You wouldn’t think a team with superstar Luka Doncic would be such a heavy underdog in a playoff series, especially not after Dallas bulldozed the NBA regular season once the calendar flipped to 2022. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, they’re running into the one team that has haunted them since even before Doncic was drafted: the Phoenix Suns.
The stats are honestly mind-boggling — The Suns are a perfect 9-0 against the Mavericks in the last nine matchups, with the Mavericks last win coming on Nov. 29, 2019, almost three years ago. Oddly enough, Phoenix’s success against Dallas didn’t even start when the Suns traded for Chris Paul in the 2020 offseason. Go back a little farther and the Suns are a staggering 16-3 in the last 19 matchups with Dallas, which started with a Suns win back on March 11, 2017.
Both teams have similar goals, with different trajectories. The Suns are attempting to return to the NBA Finals and win a title before Chris Paul’s career ends. The Mavericks are rising thanks to Doncic and the right combination of role players, finally shedding the heavy weight of failing to win a playoff series after dispatching the floundering Utah Jazz. It’d be easy for Dallas to feel like mission accomplished, but coach Jason Kidd has his team’s sights set for higher. Despite the lopsided matchup on paper, there are a few things that’ll make this series very interesting for both squads. Here are the two major questions that could decide the fate of the series.
Can the Mavericks come up with another smart defensive game plan?
Dallas executed a masterful defensive game plan against Utah in round one. The Mavericks ran the Jazz off the three point line, daring the Jazz’s guards to beat them with floaters, short paint shots, and long twos. It worked.
In the regular season, the Jazz led the league in three point frequency at 43.3 percent. In the first round, that number dropped to 34.9 percent, according to stats site Cleaning the Glass. After only 22 percent of the Jazz’s shots coming in the “short mid” range in the regular season (shots outside of four feet, but inside of ~14 feet), that number jumped to 30 percent against Dallas. The Mavericks wing tandem of Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock pressured the Jazz’s main shooters off the line, the Dallas defense rotated well behind them, and Rudy Gobert was unable to take advantage of the space provided down low as either the Jazz failed to find him or he proved ineffective with the ball.
Here’s the thing about the Suns: they would welcome this defensive strategy. In round one against the Pelicans, the Suns shot 54.6 percent on shots in the paint but outside the restricted area on 18 attempts per game and a staggering 54.4 percent on midrange shots on 17.2 attempts per game. The Mavericks improved defense has been all about limiting high percentage shots and forcing bad ones with heavy contests, but the Suns have counters upon counters. That’s what the duo of Chris Paul and Devin Booker can do, with both being capable midrange maestros.
The biggest X-factor? Suns blooming center DeAndre Ayton. Dallas was able to get away with its defensive strategy against Utah becase Gobert is not a threat to punish mismatches or do anything with the ball in his hands besides open layups or dunks. Ayton is a much different beast, capable of punishing smaller players, scoring on post ups, and even providing some spacing if left alone. Ayton only shot 19 three pointers this season but he did shoot 115 midrange shots, with a more-than-respectable 45.2 percentage on said shots. He loves elbow touches, averaging a team leading 4.8 per game and shooting 65.3 percent. He’s good on post-ups, scoring 1.04 points per possession and shooting 57.1 percent. The Suns also make sure to find him too, as he 11 paint touches per game, shooting 71.1 percent. Point is, Gobert and Atyon are remarkably different players, and the Mavericks ability to downsize and play five out will be tested in a much harsher way. Dallas’ talent disadvantage didn’t matter much against the Jazz, since Gobert didn’t scare the Mavericks smaller defenders with his limited offensive game. Ayton can punish this, so Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber will have to find a way to survive. Maybe this is the series the Mavericks have to dust off Boban Marjanovic in case of emergency, despite the fact the Marjanovic’s slow feet don’t feet Kidd’s more aggressive defensive schemes.
Which one of Booker or Doncic will beat their defensive matchup?
Bridges had a spectacular season for the suns, finishing as a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s a lanky, smart, and athletic 6’6 forward, basically the perfect measurables to stop a guy like Doncic. On the other end of the floor, Devin Booker will be trying to get back into shape after a hurt hamstring in round one against the Mavericks defensive stopper Dorian Finney-Smith. Whichever star beats their matchup might decide who wins the series.
Historically, Doncic has faired OK against Bridges. Doncic only played one game against the Suns this season due to an ankle injury, but in the lone game this season he shot 1-of-2 in about six minutes matched up against Bridges, with three assists and three turnovers. Last season, he shot 10-of-21 (47.6 percent) against Bridges with seven assists and four turnovers. The 2019-2020 season was by far the best for Doncic against Bridges: he shot 12-of-20 (60 percent) with four assists and two turnovers. Bridges has definitely improved every season he’s been in the league, so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares since Doncic missed two games against the Suns this season.
The thing about the Suns isn’t just that they have Bridges, but a trove of plus wing defenders, plus the massive improvement from Ayton. With Ayton improving his rotations on the backline in addition to having Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson, Bridges isn’t alone. Doncic has struggled finishing against Ayton in his career, as Ayton’s combo of size and lateral movement means he can keep up with Doncic’s fakes and spins when helping from the weakside. Dallas in round one can be split into two different offensive strategies: ruthlessly attack the Jazz’s weak perimeter defenders with targeted pick and rolls in Games 1-3 and then Games 4-6 featuring a returning Doncic stringing out Gobert in high pick and rolls and attacking the Jazz’s weak perimeter defenders by forcing them to make rotations. The latter strategy translates more smoothly against Phoenix, since the Suns don’t have nearly the amount of weak links that the Jazz have. The Mavericks will need Doncic to lure Ayton out near the three point line and hope the Mavericks role players can make plays and shots against the Suns backline. Doncic will struggle if the Suns do not fear Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dwight Powell, or Maxi Kleber making them pay behind their pick and roll coverage.
For Booker, he’s owned the Mavericks for most of his career. In 18 career games against Dallas, he’s 13-5 and averages 23.6 points per game on sparkling 51.6/41.5/85.7 shooting splits. In Booker’s last 13 games played against Dallas, the Suns are 12-1.
Finney-Smith has done well against Booker, the problem is the Suns have targeted weaker Mavericks defenders in prior matchups. This season in about 14 minutes matched up against Finney-Smith, Booker is shooting just 4-of-16 from the floor and 1-of-8 from three. The Suns smartly try to avoid this matchup as much as possible and try to involve weaker or smaller Mavericks defenders. This is an issue with the increased role for Brunson, who Booker shot 7-of-9 against this season for 17 points in only 2:33 minutes matched up together. The Suns will use Brunson’s man to screen for Booker and it’ll be up to Brunson and the Mavericks to fight through the screens, help when they can to prevent easy switches that can isolate Brunson. Mavericks fans have PTSD visions of Booker canning clutch midrange buckets over smaller Mavericks defenders over the past handful of seasons, Dallas will have to work to prevent that from happening again. The Mavericks have used Finney-Smith to guard Chris Paul in the past, since Paul’s more methodical pace means Finney-Smith can keep up on the perimeter and bother Paul with his length. That only worked so long previously since the Mavericks then didn’t have another capable defender to check Booker, but with Reggie Bullock, the Mavericks can mix and match those two against Booker and Paul to try and keep the Suns out of rhythm. Booker’s health will be a major factor. He injured his hamstring in Game 2 against the Pelicans during the first round on April 19 and then returned last Thursday in the Suns series-clinching Game 6 win. Booker only played 32 minutes, but was a rough 5-of-12 from the floor and 1-of-6 from three. The Suns will need healthy Booker Monday in Game 1.
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