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When it mattered most, the Mavericks defense saved the season

Dallas made some adjustments and got the necessary good fortune to keep the series against Phoenix alive

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Through two games in the Mavericks second round series with the Phoenix Suns, one of the major talking points was Luka Doncic and the Mavericks offense. Is Luka doing too much? What happened to Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie? Can Dorian Finney-Smith get open three point looks?

It’s understandable to focus on the Mavericks offensive challenges down 0-2, because, quite frankly, it’s easier to talk about offense. Finding offensive possessions to re-watch and break down isn’t too difficult and there is significantly more offensive data that feels more iron clad compared to the defensive end. I’m guilty of this as well, focusing on how much more difficult it seemed for the Mavericks offense after the Game 1 loss.

Here’s the funny part: the Mavericks offense had been fine through two games. Before Game 3, the Mavericks scored 115.5 points per 100 possessions against the Suns, shooting 46.3 percent from the floor and a blistering 41.3 percent on about 40 three point attempts per game. The problem was never the offense, but the defense, as the Suns scorched Dallas through two games, dominating by getting to their pet spots in the midrange and breaking the Mavericks scheme with perfect sets, expert matchup hunting, and quality shot making. If there was any adjustment to make going into Game 3, it was the Mavericks defense, which had carried them for long stretches of this season, finding a pulse. If they didn’t, the series would basically be over, as no team in NBA history has ever won a series after losing the first three games.

So in the biggest game of the season, to keep the season alive, the Mavericks defense came through. Phoenix scored 94 points in the Mavericks Game 3 win, the lowest point total for the Suns so far this postseason. The Suns never even broke the 30 point mark in any of the four quarters Friday night in Dallas. How did the Mavericks do it? Some smarter, more aggressive play and the required luck. Don’t think the luck factor is putting down the Mavericks defensive effort — that’s just what underdogs need at times, combined with a better effort and strategy.

Just look at this miss in the first quarter from Mikal Bridges that sort of set the tone for how rudderless the Suns would look for the majority of the game. This is a shot Bridges makes in his sleep and a shot the Suns have killed the Mavericks with in this series.

Chris Paul had a nightmare first half after torching Dallas in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Reggie Bullock was insurmountable in the efforts to keep Paul under check, but even then Paul put up some bizarre plays, like this open layup that he decided to throw away at the last moment.

This is what Paul passed out of:

Speaking of Paul, he had a rather bleak performance overall. He had seven first half turnovers, compared to the eight total turnovers Paul had in the six game win against the Pelicans in round one. Bullock was glued to Paul all night, picking him up at three-quarters court and riding Paul throughout every possession he had. The Mavericks were certainly more aggressive with Paul at the point of attack than at any point in Games 1 or 2, but even then it’s hard to explain all of his turnovers. The most strange had to be this one on an attempted pass to the corner in the second quarter.

Kudos to Dinwiddie hiding behind JaVale McGee and baiting Paul into the pass, but geez, that’s one of the worst turnovers I’ve seen from the future Hall of Famer. I mean, look where he was on the court when he loaded up to throw the pass:

The play was emblematic of the Suns sloppiness and the Mavericks aggression, as Bullock starts the play by almost getting a steal and forcing Paul to regroup past the halfcourt line.

With Paul not able to dance around pick and rolls as easily, Phoenix shot 32.2 percent (10-of-31) on non-restricted area two pointers, by far the biggest swing coming off Games 1 and 2. In those previous two games, the Suns shot a staggering 57 percent (45-of-79) on those very same shots. Some natural regression was in order, like the Bridges miss showed above, but the Dallas defense did improve to force the Suns into awkward misses.

Devin Booker was mostly invisible, scoring only 18 points on 13 shots. The 6-of-13 shooting mark is quality enough, especially when you consider Booker made his first two shots in the opening minutes of the first quarter, but the volume sticks out the most. Booker only attempted 13 shots and got to the foul line four times. The Mavericks were much better about avoiding costly switches and forcing Booker into difficult matchups with Dorian Finney-Smith, who has guarded Booker well in the past.

Without the ability to easily attack a Mavericks weak link like Brunson or Doncic, Booker had to steamroll into Finney-Smith on a few occasions. It did not end well.

You’ll notice Finney-Smith funneling Booker into Maxi Kleber in both those possessions and Kleber had one of the best defensive nights of the playoffs against the Suns. He was active with his help rotations and the Mavericks importantly helped the helper so DeAndre Ayton didn’t have an easy time at the rim. This is where Doncic’s improvement on defense came from, as he crashed down toward Ayton a few times while Kleber guarded the rim. This did leave things a bit open on the outside and the Suns cashed in on 13-of-28 shooting (46.4 percent) from three. That’s likely a number the Mavericks will live with considering the success they had at stopping the Suns inside the arc. Dallas won the three point battle in the first two games in terms of makes and attempts, but it didn’t matter due to how surgical the Suns were on two pointers. In Game 3, the threes were even (13 makes for Phoenix, 13 makes for Dallas), but this time the Suns weren’t bailed out on their favorite midrange shots, as Dallas contested well without conceding bad switches.

The Mavericks will have to keep this up to keep the series going. It won’t be easy, as Bullock logged another 40-plus minute game and popped up on the injury report at halftime with a rib injury. Bullock finished the game, but the short turnarounds in these series are brutal for the Mavericks short rotation. Coach Jason Kidd even gave Frank Ntilikina a shot with a series high 12 minutes. Now Ntilikina didn’t do all that much in his 12 minutes, but it’s evident the Mavericks are going to have to use either Ntilikina or Josh Green to try and steal a few minutes every game to give Bullock and Finney-Smith the rest they need. The Suns will also be ready in Game 4 with likely adjustments and it’s hard to imagine Paul with another high turnover night. Dallas still has a tall mountain to climb, but at least with the Game 3 win, the Mavericks left base camp.

Here’s our latest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.