PHOENIX — Footprint Center, scene of a 2022 Western Conference semifinals stomping, turned into the site of redemption Wednesday night for the Phoenix Suns, which rallied from a 22-point deficit to defeat the Dallas Mavericks, 107-105.
Damion Lee drained a 10-foot fadeaway for the game winner in front of a sellout crowd of 17,071, as Phoenix avenged last season’s stunning home loss to the Mavs in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. The comeback victory marked the home team’s largest since 2017, and, since the 2021-22 regular season, the Suns are 6-2 in games decided by three points or less.
Here are five takeaways from the action:
Kia MVP candidates shine
As expected, the game’s two young stars pumped in monster numbers. Mavericks star guard Luka Doncic lit up Phoenix for 35 points to go with six rebounds and nine assists, despite struggling to knock down shots in the face of double-teams and multiple defenders that included Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jock Landale, and superstar counterpart Devin Booker.
Doncic reeled off 13 of his game-high 35 points in the opening quarter.
“Luka’s 23. He’s up for MVP,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “I think he’s going to be in on not just the start of the chatter for MVP, but he’ll be there at the end.”
You can count on Booker’s presence, too. The Suns star led his team with 28 points on 10 of 20 from the field and connected on his only 3-point attempt, in addition to dishing nine dimes.
Phoenix was 28-6 last season in games that Booker scored 28 points or more.
Phoenix dominates inside
Dallas spent part of the offseason upgrading the frontcourt, trading for Christian Wood in June before acquiring veteran center JaVale McGee to improve a team that finished last season ranked 24th in rebounding. Early returns from the opener indicate the Mavericks improved in the frontcourt, but not enough to keep the Suns out of the paint consistently.
While Dallas won the rebounding battle 41-40, Phoenix rolled up the points in the paint, outscoring the visitors 56-36.
In an encouraging sign, it appeared defensive stopper Mikal Bridges scored more off the bounce on Wednesday than in any one game from last season, which is a positive sign for the forward’s growth on offense. Phoenix hopes to see major strides this season from both Bridges and Cameron Johnson. While Booker scored a team-high 28 points and center Deandre Ayton chipped in 18, Bridges produced just his fourth career double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds) and first since Jan. 22, 2021.
Cameron Johnson’s starting debut
The 11th pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, Johnson has started in 36 games over his career. But the opener against the Mavs on Wednesday marked the first time he tipped off the season as the full-time starter. Phoenix’s decision to increase Johnson’s role played a part in the team and former starting forward Jae Crowder coming to a mutual agreement that the 32-year-old vet would stay away as the Suns work on a trade.
Phoenix listed Crowder among its inactives on Wednesday, while Johnson finished with 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting (3 of 6 from deep) with three rebounds and a pair of blocks.
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— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) October 20, 2022
“I don’t see it as a huge adjustment for him,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Starting games every night, that’s something that’s gonna be different. I think he’s waited for this for a long time. But it’s not like Cam Johnson is not scouted by other teams. He’s one of the best shooters in the league. I think we’re gonna see more of his game with an expanded role.”
Johnson played 27 minutes before exiting in the fourth quarter due to cramping.
Replacing Jalen Brunson’s production
When Jalen Brunson bolted in July by way of a four-year $104 million deal with the New York Knicks, you could sense concern about how the Mavs might replace the physical, playmaking guard’s contributions that seemed to complement Doncic nearly perfectly.
Remember, Brunson produced a breakout campaign in 2021-22 (16.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game while shooting 50.2% from the field) that really caught fire in the playoffs, where he averaged 21.6 ppg in helping the Mavericks advance to the Western Conference finals. Brunson averaged a career-high 31.9 minutes per game last season, and provided the squad a secondary scorer, shot creator, and penetrator.
But Dallas showed in the opener it can easily compensate for Brunson’s lost production, even if the Mavs must do it by committee on occasion.
Spencer Dinwiddie replaced Brunson in the starting lineup and he had 15 points, 13 of which came in the second quarter.
The 29-year-old veteran expressed confidence to NBA.com at media day regarding his ability to pick up the slack left by Brunson’s absence. The guard said he devoted the offseason going into the 2021-22 campaign to rehabilitate the torn right ACL he suffered in December of 2020. In the summer, Dinwiddie worked to hone his skillset and it showed against Phoenix.
In the second quarter, Dinwiddie drilled 5 of 5 from the field and 3 of 3 from deep as Dallas seized a 20-point lead with Doncic resting on the bench for the first half of the frame.
The Mavs are deep
Spend too much time on the end of that Dallas roster and you might stand up with a case of the bends — aka decompression sickness — because this team is ocean deep. And big, too, especially when you consider that — outside of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dinwiddie (both 6-foot-5) — seven of the nine players the Mavs utilized Wednesday are 6-foot-6 or taller.
“We’re just bigger when you look at the lineups that we can put out there,” Kidd said when asked how this team is different than last season’s squad.
The Mavericks traded for Wood in June, and landed McGee the next month in free agency, thus relegating the former to a reserve role. Coming off the bench with 5:19 left in the opening quarter, Wood poured in a quick seven points on 2-for-2 shooting as Doncic made it a point to find Wood often in the paint. He had 13 points through the first three quarters before adding 12 more in the fourth quarter. Last season with Houston, Wood had seven games with 25 or more points.
With Wood leading the way the Mavs’ four bench players outscored Phoenix’s group of seven reserves 37-27.
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