The Suns and Their Season Succumbed to the Terror of Luka Doncic

The Suns and Their Season Succumbed to the Terror of Luka Doncic

Published May 16, 2022
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PHOENIX — The first time it felt like the Suns could be in serious trouble was only a little over two minutes into the game. At that point, Dallas held what was an insignificant 5–3 lead when Luka Dončić dribbled the ball up the middle of the floor across halfcourt. After calling Deandre Ayton into a screen at the top of the key and forcing Mikal Bridges to fight over it, Dončić did what he had done many times already during the series: He dribbled left and effortlessly stepped back into a three-pointer, giving him all eight of the Mavs’ points.

Almost immediately, you could sense a slight murmur in the crowd. In that moment the ball splashed through the net, Dončić went from 23-year-old wunderkind to horror-movie villain realizing the strength of his own powers. And he and his team never looked back.

Phoenix’s season—which before the playoffs had been the best in franchise history—ended in shocking, confusing, humiliating fashion on Sunday night. The Suns were pummeled in a 123–90 loss. It still doesn’t feel completely real. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Didn’t Dončić still need more playoff seasoning before he could make the Finals? Wasn’t this supposed to be the storybook finish that had long eluded Chris Paul? Weren’t the Suns far and away the best team in the NBA? Dallas put all those questions to bed mercilessly and with brutality in what was a landscape-changing win for the league.

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You have to start with Dončić. Every time he dribbled the ball up the floor after that early stepback you could sense the nervous, uncomfortable energy in the arena. How will he hurt us next? Luka toyed with DPOY-finalist Mikal Bridges. He posted up a center in Ayton and a point guard in Chris Paul and found success doing both. Dončić was ruthless, scoring at ease and laughing in the face of Phoenix’s agony. A few Suns players tried to find ways to unwind before Sunday’s Game 7. Devin Booker said he would play video games or take a dip in his pool to cool off from the oppressive Valley heat. Jae Crowder got a massage and watched some Ozark on Netflix. But there’s a reason why Monty Williams said before the game he could barely sleep. And that’s largely because of a player like Dončić, who can turn a top-three defense into dust with a smile.

By halftime, Luka had as many points as the entire Suns team combined. (He finished the game with 35. Phoenix’s starters had 37.) It was as thorough of a whooping as you will ever see in professional sports, and that’s with some great players on the other side of the floor.

It was a particularly ignominious loss for Paul, whose playoff career—fair or unfair—somehow continues to be defined by missed opportunities. The OKC turnover. The 3–1 lead against Houston. The hamstring injury vs. the Warriors. The 2–0 lead in the Finals. And now, one of the most unexpected blowouts ever. How much can one of the best to ever dribble a basketball—which is unquestionable, no matter how much he may irritate you—endure?

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Paul didn’t give anything away after the game. He said it was just one loss. He said his only message to the team was it’s time to get back to work. He said he feels like they’ll be back next year (and that people have been saying he blew his best chance at a title since 2008). The reality is it’s hard to fathom Paul being in a position this advantageous again. Luka is not going anywhere. Presumably the Lakers will be somewhat better. The Nuggets and Clippers will be healthier. The Warriors still have Steph, Klay, and Dray. Paul had a Game 7 on his home floor, and couldn’t capitalize. And that’s not even getting into his personal performance in this series, which dipped dramatically after a masterpiece in Game 2.

For his entire career, Paul has been one of the players in the league most adept at forcing a game to be played under his terms. He even out-manipulated Luka earlier in the series. Which made it all the more shocking that as Game 7 slipped away early, he couldn’t get a grip. The Mavs’ defense deserves a ton of credit, from their full-court pressure to crisp rotations. That still doesn’t make Paul’s play less of a headscratcher. (Though there were reports of a quad injury after the game. For what it’s worth, Paul was never listed on the injury report during the series.)

Meanwhile, Devin Booker struggled with blitzes and couldn’t find the hoop. Bridges went 0-for-3 from beyond the arc, which means he finished the series with five made threes, or as many as Spencer Dinwiddie hit in Game 7 alone. Ayton played only 17 minutes amid clear tension with Williams. (After the game, when asked about Ayton’s limited playing time, a normally soft-spoken Monty offered a terse, stern, “It’s internal.”) Nobody stepped up, even though as Cam Johnson put it, the “want and desire” was very much there.

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The loss was a record-scratch moment for the Suns. You play all year to get homecourt in a Game 7 only to be run off the floor anyway. Now what? Paul will turn 38 before the Finals next year. You hope Booker and Bridges get better, sure. But what about Ayton, who finished the series poorly and now heads to restricted free agency? What happens at backup point guard after Cam Payne was benched in the middle of the series? Does Johnson get an extension, or does he enter a contract year like Ayton did? And then there’s the matter of owner Robert Sarver, the subject of a league investigation surrounding a hostile workplace, the results of which have yet to be made public. In an ideal world, those questions come after the Finals when everybody’s breath still smells like champagne. Instead, they come abruptly, like all the lights being switched on in the middle of the night.

Dallas, on the other hand, gets to be ahead of schedule. Instead of facing questions about how to build around Luka, the Mavs won a series nobody expected them to win. They are playing with house money, a dangerous proposition for anybody forced to deal with their tailor made-for-the-postseason style of basketball. You could sense the jubilation in the bowels of the arena after the game. The cheers emanating from the Dallas locker room sounded louder than anything the fans could muster in the second half. Good luck to the Warriors, the latest team forced to deal with the Dončić conundrum.

From Paul’s legacy to Luka’s chance to become the guy to beat, the fallout of this game is significant. Only two teams with as many wins as the Suns (the 2007 Mavs and 2016 Spurs) failed to reach at least the conference finals in league history. And that stat still doesn’t really fully begin to capture how shocking Phoenix’s loss was. These kinds of defeats don’t happen in the NBA, both on a one-game level and a series level. For the second straight summer, the Suns will have to dig deep to respond.

One of the coachisms Monty Williams dropped early in Round 2 was having “appropriate fear” of the opponent. You want to believe you can win, but also respect the opponent’s ability to beat you. Seemingly every time Dončić had the ball Sunday night after that early stepback three, you could sense the crowd’s fear growing. Could one player really ruin all that we’ve accomplished? It’s not exactly that simple. But Suns fans were ultimately right to be terrified.

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