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3 things to watch as the Mavericks visit the ambitious Suns in season opener

Dallas will open their season in Phoenix on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks will open their 2020-2021 NBA season against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night. This will be the first of three games played on the road to start the season. After this opener in Phoenix, the Mavericks will then travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers and the Clippers.

If you are a Mavericks fan, you probably know everything about the team by now. You’ve heard all about the off-season focus on defense, the key roster additions in Josh Richardson and James Johnson, and the three rookies. We are all hyped up to see the new improved Mavericks team play, but what should we expect from the Suns?

Key Suns storyline coming into this game

Phoenix was a feel-good story in the Orlando bubble by going 8-0, but they still managed to miss the playoffs. The Suns now want to take the next step and end the NBA’s second-longest active playoff drought (10 years). In the offseason, Phoenix assembled the most ambitious teams since 2010 when Steve Nash was still in Suns uniform.

They traded for All-NBA Second Team (and future Hall of Fame) point guard Chris Paul, reuniting him with his first NBA coach Monty Williams. Phoenix also outbid Dallas and signed free agent Jae Crowder. Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore are the other notable roster acquisitions. The Suns traded away Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. to make room for Paul, while also losing Aron Baynes to the Raptors in free agency.

Phoenix already has two young stars in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Booker, who has always been a great volume scorer (26.6 ppg last season), took a huge leap in efficiency last year. His true shooting percentage went up from 58.4 percent to a sizzling 61.8 percent. A lot of his improvement happened in no small part because he played next to a true NBA point guard in Rubio. The Suns had a +3.2 point differential with Rubio on the floor compared to a -5.2 differential when he was off.

Enter Chris Paul, who at age 35 just finished one of his best seasons in Oklahoma City. Paul was one of the best point guards in the league last year, for a surprising OKC team that made the playoffs. Paul made an even bigger impact for OKC than Rubio had for Phoenix. His point differential at OKC was +6.7 when he was on the floor, compared to -7.1 when he was off. Paul is a much better shooter than Rubio, a great clutch scorer, and an elite pick and roll threat. Imagine the impact he can have on Booker, Ayton and the rest of the Suns in the upcoming season.

Paul and Rubio will likely have similar roles, Paul can just do it a lot better!

We also shouldn’t forget about Jae Crowder, who will give Suns a legit, physical defender at the power forward position. Paired with Mikal Bridges, they will form one of the best wing-defending combos in the NBA. A starting lineup of Paul, Booker, Bridges, Crowder and Ayton makes the Suns a legit playoff contender in the West this season.

However, things didn’t go smoothly in the preseason for Phoenix, as the Suns were 0-4 in their games against Utah and the Lakers. Devin Booker looked great, but Phoenix struggled on defense (fifth-worst defensive efficiency in the preseason).

Paul and Crowder, who will definitely improve Suns defense, only played in two preseason games. Dario Saric, a key player off the bench, missed all four preseason games with right quad soreness.

It might take a while for coach Monty Williams to integrate all the new pieces and for Paul to get up to full speed, which could be a prime opportunity for a Dallas win.

Key stats (How the Suns like to play)

Last season. the Suns were a team that moved the ball well. Rubio is a great passer and Booker is elite at moving without the ball. Suns were second in the league in cut frequency, sixth in spot-ups shots, and eight in transition frequency. Phoenix was also ninth in pace last year. This will probably change as Paul’s teams usually play a slower, more deliberate style of basketball.

The Suns were bottom of the league in isolation plays and pick and roll offense. Expect this to change as well, as Paul is one of the most frequent pick and roll players in the league.

The Suns were also a team that was at the bottom of the league team when it comes to 3-point shot frequency last year.

Phoenix now has three players that heavily rely on mid-range shots in Paul, Booker and Ayton. Paul took an astonishing 59% of his shots from mid-range, which was among the league's highest. Booker and Ayton both shot 45% of their shots from mid-range, which is way above league average.

While Paul is a much better three-point shooter than Rubio was, it will be interesting to see if the Suns can create a better spacing with three key players so dependent on the mid-range shot. Replacing Oubre with Crowder will definitely help, as 75% of Crowder’s shots in Miami were from beyond the three-point line.

Key takeaways from the previous Mavericks matchups against the Suns

Dallas played four games against the Suns last season, and only won once. To be fair, one of the losses was a strange blowout just before the All-Star break. Another loss was the last game in the bubble, when Dallas rested several players and Luka played only 13 minutes.

However, there is one thing we can learn from the past four matchups. If Phoenix runs Dallas off the three-point line, the Mavericks are in trouble.

Phoenix is a team that wants to prevent three-point shots. They were sixth in the league in the least three-point shots allowed. However, they allowed the sixth-most shots at the rim last season. This is why Luka Doncic feasted in the paint against Suns last year, scoring more than 40 points in two of the four games.

In four games against the Suns last season, Dončić shot 47% of his shots from less than 5 ft. and made 75% of them.

42.4% of the Mavericks shots last season were three-point shots, the second-most in the league.

Shooting frequencies - DAL vs PHX last season (source: Cleaning the Glass data)

In the games that Suns prevented Dallas from shooting a lot of threes, they won, even if it meant allowing Doncic to get to the rim at will.

And in the lone game that Dallas won, 50% of their shots were from beyond the three-point line and they made them at above-average efficiency.

The other thing to look for is if Dallas will be able to contain Booker. Booker, who averaged 26.8 points on 51.3% FG% last year against Dallas, will be the first real test for the new Mavericks acquisition Josh Richardson.

How to watch

Tip-off is at 9:30 pm CST and the game will be televised on ESPN.