This doesn’t look like the same 64-win Suns who cruised past the rest of the league in the regular season.
Phoenix has dropped three of the last four as Dallas evened the second-round series at three games apiece on Thursday night. Now facing a Game 7, one of the league’s most efficient offenses has slowed to a crawl. The Mavs, meanwhile, have found a winning formula, with an upset on Sunday afternoon certainly in play.
We didn’t expect such dramatics from this matchup just a week ago. The Suns cruised out to a 2–0 lead behind a combined 58 points from Chris Paul and Devin Booker in Game 2, making the end of Dallas’s playoff road look imminent. The script has since flipped. Booker finished 6-for-16 from the field and 0-for-4 from three in Game 6. Paul has tallied 25 points over the last three games. Dallas has bottled a previously lethal attack, with its success stemming from more than simple shot luck.
Such smothering defense was largely unthinkable for the Mavericks this time last year. Dallas finished 20th in defensive rating last season, surrendering 126 points in a Game 7 loss to the Clippers in a first-round matchup. The arrival of Jason Kidd changed matters. He and his staff coaxed Dallas into a top-10 defense in his first season as coach, and following the departure of Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks truly found their stride.
Dallas spends significant portions of contests eschewing a traditional center altogether, with $52 million man Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock standing as impact defenders on the wing. Frank Ntilikina is now even getting into the act as a valuable defensive contributor, tallying four steals in 21 minutes on Thursday night. Phoenix center Deandre Ayton is an impressive player, though nobody will confuse him with Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokić. Ayton prefers to trust his mid-range jumper and over-the-shoulder hook, neither threatening the defense from three or consistently at the rim. His inability to punish Dallas in the paint is allowing an undersized unit to thrive.
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This small-ball approach is paying dividends on the other end, a credit to Dallas’s front office. Many assumed the trade of Porzingis was a prudent long-term move from the Mavericks, one that would likely still damper their Finals hopes. That hasn’t been the case. Dwight Powell is now the only true rim runner in the rotation, and every non-Powell lineup pairs Luka Dončić with a quartet of spacers or secondary ball-handlers. Jalen Brunson is cruising to the rim seemingly at will, and Dallas isn’t wasting possessions on needless post-ups or contested pick-and-pop threes. This is a supporting cast now fully complementary of its superstar’s strengths. Such harmony could be enough to overcome any assumed talent disparity between these two rosters.
It’s hard to assume Sunday will go anywhere close to as poorly as Thursday night did for the defending Western Conference champions. Booker coughed up eight turnovers in Game 6—the Suns recorded 22 in total—and Phoenix was outscored by 30 points at the three-point line. A return home to friendly confines in Game 7 should even out the three-point disparity to a degree, and despite a partially checkered resume, there’s value in Paul’s extensive playoff history. Phoenix is still the favorite here after a two-season stretch of relative dominance.
Yet despite the home court advantage, one can’t help but wonder if we’re headed toward a potential upset to close out the weekend. The Mavericks are getting to the rim and creating open triples at will. They’re shutting down Phoenix’s talented backcourt. They’ve found a winning rotation, and if you haven’t noticed, they have the best player in the series by a marked margin. As Game 7 approaches, we should heed Kidd’s words from seven months ago regarding his franchise star.
“What [Dončić] can do when the lights are brightest isn’t normal,” Kidd said. “It’s special.”
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