On Thursday night, Dallas evened the second-round series at three games apiece after Phoenix lost three of the previous four. In Game 7, one of the league’s most efficient offenses has slowed to a crawl. Meanwhile, the Mavericks have found a winning formula, and an upset on Sunday afternoon is a distinct possibility.
This does not appear to be the same Suns team that dominated the rest of the league with 64 wins during the regular season.
We didn’t expect such a dramatic match just a week ago. The Suns took a 2–0 lead in Game 2 thanks to 58 points from Chris Paul and Devin Booker, effectively ending Dallas’ playoff run. The script was later reversed. Booker shot 6-for-16 from the field and 0-for-4 from three in Game 6. In the last three games, Paul has scored 25 points. Dallas has contained a previously lethal attack, and its success is due to more than just lucky shooting.
Last year, the Mavericks could not have imagined such suffocating defense. Last season, Dallas finished 20th in defensive rating, allowing 126 points in Game 7 of a first-round loss to the Clippers. The arrival of Jason Kidd altered everything. He and his staff coaxed Dallas into a top-10 defense in his first season as coach, and after the departure of Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks truly found their stride.
Dallas spends significant time in games without a traditional center, with Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock ($52 million) serving as impact defenders on the wing. Frank Ntilikina is developing into a valuable defensive contributor, with four steals in 21 minutes on Thursday night. The Phoenix Suns’ Deandre Ayton is a talented player, but he is no Joel Embiid or Nikola Joki. Ayton prefers to rely on his mid-range jumper and over-the-shoulder hook, rather than threatening the defense from three or attacking the basket consistently. An undersized unit is flourishing as a result of his inability to punish Dallas in the paint.
Dallas’ front office deserves credit for this small-ball strategy. Many thought the Mavericks’ trade of Porzingis was a wise long-term move, even if it did dampen their Finals hopes. That has not occurred. The rotation’s only true rim runner is now Dwight Powell, and every other lineup pairs Luka Doni with a quartet of spacers or secondary ball-handlers. Dallas isn’t wasting possessions on unnecessary post-ups or contested pick-and-pop threes, and Jalen Brunson appears to be cruising to the rim at will. This is a supporting cast that is now fully complementing the strengths of the superstar. Such unity may be enough to overcome any perceived talent gap between these two rosters.
It’s difficult to imagine the defending Western Conference champions faring any better on Sunday than they did on Thursday. Booker had eight turnovers in Game 6 compared to the Suns’ 22, and Phoenix was outscored by 30 points from three-point range. A return to familiar territory in Game 7 should help to even the score, and despite a somewhat shaky resume, Paul’s extensive playoff experience is valuable. Phoenix is the favorite here after a two-season run of relative dominance.
Despite the home court advantage, one can’t help but wonder if we’re on the verge of a weekend upset. The Mavericks are constantly attacking the rim and setting up open three-point shots. They’re choking off Phoenix’s talented backcourt. They’ve found a winning rotation, and if you haven’t noticed, they have the series’ best player. As Game 7 approaches, we should recall Kidd’s comments about his franchise star seven months ago.
“What [Doni] is capable of doing when the lights are turned on isn’t normal,” Kidd said. “It’s one-of-a-kind.”