There was no better way for the Mavericks to force an improbable Game 7 against the team with the best record in the NBA than for the Mavericks to do it with defense. It just sums up the stark difference between this Mavericks team and the prior decade of Dallas basketball.
For over a decade the Mavericks have relied on a scorching offense behind a central pillar (Dirk Nowitkzi, Luka Doncic) while trying to at best plug holes on the other end of the floor. This season, with the addition of Reggie Bullock and a renewed focus from new coach Jason Kidd, the Mavericks aren’t just adequate on defense, they’re good. That was never more evident in the 113-86 Game 6 win.
The Mavericks have adjusted in a variety of ways heading into Game 6, trying to stifle the Suns clinical midrange attack after the Suns exploded in Game 2. They’ve pre-switched with Luka Doncic to avoid bad matchups, they’ve picked up Chris Paul almost at full court with Bullock to try and wear him down. Thursday night the Mavericks continued their defensive tinkering by turning up the pressure and switching up their coverages on Paul and Devin Booker. The Suns had 22 turnovers as a team and Booker and Paul combined for 13 of them.
Bullock has been the primary defender on Paul for most of the first five games, with Finney-Smith on Booker. It made sense, Finney-Smith historically has defended Booker well while Bullock is a tad quicker to keep up with Paul in the pick and roll. In Game 6, the Mavericks switched it up for long stretches as the team realized something — Paul does not want to shoot. After 16 shots in Game 2, Paul has failed to shoot in double figures since. With that in mind, Finney-Smith could use his length to help a bit more while Bullock hounded Booker. It worked, as the Suns offense melted down. Paul only had seven shot attempts and Booker had one of his worst games of the season, scoring 19 points on 17 shots.
In addition to that change, there was perhaps a bigger adjustment that had nothing to do with tactics or scheme — Doncic simple played better. After being hunted by the Suns for most of the series, Doncic stepped up his off-ball defensive considerably. Doncic had four steals and was responsible for a few more as he aggressively helped whenever Booker tried to make a move into the paint.
On the steal above, shout out to Maxi Kleber who aggressively pursued Booker way past the three point line, forcing Booker to make a move into the paint where the Mavericks help defense was waiting. Booker has gotten good looks this series and has had the Mavericks backpedaling a bit. The adjustment to play tighter on the perimeter forced Booker off his comfort jumpers. Look how far Kleber goes out to chase Booker on the switch.
The Suns had 22 turnovers and 16 of them were Mavericks steals. That meant 16 live-ball turnovers, which helped fuel the Mavericks outrageous 29-6 points off turnovers advantage. It was basically the difference in the game.
Dallas has made only one actual rotation adjustment in this series, replacing Josh Green with Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina has played sparingly, basically giving the Mavericks just a splash of minutes so Finney-Smith and Bullock don’t have to play the entire game. Even then, the adjustment is still paying off, as Ntilikina had four steals in 21 minutes Thursday. Ntilikina is helping well and holding his ground in limited action against Paul.
It also helps that while the Mavericks played aggressive, the Suns had a lot of self-inflicted wounds. For whatever reason the Suns seem to get Monstar’d right before tip off in every game in Dallas, leading to some of the most inexplicable turnovers you’ve ever seen from an offense led by a point guard famous for never turning it over.
There were moments Thursday where Suns players just...gave the ball to the Mavericks.
On that latest Paul turnover above, look where Paul decides to throw the pass. Bridges is open in the corner yes, but Bullock is clearly in the passing lane. Why Paul didn’t just dribble in toward the three point line before throwing Bridges the pass is just a baffling decision from a normally smart point guard.
You’ll also notice in a lot of these Clips how poor the Suns spacing is. Phoenix plays a big man on the floor all game, starting with DeAndre Ayton and then going to a backup, in this series Bismack Biyombo. Neither are stretch fives and you can watch the Suns offense shrivel up at times as Ayton tries to do what he’s supposed to and get into the paint. That’s led to awkward possessions where Paul is dancing around three Suns players in addition to the Mavericks defense. It’s part of the reason the Mavericks have been mostly steady on offense all series, as Kleber lets the Mavericks play five out basketball where the paint is clear for rim attacks from Doncic and Brunson. It’s hard for the Suns to find that space when Ayton is trying to move toward the rim.
The results were exactly what Dallas wanted: Phoenix shot 39.7 percent from the floor, 33.3 percent from three (on a staggeringly little 18 attempts) in what was one of their worst playoff shooting performances. Paul had only four assists to go along with his five turnovers. The Mavericks attacked aggressively and smartly, something they’ll have to find a way to do that on the road in a Game 7 on Sunday.
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