If one play could illustrate just how insurmountable the matchup of the Phoenix Suns feels for these Dallas Mavericks, it had to be this one early in the third quarter as the Mavericks were trying to claw themselves back into the Game 1 of their second round series.
Suns defensive ace Mikal Bridges turns what should be a wide-open corner three for Reggie Bullock into a blocked shot. To further emphasize how nutty this play from Bridges was, look at how far from Bullock he was when Bullock catches the ball.
On a night where the Mavericks couldn’t do much to put a dent in the Suns seemingly invincible armor, that play had to be deflating. The Mavericks offense struggled early, then did the best it could against an elite Suns defense. It was a swift reminder that the Mavericks are no longer playing the laughable Utah Jazz defense, where the Mavericks ruthlessly hunted mismatches and terrorized Utah’s weakest links. Who is the Suns weakest link? Bridges is a defensive player of the year finalist, DeAndre Ayton has improved mightily to become a legitimate rim defender, Chris Paul is still as crafty as ever, and even Devin Booker isn’t the turnstile he used to be.
Despite all this, the Mavericks still played OK — the team finished shooting 47 percent from the floor and 41 percent on 39 three point attempts, more than enough to win a road playoff game if the defense on the other side is adequate. Unfortunately the Suns just made shot after shot and the game never really felt in play, even with Dallas giving the effort needed. So while the defense likely needs a larger microscope, there were still some things in Game 1 offensively the Mavericks can improve.
The biggest is that Dallas needs to figure out a way to get the Suns into multiple rotations per possession, much like they did against the Jazz. The Mavericks work is cut out for them, since they can’t matchup hunt the Suns like they did the Jazz. Luka Doncic was incredible, but you have to imagine Phoenix will look at the box score and feel OK about Doncic shooting 30 times, despite scoring 45 points, and only having eight assists. Dallas can certainly win with Doncic bulldozing his way to the rim and scoring efficiently without much help, but it’s not a reliable game plan. The Mavericks are at their most dangerous when the ball is pinging around the perimeter and role players are taking advantage of the extra space Doncic creates, whether through open shots or clearer drives to the basket. The Mavericks shot fine in Game 1, but only had 16 assists on their 40 made baskets. So much of the Dallas offense was Doncic trying to do it all as the Suns were able to pinch and help off the Mavericks role players but without giving Doncic clear passing outlets.
It almost feels like cheating when the Suns can help on a Doncic drive, yet still make the pass to the open man murky. That’s what smarts and length can do on defense. Even still, Doncic will probably look back at the film and feel like he missed some open looks, like this one to Jalen Brunson in the first quarter.
In other scenarios, the Suns made full use of Bridges help defense. Bridges’ impressive wingspan meant even open looks were not so simple. Bridges can cover so much ground, it’s incredible to watch on review.
When the Suns weren’t swallowing up the Mavericks, the Mavericks themselves shot themselves in the foot with some poor spacing. In the first example, Maxi Kleber cuts into Doncic’s drive, negating the floor spacing his shooting provides. In the second, the Mavericks try to clear out with Doncic posting up Paul, but Dallas has three players bunched up in the weakside corner.
Even when the Mavericks did get some rare ball movement, the Suns rotations were on point. In the example below, Doncic gives the ball up quickly as the Suns start a double team, but the ball just pings right back to him without any Mavericks role player getting into the paint. Doncic ends up with the ball right back to where he was when he gave it up.
A good barometer for the Mavericks ball movement is how many three point attempts Dorian Finney-Smith has, since Finney-Smith relies on spot up threes for most of his offense. In the first half, Finney-Smith had zero three point attempts. In the second half, he had six. Coincidently, the Mavericks shot much better in the second half as a team compared to the first.
So how to adjust? First, the Mavericks and Doncic can watch the film and see if the opportunities missed above can be exploited. That doesn’t mean the Mavericks should challenge Bridges off-ball defense repeatedly, but maybe there’s a middle ground. Second, Jalen Brunson should shoot more threes, something we’ve been clamoring for all year.
Brunson struggled in Game 1, with only 13 points on 6-of-16 shooting, including 0-for-1 from three. Phoenix’s stable of great wing defenders can pose a problem for Brunson’s in-between game, so he should counter with more threes. In the play below, why challenge Ayton in the paint, when Brunson could have stopped and popped for a — to be fair — somewhat deep three pointer.
The final adjustment was clear in the fourth quarter: more small ball. Dallas deployed the same unit that helped them close out the Jazz in Game 6, with Doncic, Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Bullock, and Finney-Smith. With Finney-Smith at the five, the Mavericks finally found a way to throw off Ayton. Instead of Doncic trying to do the best he could with Ayton continuously rotating over at the rim, Dallas and Doncic got Ayton to defend near the three point line, where he’s not nearly as effective.
Watch as Doncic cans a triple against Ayton’s drop coverage in the fourth quarter, only for Ayton to play closer up to Doncic the next time around. Doncic manipulates the space and races past Ayton for an easy dunk, as the Suns have no rim protectors with Ayton blown by at the three point line.
Dallas should seriously consider benching starting center Dwight Powell (four points, one rebound in 16 minutes in Game 1) for Maxi Kleber, if only so Dallas can work toward the small-ball lineup sooner. Kleber had his own issues, unable to keep Ayton off the boards and out of the paint, but at least his shooting provides value. From there, the Mavericks can rotate in the small ball lineup sooner, without having to make it a last resort in the fourth quarter.
It was only one game, but it showed why the Suns were so heavily favored. Even with that, the Mavericks are not out of this series and there are plenty of tweaks and adjustments to be made.
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