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The Mavericks are no longer an underdog against the Suns

Through four games, it’s clear the Mavericks belong in this series

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s doubtful anyone earnestly following the Dallas Mavericks would have been that disheartened by a four or five game loss to the Phoenix Suns, the team with the best record in the NBA, in the conference semifinals. Before the series started, the Suns had won the previous nine matchups with the Mavericks and had a significant talent advantage across the board, outside of superstar Luka Doncic.

Now rather famously (or infamously) all 20 of ESPN’s basketball reporters and analysts picked the Suns, in addition to many other national and local pundits as well. Full disclosure, while I didn’t contribute to our staff prediction post, if I did I would have put down Suns in seven. While it’s easy to see this as a slight against the Mavericks, it was really more about the Suns and how good they are. Dallas is still in the process of reshaping and reforming the roster around Doncic after the Kristaps Porzingis trade. There wouldn’t be any shame in bowing out in the second round against a team that won 64 games in the regular season, especially after Dallas finally moved past the first round for the first time in over a decade. Doncic is 23. Michael Jordan and LeBron James didn’t win a title until they were 27. A loss in the second round wouldn’t derail the path the Mavericks have set for themselves, only enlighten where they needed to patch things up.

So, about that.

While this series is far from over, it’s also decidedly more interesting than it was 72 hours ago. After an impressive 111-101 win against the Suns in Game 4, the Mavericks second round series is tied up at 2-2. What makes this different from other plucky underdogs who have pushed title contenders in the past is how the Mavericks have done it. Dallas was outclassed in the first two games, and those thoughts about a short series were very real, which makes what happened in Games 3 and 4 more remarkable.

  • There have been four total lead changes in this entire series. Zero in Game 1, two in Game 2, and one apiece in Games 3 and 4.
  • The Mavericks took their first lead of Game 3 at the 5:40 mark of the first quarter and never trailed again. In Game 4, the Mavericks took their first lead with 9:02 left in the first quarter and also never trailed again.
  • In a total of 96 minutes played across Games 3 and 4, the Mavericks have led for 86:42 of those minutes.
  • After the Mavericks took the lead in both Game 3 and 4, the Suns never had a possession for the rest of the game where they could tie or take the lead. The closest they got in each game was down five early in the third quarter of Game 3 and down four late in the third quarter of Game 4. Dallas led by 15 entering the fourth quarter in Game 3 and by nine entering the fourth quarter of Game 4. displays a gameflow chart for each game, showing the gap between each team from opening tip to final buzzer. The charts for Games 3 and 4 visually emphasize how dominant the Mavericks were in their first two home games of this series.

Here’s the main point of all this: these two wins were neither lucky nor a fluke. Dallas didn’t scrape by with a buzzer beater or miraculous comeback — the Mavericks took the lead early in each game and never relented. That’s the sign of a team that isn’t struggling in the deep end. The Mavericks might still lose this series, but it’s clear now that it won’t be because they are outclassed by the Suns. These are just two really good teams trading body blows, trying to deliver the knockout punch.

How the Mavericks have done this is for a multitude of reasons. First, it must be noted how great the Dallas home crowd as been. Tim Cato at The Athletic noted after Game 3 how much of a difference the home crowd made, roaring to an energy level that hasn’t been seen in some time due to the Mavericks irrelevance in the last 10 years. While it’s been easy to poke fun at the Mavericks regular season, hoity-toity fan base when the team was either circling the drain as Dirk Nowitzki aged or rebuilding with no playoff hopes, the American Airlines Center was a formidable home court advantage during Dirk’s prime in the 2000s, culminating in the 2011 title. However a home crowd alone can’t explain all of this. Here are a couple of other reasons.

  • Suns center DeAndre Ayton, a monster in Game 1, has been MIA since. He scored 25 points in the Suns Game 1 victory and had 39 combined points in Games 2-4. The Mavericks are short-staffed at center, but the Mavericks team defense is doing a good job relegating Ayton to just be a finisher while catching pick and roll passes and not punishing switches or weaker defenders in post ups or isolations.
  • The Mavericks keep winning the math battle. While the Suns are outshooting the Mavericks percentage-wise from three, the volume isn’t even close: the Mavericks are getting up around 40 attempts per game, while the Suns are hovering near 26. The Mavericks are making 16.5 three pointers per game in this series, compared to the Suns 11.5. That’s five more threes per game for Dallas, which is 15 more points. That’s a big differential in high-stakes playoff games. It helps when Mavericks defensive ace Dorian Finney-Smith turns into Ray Allen, making 8-of-12 from three in Game 4. Finney-Smith has thoroughly outplayed his counterpart Mikal Bridges and the difference in their games is emblematic of the entire series: Finney-Smith is averaging 7.3 three point attempts per game in this series, while Bridges is averaging 2.3. The Suns dominance in the midrange doesn’t matter all that much if the Mavericks are going to keep bombing away, like they have all season. It also helps to win both the three point battle and the turnover battle — the Mavericks outscored the Suns 45-24 off turnovers.

By far the biggest development in Game 4, which showed signs in the previous two games, is how much the Mavericks are neutralizing Ayton on the defensive end. Ayton is an improved defender compared to where he was when he entered the league, but he’s still no where near comfortable guarding at the three point line. Phoenix’s past success has been its ability to keep Ayton near the rim, where he guards Doncic and the other Mavericks playmakers well, while holding up at the perimeter with their stable of wing defenders in Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Jae Crowder. That didn’t happen in Game 4.

In this first example, Doncic and Dwight Powell run a screen and roll. Chris Paul is guarding Reggie Bullock but switches with Ayton so Paul can disrupt the pick and roll. The one problem with that is it leaves Ayton guarding Bullock in the corner.

The Suns deployed a truly bizarre strategy with Ayton throughout the game: he would guard whoever was the weakside corner shooter on the Mavericks. The Suns didn’t want Ayton to get pick and popped to death with Maxi Kleber, so they tried to make things simple and easier on him, guarding the weakside corner shooter and being in position to help on drives. The Mavericks simply said “OK, thank you” and cashed in. The Suns are daring a three point shooting team to beat them with three pointers.

Switching didn’t work either. The Mavericks would just back out, draw Ayton toward the three point line, watch as the Suns help defenders shade toward the ball handler to help on a drive, and then beat the Suns rotation with clean passes.

On that Maxi Kleber make, just look at how much the Suns are already helping before Doncic can even make a move. Also notice how Kleber cuts through to force Crowder’s attention, before relocating in the opposite corner to set himself up for the three.

After Doncic finds Finney-Smith in the left corner, it only took two more passes before Kleber found himself open after the Suns scrambled. To make matters worse for the Suns, the Mavericks made 20-of-44 threes in Game 4 and still left a little meat on the bone — Doncic went 1-of-10 from three and missed some open looks against Ayton’s extreme drop coverage, whenever Ayton wasn’t parked in the corner on defense.

This is the look of a team confident in its ability to execute and compete. What the Mavericks are doing to the Suns isn’t propped up by smoke and mirrors, but a coaching staff in tune with its roster’s strengths and weakness. Oh, and having a superstar guard to orchestrate it all. Hard to see an underdog on the floor anymore.

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.