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NBA

Mavs vs Suns, NBA Playoffs: Doncic faces team that passed on him

With the 2018 Draft still fresh in the memory, the Phoenix Suns host the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoff Semi-Finals.

Update:
With the 2018 Draft still fresh in the memory, the Phoenix Suns host the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Playoff Semi-Finals.
Christian PetersenAFP

Luka Doncic has overcome another barrier. In his third Playoffs in four years in the NBA, the three-time All-Star has made it past the First Round for the first time, and will appear in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. His Dallas Mavericks are within 12 wins of the championship ring - although that’s far easier said than done, of course. In a season that followed a tempestuous summer, and after a process of transformation that brought departures in the front office (Donnie Nelson), on the bench (Rick Carlisle) and on the court (Kristaps Porzingis), the Mavericks can already consider their campaign a success. After being eliminated in the First Round two years in a row by the hated Los Angeles Clippers, who this season didn’t make it past the Play-In, Doncic and his team are making progress. The triumph over the Utah Jazz was the first Playoff series win for the Slovenian, and the first for the Mavs since 2011, the year of their only NBA title.

In the years that followed, Dallas had been knocked out in the First Round on six occasions. Comparisons with the championship-winning team and Dirk Nowitzki, their irrepressible, omnipresent leader, are inevitable. The German, named MVP in the 2011 Finals, having put paid to the first version of the Miami Heat’s ‘big three’ - LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh - won his first Playoff series in 2001… against the Jazz, like Doncic 21 years on. An omen? That season, though, Dallas went on to lose 4-1 to the San Antonio Spurs - and blocking the Mavs’ path this year is an even tougher proposition: the Phoenix Suns.

Doncic dribbles the ball during Game 6 of the Mavericks' series win over the Utah Jazz.
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Doncic dribbles the ball during Game 6 of the Mavericks' series win over the Utah Jazz.Alex GoodlettAFP

Suns are the toughest NBA opposition there is

The Suns were comfortably the NBA’s best team in the Regular Season, racking up 64 wins for the first time in franchise history. They were better than the 2005/06 ‘seven seconds or less’ team that revolutionised basketball, led by Mike D’Antoni on the sidelines and Steve Nash on the court. And they were better than the bulldozer of a team which, headed up by MVP Charles Barkley, went toe to toe with the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 Finals, the Bulls requiring a superhuman effort from Michael Jordan - he averaged 41 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists - to keep the Suns at bay. Phoenix have never been NBA champions, but no-one has had a better crack at it among the teams that remain ring-less. Founded in 1968 with a name that’s only too fitting for a city that has more days of sunshine than any other in the US, the Suns have reached the Finals three times (in 1976, 1993 and 2001), but have never managed to complete the job. On each occasion, they’ve finished up two wins from the trophy (4-2). First against the Boston Celtics, then against the Bulls, and last season against the Milwaukee Bucks, who overturned a 2-0 deficit thanks chiefly to an imperious Giannis Antetokounmpo.

In truth, the Suns have been the best team in the NBA since the pandemic halted play in a 2019/20 season that ended up with the Los Angeles Lakers lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the Florida bubble. That Lakers team, by the way, won all 50 Regular Season and Playoff games in which they were ahead at the end of the third quarter. This year’s Suns team is now also 50-0. Absolute dependability. In the bubble, Phoenix won all eight games but, having arrived well off the Playoffs pace, just missed out on a spot in the initial incarnation of the Play-In. If you add those victories to the 154 they’ve registered in the last two seasons, they’ve won 123 out of 162 Regular Season games. Almost 76%.

Great Chris Paul seeking first NBA championship ring

It’s an extraordinary turnaround for a franchise that didn’t make the Playoffs between 2010 and 2021, during a horrendous decade in which the team came across as one of the most chaotic and poorly managed in the NBA. The change in the Suns’ fortunes was influenced by two key arrivals: James Jones in the front office in 2017, and Monty Williams as head coach in 2019, having been the subject of overtures from the Lakers of LeBron and Anthony Davis. In the first season under the new regime, the Suns setup also included Ricky Rubio, who had signed on a three-year contract worth $51m. The Spaniard made a significant contribution to the rebuild, before being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in November 2020 (a team he would never actually play for) as part of the deal to take Chris Paul to Arizona. The arrival of Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time, served to redefine the Suns once and for all. And after a fabulous season in which the team was two wins from the ring, Paul renewed in the summer on a four-year, $120m deal. At 36. Indeed, he’ll be 37 next week.

