The Mavericks (24-19) host the surging Phoenix Suns (25-18) Wednesday at the American Airlines Center in a rematch almost a month removed from Luka’s Christmas Day Spectacular.
Luka Dončić scored 50 points, dished 15 assists, hit eight 3-pointers and wore a smile on his face while dropping buckets like Santa drops gifts down chimneys against a befuddled Suns team who came into the matchup with a losing record and didn’t appear to have a whole lot of heart for the fight in the 128-114 loss.
The Mavs somehow held the Suns’ two best players, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, to 36 combined points on 10-of-25 shooting and just two made 3-pointers between them. Meanwhile, Dallas got 20 and 10 from rookie center Dereck Lively II, 23 from Derrick Jones Jr. and a solid 18 from Tim Hardaway Jr. in the win. It was Dante Exum’s one average performance — he chipped in just seven points and five assists in his 33 minutes that game — in his December run of brilliance before he hit the injured list with a sprained plantar fascia this month.
But all that is over now. Less than a month later, we now live in a world where the Suns have stormed past the Mavs in the Western Conference standings. Though just one game separates the two teams, Phoenix comes into the game in fifth in the West, while the Mavs are eighth at the moment. The Mavs have hit a rough stretch in the schedule and are treading water against some of the top teams in the league as they try to hang onto a decent playoff position down the stretch.
Here are three indicators that say that Mavs are in for a much sterner test Wednesday than Phoenix gave them on Christmas.
Suns beating down on the NBA
Phoenix comes into the AAC on the heels of six straight wins and 11 wins in the Suns’ last 14 games. The Suns have gotten quality wins at the Lakers and Pelicans and at home against the Pacers and Kings in their current six-game win streak.
After falling to 14-16 after the loss on Christmas, the Suns have turned things around at the same time that the Mavs have started to wobble a bit due to injuries and the continued struggle on the defensive end.
Beal is back
It’s no big coincidence that the swift return to form for the Suns comes right after guard Bradley Beal returned to action from his latest stint on the shelf with injury. Both back and ankle problems have cropped up for Beal so far this season, and his first game back from his latest two weeks in street clothes was Dec. 29. Beal has assumed his regular scorer’s mentality in the 13 games since his return, averaging 20.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists in January.
It’s a far cry from some of the more gaudy individual numbers he put up in a Wizards uniform, but his presence gives the Suns offense another legitimate scoring threat, which Phoenix was missing for most of the first 30 games of the season.
Booker and Durant have also been filling it up lately as The New New Big 3 finally start to gel. Booker scored 52 points in last week’s 123-119 win at New Orleans, and Durant has scored 40 and 43 in the Suns’ last two.
Watch for injury updates
As of 24 hours before tipoff, Seth Curry (left ankle) Dončić (low back tightness), Irving (right thumb sprain) and Exum (right plantar) were all listed as questionable for the Mavericks. Curry was reportedly able to run 5-on-5 in Wednesday’s practice, though. Irving injured his thumb in the first couple minutes of Monday’s 119-110 loss to the Celtics, when he swiped down on Jayson Tatum’s arms on the defensive end.
Keep an eye on all of this because if Exum can come back he may be able to provide a spark, or if Dončić or Irving have to sit, that would obviously change the entire complexion of the game.
In any event, even if both teams have their full arsenal available at their disposal, Wednesday’s game against the Suns is shaping up to be a whole different beast than what we all witnessed on Christmas.
How to watch
Tipoff between the Suns and the Mavericks is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on WFAA Channel 8 locally, and on ABC if you are streaming digitally.