PHOENIX — The past, present, and future of Dallas collided in hugs and handshakes Sunday, when Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki smothered Luka Doncic in love after the Mavericks’ 123-90 triumph over the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semifinals.
The 23-year-old superstar scored a game-high 35 points, adding 10 rebounds and four dimes to push Dallas to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2011 — coincidentally, the year Nowitzki won his only championship — as the Mavs overcame a 2-0 series deficit for the third time in franchise history en route to eliminating the Suns 4-3 in stunning fashion.
“I think we learned a lot from the Game 7 last year (against the LA Clippers in the opening round) and Game 6,” Doncic said. “We had two chances to move on. We didn’t. So, I think we learned a lot from there. This team is just special. I don’t have nothing else to say.”
No need, Mr. Doncic. Your stellar play did the talking.
The outcome at Footprint Center on Sunday marked the first road win for either team in this slugfest of a series. Dallas seized its first victory in the Suns’ home arena since Nov. 29, 2019, in snapping an eight-game losing streak in Phoenix by posting the third-largest winning margin (33 points) in playoff team history.
We’ll get into Doncic’s special night and Dallas’ dominance, as well as the future of Suns veteran point guard Chris Paul in our five takeaways from this surprising Mavericks victory, as the team now preps to face Golden State on Wednesday in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
1. Doncic’s excellence when facing elimination
Surely, Phoenix understood the challenge it faced when shoving Doncic into an elimination situation. So, while you might think the Mavs superstar guard’s performance against the Suns was eye-popping, let’s run through what the man does when his back is against the wall in an elimination situation.
Doncic has averaged 39.0 points per game when facing down elimination in his career, and that’s the highest scoring average in that scenario in NBA history (minimum three games). Sitting behind Doncic on that list of killers in elimination situations are Alex Groza (33.5 ppg), LeBron James (33.5), Michael Jordan (31.3) and Wilt Chamberlain (31.1).
You could easily see Doncic was on a mission from the onset. He lit up Phoenix for 12 points in the opening quarter on 5-for-7 shooting with eight rebounds and three assists, helping seize a 27-17 lead in the first frame on the strength of a beautiful array of step-back 3-pointers, tough drives, and feather-soft floaters.
What’s wild is the guard matched the scoring output of Phoenix’s entire team in the first half alone with his 27 points, as Dallas piled up the most massive halftime lead (57-27) in Game 7 history.
And Spencer Dinwiddie only exacerbated the beatdown with his 21 points over the first two quarters, drilling 4-for-5 from deep.
“It’s still kind of shocking,” Dinwiddie said. “The Suns were the best team in basketball all season. You’ve got to give them credit for the season they had. We were confident coming into the game. We definitely believed we could win.”
Luka Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie are the 8th pair of teammates to both drop 30+ points in a Game 7! pic.twitter.com/SoX1QpAqCO
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) May 16, 2022
Doncic (27 points) and Dinwiddie (21) finished as the first pair of teammates to each scorch the opposition for 20 points or more in a half of a Game 7 since 1997, when the New York Knicks duo of Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston accomplished the feat in the second half against the Miami Heat.
Interestingly, outside of Doncic and Dinwiddie, the rest of the Mavs shot a combined 3-for-18 in the opening half. But Dallas’ numbers would gradually improve. With 2:40 left in the third quarter, the Mavericks had boosted the shot making to 53% from the field and 50% from range in running off to an 85-47 lead.
The Mavs finished the game shooting 56.8%, as Doncic (35), Dinwiddie (30) and Jalen Brunson (24) combined for 89 points. For context, consider the Suns used a total of 14 players to score just 90 points.
2. Clash of approaches between the teams is glaring
Phoenix spoke openly during the lead-up to Game 7 about embracing the pressure of such a significant game. The team admitted the heaviness of the situation, with players pointing out this is precisely what the Suns had worked so hard for during the regular season.
Phoenix became just the third team in NBA history to win 64 games or more during the regular season and not advance to the conference finals, joining the likes of the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs and the 2006-07 Mavericks.
You can’t help but note the glaringly different approaches the teams took to Game 7.
It’s also worth pondering whether those competing methodologies played a role in the contest’s outcome.
“As high-stakes as the situations and decisions may be, you have to embrace it,” Suns coach Monty Williams said before the game. “This is what we wanted. Three years ago, we weren’t in this situation. I’m mindful of how far we’ve come.”
Dallas, meanwhile, strolled into this pressure cooker of a situation with a more laidback approach, feeling as if it were playing with house money. Interestingly, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said just before the game that he would consider the season “a success” if his team lost in Game 7.
