It didn’t take long for the tone to shift from the games in Phoenix to Game 3 of the second round series between the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. After being challenged publicly prior to the game by head coach Jason Kidd, Luka Doncic was on the floor fighting for a loose ball early in the first quarter. He was, as Kidd would call it, “participating”. That effort provided a surge of energy to others:
“He was more active I think. Either the first or second possession, he was diving on the floor – and when you see the best player doing that it sets the mood,” Dorian Finney-Smith remarked after Game 3, a 103-94 victory for the Mavericks.
To his credit, Doncic was more energized on the defensive end. He checked both Jae Crowder and Devin Booker around half-court even before he hit the deck to fight for the loose ball against DeAndre Ayton. He didn’t turn into a stopper by any means, and still found himself in a few sticky situations against ball handlers. But he participated, crashing to the post on rotations to backup Maxi Kleber and being active away from the ball. Ultimately those little things matter, as Finney-Smith points out.
“The big thing is these guys are playing hard, they’re playing extremely hard and it’s great to see. From picking up full court to diving on the floor for the loose ball to protecting one another – it’s really cool to watch,” Kidd emphasized after their 111-101 Game 4 win, a relentless effort from a Mavericks team that didn’t just even the series but have the Suns back on their heels.
The Mavericks made defensive energy a point of emphasis in their home games and it paid off. Chris Paul uncharacteristically coughed up the ball seven times in Game 3 and the Suns as a whole had 17 turnovers, well above their average. They also held Phoenix to 94 points, their lowest point total all season.
Schemes and adjustments help. The Mavericks applied pressure on Paul or whoever else brought the ball up the floor. They were intent on not allowing the Suns to settle into their half-court offense. But sometimes, the biggest adjustment is effort. No play represented this better than late in the third quarter of Game 3.
This play starts before the clip, with Spencer Dinwiddie getting up underneath Devin Booker on the catch. Booker tries passing back to Jae Crowder, only for Finney-Smith to get a finger tip on the ball which sent him over the scorer’s table to save. What follows should put the Suns in the driver’s seat, as they play 5-on-4 in the half court.
Dinwiddie is forced to track both Crowder and Booker. Kleber covers a lot of ground here to prevent a Booker corner three. But so does Dinwiddie, who goes from near half court all the way to the baseline, then recovering to chase Crowder off the three-point line. Especially important since Crowder couldn’t miss Friday night.
When playing from behind as an underdog in a series teams search for a way forward, an opening or weakness they can exploit to steal a game or even replicate for multiple wins. The Mavericks have found that. The home crowd at the AAC helped them find their footing, and their effort cranked up to 11. Now, the Mavericks need to channel it and take it on the road for Game 5.