The Phoenix Suns shouldn’t have been pushed to game 7

If trends are to be believed, it seems likely that the Phoenix Suns will win Game 7 on Sunday against the Dallas Mavericks in their Western Conference semifinal series.

After all, the home team has won every game in this playoff series.

But it didn’t have to come to that for Phoenix. Not for the team that had by far the best regular-season record in the NBA, and especially not after the Suns dominated their first two games against a Dallas team with limited direction outside its star, Luka Doncic.

On Thursday night, the Suns had a chance to send the Mavericks home for the summer, just to lay an egg. Dallas warmed up by 3 points, shooting 16 of 39 (41%), while Doncic worked his way to the edge for easy dunks. Doncic also repeatedly backtracked and overpowered Suns smallest point guard Chris Paul in a bout that Dallas had been keen to exploit as a whole. Doncic finished the game with 33 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals.

I don’t have enough time to talk about everything that’s eating me, “Sun manager Monty Williams told reporters after the game.” I didn’t think we understood the desperation they were going to play with.

This was not a typical seven-game series. It wasn’t a party with the stars of both teams swapping clutch baskets. None of the races were particularly competitive or made it to the final minutes. The only constants were the frivolity and the garbage chatter.

But there are precedents for a playoff series like this one. In 2008, n. The Boston Celtics, seeded 1, faced the No. Atlanta Hawks 8-seeded in the first round. Boston won their first two home games in outbursts, but Atlanta repeatedly and unexpectedly held home serve. The Celtics won Race 7 of 34 points. A similar trajectory shaped Boston’s next series, against the Cleveland Cavaliers led by LeBron James, but those games were more competitive. Boston would win the NBA championship.

But precedent isn’t a guarantee, and the Suns could definitely be on their way to an awkward second-round exit following last year’s run to the NBA Finals. Last year, the Bucks and Nets traded home wins for six games in the second round, then the Bucks won the away final. Another game out of Paul’s game, or a hot game of a Mavericks role player, and the Suns may be shown the door.

If the Mavericks win, they will have dethroned a Suns team that won a franchise record of 64 games, including an 18-game streak. This type of success is rare and difficult to repeat. For one thing, Paul, a 12-time All-Star, is 37 years old. He is still elite as a point guard and has led the league in assists per game. But the roster of players who excelled at the age of 38 is small, populated by generational players like Karl Malone, John Stockton, Michael Jordan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Paul is also a generational player, but this hasn’t been a particularly strong post-season streak for him, particularly after Rounds 1 and 2. Since then, he’s been haunted by foul issues, has had a hard time defending Doncic, and has is limited to draw six assists per game for the next series with an average of 10.8 per game during the regular season.

Not having a championship is a major hole in Paul’s illustrious resume. It’s 3-4 in game 7, excluding the 2018 Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, when he missed the last game due to injury as a member of the Houston Rockets.

The Suns would also be at a crossroads with 23-year-old Deandre Ayton, who is one of the best centers in the league and set to enter a limited free will regime. Phoenix hasn’t offered him a maximum contract offer before the season, and an early exit from the playoffs could hurt his chances of getting one now.

But the Suns have the advantage of entering Sunday’s game in Phoenix. They had the NBA’s best home record at 32-9. They are tested, having reached the final last year and with expert Paul at the reins. They proved they could stand up to Doncic, who set the Suns on fire in his third playoff series, averaging 32.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists over six games. Doncic faced elimination three times in his short playoff career, including Thursday, and each time he went big, even when defeated. In a first round 7 game he came up against the Los Angeles Clippers last year, him scored 46 points in the defeat. In 2020, he scored 38 points in a Game 6 loss to the Clippers.

The Suns have won three games despite being unable to protect Doncic.

But what they may not be able to endure are their own twists, which have plagued the Suns on the road. In game 3, Paul and Devin Booker combined for 12 of them, more than the Mavericks. In Game 4, Booker had five. Paul had two, but only played 23 minutes because of bad trouble. During Game 6 on Thursday, Booker had eight, Paul five, and the Mavericks only combined for six.

The Mavericks’ strategy for beating Phoenix was relatively simple: match Doncic against Paul, or widen the field and ask Doncic or his defense partner, Jalen Brunson, to lead and find the shooters. It mostly worked. Role players like Maxi Kleber have often managed to get over 3.

One adjustment the Suns can counter is stacking the paint with the defenders to encourage Doncic to throw 3s. It is a 3 point below average shooter, at only 29.6 percent for the series. And if it gets to the point, the Suns have to shut down the shooters to break their pace. In Game 5, the best defensive performance of the Phoenix series, Dallas shot 8 of 32 from 3 points, a sad 25%.

Outside of Game 5, the Suns were consistently bad defensively and were only occasionally able to get past it with a strong attack. It often seemed that the Suns were rushing their offense, which is unusual for a car driven by Paul.

The best thing about all these playoff games is that you don’t lead 20 points into the next game, “Paul said Thursday.” You know what I mean? Each game has its own personality and it is now a game. “