“There’s no pressure. We’re a young team, and we’ve improved in a lot of areas that people thought we couldn’t get better at,” he said. “So, it’s a success no matter what happens. The season doesn’t end if we lose today. It’s just a start. I talked about that before Game 6. It’s just the beginning of this journey. We learn from our wins, and we learn from our losses. The great ones have always done that. They never started off by winning championships.”
3. Suns’ turnover problems continue
The Suns walked into Game 7 averaging 16.0 turnovers in this series, with the Mavericks scoring 20.3 points per game off those freebies. In fact, Phoenix had committed 17-plus turnovers in five consecutive outings going into Game 7.
Forward Jae Crowder called the giveaways a byproduct of “overthinking,” and Williams agreed with that assessment.
“[It’s all about] just making the easy play,” Williams said just before the game. “That’s something we talked about in the last couple of days. That’s something that we’ve done all year. Good-to-great, paint-to-great, that’s who we are.”
Phoenix apparently lost that identity Sunday at Footprint Center. The Suns improved in the turnover department in committing just 12 on the night that Dallas transformed into 15 points.
But much of Phoenix’s self-inflicted damage came in the first half (seven turnovers that Dallas turned into nine points), as the Mavs stacked jumpers like Jenga to construct their big lead. The giveaways just added to the problems already posed by the hot starts from Doncic and Dinwiddie.
By the end of the third quarter, the Suns had surrendered 10 turnovers that Dallas transformed into 15 points, while the Mavericks had committed eight giveaways for a total of four points over that span for the home team. Dallas came into the contest averaging 10.2 turnovers, which is the second-fewest of any of the teams in the playoffs behind Toronto (10.0).
The Mavs would end the game with 12 turnovers, which proved inconsequential on a night in which the visitors would lead by as many as 46 points.
Yes, that’s right, 46 points.
4. Cold shooting eclipses Suns
It’s probably tough for many to remember that Phoenix started off the postseason shooting 50% or better in its first eight games before dropping to below 50% from the floor (45.2%) in its last four contests heading into Game 7.
Surely, the Suns harbored hope for improving in this do-or-die conclusion to this series.
No chance. In fact, Game 7 marked the first time this season that Phoenix shot worse than 40% in back-to-back outings.
In just the first half, Phoenix shot an alarming 10-for-41 from the floor on the way to falling behind 57-27 at halftime. The Suns’ star trio of Devin Booker, Paul, and Deandre Ayton combined to connect on only 1-for-15 shooting (six total points) over the first two quarters. On the flip side, Doncic and Dinwiddie shot a blistering 16-for-22 combined over the same span.
“You can have those nights during the regular season, and you have them here and there where your shot can’t fall, and they’re hitting every shot,” said Booker, who shot 3-for-14 and 0-for-4 from deep to finish with 11 points.
“They followed their game plan, did a good job of getting the ball out of my hands, and trapping every action I was in. I’m not the person that’s gonna go out there and try to shoot over eight people. I’m gonna try to make the right play. We missed shots early. I missed the few open ones that I got, and that was that.”
Phoenix clanged shot after shot off the rim on the night in connecting on 37.9% from the floor and 35.3% on 3-point attempts.
5. CP3’s future
A 12-time All-Star, Paul plans to continue pursuing what’s so far been a fruitless journey in the quest to capture his first NBA title. Paul turned 37 during this series, but he immediately pointed out after Game 7 that the marathon will continue in 2022-23, when he’ll enter his 18th season.
Paul registered a minus-39 on Sunday, which marks the worst plus-minus of his NBA career in the regular season or playoffs. Over the last four games of this series, the veteran averaged 9.4 ppg, 5.8 apg and 3.6 turnovers per game.
Paul led Phoenix to the NBA Finals in 2021, and the Suns fell short. This time, the team faltered even sooner, leaving some to wonder whether the point guard has missed out on his potential championship window.
“They said that last year, probably said it back in ’08,” Paul said. “[If] you play long enough and you don’t win, every time you lose, they’re gonna say it was your best chance. I think for me, and us is we’ll be right back next year. [I’ll] tell you that much. I’m not retiring tomorrow, thank God.”
The outcome in Game 7 marked the fourth time in franchise history the Suns blew a 2-0 series lead, and it’s the fifth time in Paul’s career it has happened to him.
While we’re on the subject of futures, you should be paying close attention to what transpires in Phoenix this offseason with pending restricted free-agent center Deandre Ayton, who will be eligible to re-sign with the Suns for big money. Ayton played a grand total of 17 minutes in the deciding Game 7, and he finished with just 5 points.
Williams was asked why Ayton played limited minutes in such a crucial contest.
“It’s internal,” the coach said.
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