period’s opening 10 minutes.

That’s when Phoenix got back to what it does, and while what the stars did kept them in the game to later win, relocating its identity was really was what put them over the top.

Torrey Craig and Ish Wainright combined for a trio of 3s to end that third quarter, somewhat canceling out an 0-for-8 3-point shooting night for starting wing Josh Okogie, who just played 22 minutes after Dallas’ defense kept leaving him open in the corner. All three were assisted by Booker.

Phoenix was scratching and clawing through the muck of the game’s flow to find any momentum. That had seized it, a one-point lead through the third despite Doncic and Irving scoring 30 of the Mavericks’ 33 points.

The heavyweight blows from the All-NBA quartet continued in the fourth quarter, but even though the Suns have that pair, they’ve also got two other really good players that make them a “Big 4” and it’s what separates them from the Mavericks.

Up to that point, the game had gotten away from Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. Midway through the frame, however, Phoenix looked for Ayton in mismatches on back-to-back plays, only for it to yield turnovers.

The Suns, though, correctly persisted. Ayton got a point via a free throw, and on the next possession, Paul nailed his signature midrange jumper.

The next time down, Dallas once again was fine with leaving the fifth guy open, and Wainright promptly drilled another 3 to tie at 5:19 to go.

Ninety seconds later, double teams left Paul open for 3, and he made one of his own.

Two minutes later, Durant attracted extra defensive attention once more. There was Wainright, again in an open corner, where he knocked down his fourth 3-pointer to put Phoenix up two at 2:07 remaining.

The Suns, knowing help would come off Wainright, designed a play at a tie game with under a minute on the clock to take advantage of that. It got Paul with a rotating Doncic covering him, and while Paul’s good look didn’t go down, an over-the-back foul on the miss gave the Suns the ball back. On the ensuing possession, Booker missed a jumper but Ayton was alone on the offensive glass (because of the contest on Booker) for a crucial tip-back to put Phoenix up two.

Doncic’s lob to Dwight Powell for Dallas’ possession was clinical, and so too was Durant’s pivotal go-ahead middy at 14 seconds remaining.

That one had some fun complexity to it, though.

To go back to designing around Wainright’s defender, the Suns cleverly began the action with Paul going to the corner and swapping spots with Wainright on the right wing while Durant had the ball at the center of half-court. That got Irving, the Mavs’ smallest defender, switching onto Wainright to serve as the doubler and helper onto Durant. Irving wasn’t going to affect the play, and neither was Reggie Bullock, who was on the left side of the floor covering Booker.

Durant drove to that side and voila.

With Phoenix back up front two, the Mavericks took a timeout and isolated Doncic on Okogie, who was back in the game for his defense.

Okogie held up well but got bumped off by Doncic four feet from the basket, where Doncic missed a bunny, it was rebounded by a fouled Durant and that was that.

Until it was not.

Booker wanted a foul call on Doncic afterward, and his direct line of communication across the court went by Doncic. He did not appreciate that very much and let Booker know about it. The irony here, of course, is that Doncic speaks with officials more than anyone in the league and this being what really set him off to react.

Doncic got right in the face of Booker and they had a quick laugh about the kerfuffle.

When players are asked who the top trash talkers are, one of the first answers will be Booker or Doncic. Inserting those two square in the middle of a rivalry between two teams that is this intense already is like pouring gasoline on a fireworks factory and lighting a match.

The Suns were mostly able to shut down the Mavericks’ supporting cast in the second half after guard Tim Hardaway Jr. nailed five of his six 3s over the opening half. Christian Wood scored eight straight in the fourth quarter and Hardaway got one more triple but that was about it.

While Okogie missed the majority of crunch time, the Suns’ new starting five featuring him and Durant in place of The Twins was +11 in 16 minutes. That follows a +26 mark in 19 minutes for Friday’s win over the Chicago Bulls. It is now +38 in 49 minutes.

Dallas almost out-mathed Phoenix before those Wainright triples. It ended up +15 at the free-throw line and +9 with 3-pointers.

The Suns continue to curiously struggle in this matchup when Doncic rests. He was -11 in this game, and a fair bit of that can be pointed at the balance that needs to be developed beyond Durant and Booker.

Paul ended up with 11 points (4-of-9), six rebounds and seven assists. One of the early strategies against Phoenix in the KD era is leaving Paul open from 3 and that’s now two games in a row he’s hit some clutch ones.

Ayton was 4-for-6 from the field for nine points with a big 16 rebounds. He and Paul combined for nine total shot attempts through three quarters. Finding pockets of the game for that two-man game is something to keep an eye on as the continuity grows for this group.

Okogie’s shooting numbers were poor but he was still as awesome everywhere else with the little plays. This was the second straight game reserve guard Terrence Ross was relentlessly targeted defensively by the opposing team’s ball-handlers and it did not go well again. The performance from those two and Wainright certainly indicates that the spots of fifth starter/closer and first wing off the bench could change over time.

Dallas’ 126 points came with just 15 assists.

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