• Suns vs. Mavericks: Complete series coverage
PHOENIX — Jason Kidd discussed Luka Doncic getting “whatever he wanted” in piling up a game-high 45 points in Dallas’ 121-114 loss Monday to the Phoenix Suns in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
What Doncic needs, though, is more assistance from the Mavericks supporting cast.
Doncic became the youngest player since Kobe Bryant in 2001 to pour in 45 points with at least 10 rebounds in a playoff contest. The 23-year-old superstar outpaced the combined production of the rest of Dallas’ starting five (Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell, and Jalen Brunson) by six points, in part because of a suffocating defensive effort from the Suns that snuffed out contributions from the Mavs’ usual sources.
Interestingly, offensive production is probably the least of Dallas’ worries as it preps for Wednesday’s Game 2 at Footprint Center. So, we’ll get into that and more in our five takeaways from a wire-to-wire Phoenix Suns victory that screamed intensity and physicality from the onset:
1. Make it 10 in a row for the Suns
That’s right, Phoenix captured its 10th straight victory against Dallas, and did it in dominating fashion by running off a 22-7 start in the first seven minutes, before finishing with 10 points off nine Mavericks turnovers — the bulk of the giveaways (five) coming courtesy of Doncic. Along the way Phoenix seamlessly executed all the things that make winning teams successful.
The Suns destroyed the Mavs on the boards 51-36 and pulled down 13 offensive rebounds.
Phoenix took advantage of the freebies, too, connecting on 100 percent from the free-throw line (18 of 18) for just the fourth time in the postseason, and the first time since it hit 9 of 9 last June against the LA Clippers. The Suns also drained their field goals at a clip of 50% or better for their seventh-straight postseason outing — a franchise record — which also ties the 1986 Lakers for the second-longest such streak in the playoffs during the shot-clock era.
Cameron Johnson chipped in a playoff career-high 17 points, while veteran point guard Chris Paul simply blessed us with the best field goal percentage by a guard over any two-game playoff span (21-of-27 shooting over his last two games) in scoring his 19 points on 7 of 13 from the floor. Finishing with three dimes, Paul also moved past Tony Parker for fifth all-time in career postseason assists. Even when Paul makes mistakes, he seems to always find a way to spin a positive end result.
Devin Booker, meanwhile, produced his 19th game in the postseason with 20 points or more and gave Doncic plenty of problems.
Led by Deandre Ayton’s (we’ll get to him later) team-high 25 points, Phoenix finished with six double-figures scorers.
“I think our defense lost us the game today,” Doncic said. “I think our start on the defensive end was terrible. I know we can play way better defense.”
Excluding the 2020 NBA bubble, Phoenix is now 7-1 in Game 1s at home since the 2009 playoffs for the second-best winning percentage (.875) over that span behind the Golden State Warriors (.947).
2. Ayton poses problems
Ayton entered Game 1 averaging 20.5 points with 9.8 rebounds per game on 70% shooting from the field and 50% from deep after setting a playoff record last year for the highest field goal percentage in a single postseason (65.8%). Ayton continued his eye-popping efficiency against the Mavericks, hitting 60% from the field (12-for-20) for 25 points and eight rebounds.
Ayton made perhaps his most significant impact on defense, though. Let’s not forget that Kidd warned the Mavericks about Ayton, who has more athleticism than their last opponent at center (Rudy Gobert). Ayton showed he can effectively switch on Doncic and defend him, as did backup JaVale McGee, who picked the point guard’s pocket for a transition dunk late.
Kidd spoke after the game about more use of the team’s five-out lineup of Doncic, Brunson, Bullock, and Spencer Dinwiddie with Finney-Smith at the five. But with the athletic Ayton (and so many strong defensive wings such as Mikal Bridges), the Suns can keep rolling with their regular big lineups. The Suns understood the challenges Dallas’ small-ball lineup posed for Utah with spacing, easy driving lanes, and opportunities for uncontested 3-pointers. For the most part, Phoenix excelled at staying in front of Doncic and the rest of Dallas’ playmakers.
Offensively, Dallas might try to keep the ball out of the hands of Paul and Booker. But Booker told Ayton in the first round to keep shooting it because in the playoffs “teams take away your first option,” adding the center knocks them down “at a high clip” and the Suns need that to continue. Game 1 marked Ayton’s seventh consecutive game of shooting at least 60% from the field. He started off the night sizzling, hitting four of his first six shots.
3. Where’s Doncic’s supporting cast?
Brunson averaged 16.3 ppg in the regular season, boosting that number in the postseason to 27.8 ppg, which represents the largest scoring increase from the regular season to the playoffs among players with a minimum of three postseason outings. In Game 1, Brunson fell below his regular-season average with 13 points on 6-of-16 shooting. Dinwiddie, meanwhile, scored just eight points after putting up 17 points or more in four of the six games in the opening round.
Because of Dallas’ slow start, Kidd felt like the team started to rush shots to get back into the game.
Through the first three quarters, Brunson and Dinwiddie had combined for eight points on 3-of-14 shooting.
4. Defending Doncic
Perhaps Doncic is correct in saying that Dallas’ offense wasn’t the problem, pointing out “everybody was a little bit lazy” in the first half, and that led to the early deficit. Doncic managed to rack up 14 points in the first frame.
It appears Phoenix is more committed to limiting Doncic’s impact as a playmaker than a scorer. Whenever Doncic and Maxi Kleber were both in the game, the Suns switched everything to keep the point guard from finding the power forward for open looks. Kleber still hit 5 of 6 from deep in the first half for 16 points.
It’s clear Phoenix understands just how easily Doncic can make a defense start scrambling, and the Suns want no parts of that. So, they’re guarding Doncic mostly with Bridges, as well as switching screens set by Kleber, or playing drop coverage. Phoenix hardly ever ran extra defenders at Doncic to make him give up the ball.
Kidd said Doncic and Kleber kept Dallas afloat during its disastrous opening half, adding that “we’ve just got to get someone to join the party.”
Kidd is correct, considering the other Mavericks starters not named “Doncic” combined to score just 39 points. That marked the second time in the postseason he outscored the other four players in the first unit.
Doncic said he’d like to see the Mavericks go small more often with Finney-Smith at the five, and admitted he settled too often for stepback shots when “attacking the paint is our lethal weapon.”
A late Dallas surge helped it to edge Phoenix 44-38 in paint scoring.
Of course, Phoenix coach Monty Williams wasn’t happy with Doncic hitting the Suns for 45 points. But after scanning the stat sheet, the coach quickly pointed out Dallas finished with just 16 assists, which meant “nobody else got going the way they’re capable of,” he said.
5. Phoenix makes Doncic work
Nobody has ever accused Doncic of posing as a lockdown defender, but you can see the Suns are making an effort to go after Doncic in Game 1, perhaps to help wear him down over the course of the game. Doncic still managed to fire up a game-high 11 3-point attempts as the Mavericks attempted 39 of them overall.
Paul said the Suns know Doncic will get off his shots, but the goal is to “try to make it tough” on him.
Making Doncic work on defense might help accomplish that. Doncic played more than 44 minutes in an intense, physical matchup at Footprint Center. Doncic even collapsed to the floor writhing in agony in the first half after absorbing an accidental kick to the groin by Jae Crowder.
Still, Doncic smiled in an interview room later, having walked off the floor to “Suns in four” chants from the sellout crowd of 17,071.
In explaining Dallas’ myriad problems with communication in the first half, Doncic pretty much announced what the Mavs are expecting Wednesday for Game 2.
“The fans are very loud here, so it’s gonna be tough.”
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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