Paul appeared in his first NBA game on 1 November 2005. Doncic was six. The point guard has played for the Charlotte Hornets, the Clippers, the Houston Rockets, the Thunder and the Suns. In four of his five teams, and it’s no coincidence, he has been a part of the best season in the franchise’s history. The fifth is the Thunder, a side he led to an improbable Playoffs berth in 2020, following the departures of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. This season, he was named an All-Star for the 12th time in his career, and was the league’s assists leader (10.8 per game) for the fifth time. His overall assists tally of 10,977 is the third-highest in NBA history, behind only the incomparable John Stockton (15,806) and Jason Kidd (12,091), who is now the coach of his rivals in the Semi-Finals. Paul is also fourth on steals, behind Stockton, Kidd… and Jordan. He is, surely, one of the five best point guards to ever play the game - one who is out to rubber-stamp that status with a championship ring. In Regular Season meetings, he has come up against Doncic eight times, with an overwhelmingly positive record: 7-1. The Slovenian has averaged 26.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 6.6 assists and one steal in those games. Paul, 19.6+4.5+9+2.

Paul is the leader of a tremendous nucleus of players who are no longer that young: Devin Booker, 25, a three-time All-Star; Mikal Bridges, 25; DeAndre Ayton, 23; and Cam Johnson, 26. It will be a Playoff clash without much history to it: the teams have met twice in the postseason, with each winning six games and one series each: 4-2 for the Suns in 2005, 4-2 for the Mavs in 2006. Before those two seasons, nothing. Since then, nothing. Judging by the teams’ recent Regular Season matchups, there’s little cause for optimism in Dallas: in the 10 games since Williams took over in Phoenix, the Suns are 9-1 against the Mavs, who won the first meeting in November 2019, but have lost every single one since, including three this season.

Despite being one of the all-time great point guards, Chris Paul is yet to win an NBA championship.
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Despite being one of the all-time great point guards, Chris Paul is yet to win an NBA championship.Chris GraythenAFP

Suns had first pick in 2018 Draft - and went for Ayton over Doncic

And it will, above all, be a series with the inescapable spectre of the 2018 Draft hanging over it. Ayton was selected first overall, Doncic was third (before being traded for the number-five pick, Trae Young) and Mikal Bridges went at 10 (he was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers, only to be traded to the Suns, in what proved a colossal error by the Sixers). Curiously, Ayton is the only one of those players who hasn’t been given a big-money extension to his rookie contract. Bridges’ was for four years and $90m; Doncic’s was a supermax: five years and $207m, an amount never before seen in a player’s first extension, because of his two All NBA selections. Ayton was eligible for a five-year, $172.5m contract, but an agreement couldn’t be reached. Not even after the Suns’ run to the Finals and the immense season enjoyed by the Bahamian center, who has again been instrumental for Phoenix this term: more than 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that the Suns didn’t consider Ayton to be a player in the same bracket as Doncic, and Jones has explained that the franchise would have agreed to a maximum contract lasting for three or four years, but not five. Ayton avoided dramas, spoke little, and has carried on playing a lot. This summer, though, the Suns will definitely have to dig deep if they’re to keep hold of a player who has, beyond any doubt now, established himself as a cornerstone of the team.

Ayton, who does so much more than his numbers say and was exceptional in last season’s Playoffs, has performed so well that - allied with the team’s collective excellence - few can be angry with the Suns for passing on Doncic. In 2018, with the number-one pick at their disposal for the first time in their history, Phoenix could have selected the 23-year-old. And their head coach at the time was Igor Kokoskov, the Serb who had guided a Slovenia team led by Doncic and Goran Dragic to gold at Eurobasket 2017. The Suns went instead for Ayton, because of the overwhelming sense that here was a dominant center, and - this is always a factor - because he had been a local sensation at the University of Arizona. With the second overall pick, and this was an inexplicable, unjustifiable mistake, the Sacramento Kings chose Marvin Bigley Jr, a player who isn’t even at the Californian franchise anymore. And at three, the Atlanta Hawks selected Doncic, but traded with the Mavericks in exchange for Young and a 2019 first-round pick, which they used to bring in Cam Reddish, who thus far has been a major disappointment (he was traded to the New York Knicks this term).

Now, Doncic comes up against Ayton and Bridges, fellow class of 2018 members and top-10 picks. The Suns have court advantage, won 64 Regular Season games and are the defending Western Conference champions. In the Regular Season, they had the fourth best offence and the third best defence in the league. They have a legendary point guard and, in Booker, a player who will also go down as a generational star. They have Bridges, one of the best defenders in the NBA, ready to go to work on Doncic. And they have Ayton, who is far more mobile than Rudy Gobert, a player the Mavs went to town on in the First Round. The Suns are clear favourites; there can be no escaping this. They’re the toughest test yet for Doncic and the Mavericks. But Dallas are there among the eight teams who can still be NBA champions this season, and have nothing to lose. A great series is in prospect.

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