The Dallas Mavericks face a 2-0 series deficit in the Western Conference Semifinals after losing 129-109 in Game 2 against the Phoenix Suns. With the help of fourth-quarter heroics from Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns pulled away late.
After a step-back 3 from Jalen Brunson at the 11:23 mark of the fourth quarter, the Mavericks trailed the Suns just 89-86. What happened over the remainder of regulation could be described as a dismantling by Phoenix.
Paul scored 14 of his 28 overall points in the final frame to lead the Suns’ offense to 40 points as a unit on a staggering 16-19 (84.2 percent) from the floor and 6-8 (75.0 percent) on 3s. Only the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals produced a higher fourth-quarter field goal percentage (87.5 percent) in the last 25 postseasons.
“You’ve just got to lean on the work,” Paul said. “It all goes back to the work. You can’t cheat the game. You’ve got to do the strength and conditioning, you’ve got to lift, you’ve got to get your rest, you got to get your shots up.
“When you do that, you live with the results.”
A clear theme in the Suns’ approach was a familiar one; attack the opposing team’s superstar to tire him out. Doncic was hunting superstars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry to attack in isolation after drawing a switch in the regular season. Now, the Suns are doing the same to him, and it’s worked.
Paul was able to get what he wanted against Doncic, whether it was a finish at the rim or getting to his spot in short-range for a jumper. There was apparent fatigue from Doncic at this stage of the game after shouldering such a hefty usage orchestrating the offense.
“The playoffs, in general, are about matchups,” Booker said. “I don’t think the seeding is always correct in terms of just different matchups because you’re playing against different players. One team matches up better with another team.”
It wasn’t just about Paul’s direct scoring chances by attacking Doncic. The Suns generated some high-quality catch-and-shoot looks from 3 by engaging him directly in the screening action and banking on there being enough of an advantage to exploit by working the ball around.
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Doncic was far from the only player to get victimized by Paul out on an island in the fourth quarter. Maxi Kleber and Reggie Bullock each got a turn at getting a stop and were unsuccessful in doing so. When Paul gets on a heater, there’s not an individual defender that can contain him without help.
A possession featured the Mavericks attempting to deny the switch when Doncic’s man was deployed as a ball screener. Dorian Finney-Smith ran Mikal Bridges off the line when closing out on the corner — resulting in a dump-off pass to Bismack Biyombo after Bridges drew Spencer Dinwiddie in help on the drive. The rest of the unit is forced to be on-point with their rotations from that point on.
It was troubling enough for the Mavericks’ defense to be unable to slow down Paul, but to make matters worse, Booker converted on a few rather demoralizing 3s. Dallas had no answers to contain the Suns’ superstar backcourt — a theme for the whole NBA when trying to slow down Phoenix in the fourth quarter.
There seem to be significant underlying limitations the Mavericks face when matched up against such a well-rounded team like the Suns. Doncic needs a co-star he can trust enough not to have such a meteoric usage rate to preserve his energy to be effective late in games.
For as great of a first-round series Brunson provided the Mavericks against the Utah Jazz, he hasn’t been able to do the same against longer and simply better Suns defenders in the Western Conference Semifinals. The goal is to contend for a championship, and the current formula hasn’t been enough.
The Mavericks’ needs go well beyond just the need for a perimeter co-star to pair with Doncic. There is a talent deficit at the center position. There isn’t enough wing depth when they go with super small-ball lineup combinations. Spencer Dinwiddie has fallen back down to reality after making a significant impact after the midseason trade.
The value of getting out of the first round is being made apparent for the Mavericks. The roster is being tested to its maximum capabilities, exposing needs the team must address before taking the next step toward title contention.
Time is running out rapidly for the Mavericks to salvage their chances in the Western Conference Semifinals. They face the prospects of a daunting 3-0 series deficit with a Game 3 loss if they were to fail to defend home court in their next matchup.