The Phoenix Suns were the best team in the NBA during the regular season. They had the best record in the NBA at 64 and 18. They had the best net rating in the league. They also dominated the Dallas Mavericks during the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinals. They averaged 125 points per game while winning by 13.5 points per game. Perhaps that is why it is so hard for people to believe that the Mavericks were simply better than the Suns.
Many seem to believe that it is simply a fluke that the Mavericks are where they are. It isn’t. The Suns had scored 96 or fewer points four times during their first 90 games of the season. The Mavericks held them to an average of 96.2 points per game over the last five games of the series. This included the three lowest scoring games of the season for the Suns.
The Mavericks averaged 105.8 points per game during this same stretch, giving them an average margin of victory of 9.6 points per game. That would have led the league by more than two points per game. The per 100 possessions differential is even greater because of the slow pace at which these games were played.
Luka Doncic is a basketball super computer. There are simply no ways to match up with him over the course of a series which he cannot figure out. Somehow, the first round series where Luka averaged 29.0 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists was the worst statistical series of his young career. This series was interesting for Luka. His surface numbers are ridiculous (32.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game) but he had legitimate individual struggles for the first time in his playoff career.
During Games 3-6 he had a true shooting percentage of 49.6 percent. It is difficult to put into context how bad that is. Yet, the Mavericks won three of those four games. They did so through a combination of the defense mentioned above and timely help from the supporting cast. The Mavericks supporting cast is not as respected as they probably should be because of the sporadic nature of their outbursts. While the Suns employ Mikal Bridges as a clear fourth option behind the two guards and Deandre Ayton, the Mavericks can get huge nights from any of Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, or Reggie Bullock.
In Game 4, for example, Devin Booker had the best individual game of anyone on the court with 35 points and seven assists. But the Mavericks had six players in double figures to the Suns four. Finney-Smith and Brunson were the next leading scorers after Booker and Doncic. Brunson has solidified himself as the second option and is going to be compensated quite well because of it this offseason. After that, whomever provides the most help can change on any given night.
The fact that the production from the other players changes from night to night is a feature, rather than a bug. Bridges is considered a better basketball player than Finney-Smith in most NBA circles. Their raw production in this series was extremely similar with Finney-Smith averaging 10.3 points to Bridges’ 9.9. Finney-Smith shot much better but it mattered less when Finney-Smith struggled to score because the Mavericks had other players step up to score in those games. The Suns didn’t.
The Mavericks also enjoyed a coaching and subsequent math advantage in this series. The Suns have snubbed their noses at conventional NBA thinking all season. They choose to take the most difficult shots in basketball from the midrange. Even with the Mavericks having a gigantic lead for most of the game, the Suns still took only 34 threes in Game 7. They were never able to get their best players great looks. Their unwillingness to shoot threes at a high volume was partially responsible for this as it allowed the Mavericks to swarm over a smaller area.
The Suns deserve to be commended for their season. They were a very good basketball team. When praising the Suns, remember to reserve even greater praise for the Mavericks because they have proven themselves to be the better team. The Suns absolutely did self destruct in Game 7. But by that point it was already clear that the Mavericks had outclassed them in every way possible.