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Suns vs Mavericks, NBA Playoffs Game 3: Doncic needs help - and a change to Dallas’ defence

Heading into Game 3 of their Conference Semi-Finals series with the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks are 2-0 down and in need of a defensive rethink.

Heading into Game 3 of their Conference Semi-Finals series with the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks are 2-0 down and in need of a defensive rethink.
Christian PetersenAFP

There’s no let-up. The first four games of the Conference Semi-Finals between the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks are bunched up inside the space of seven days: from the Monday the series got underway, to Game 4 on Sunday, which the Mavs hope won’t be the last. In 48 hours, Dallas were twice well beaten in Arizona, and now the series moves to Texas for another two matchups, the first of which is tonight at 9:30pm ET. The Mavericks know that two defeats will eliminate them… and that one will leave them on the precipice, as the Suns would take a 3-1 lead back to Phoenix. Today, the Mavs will play their first Semi-Final game in Dallas in exactly 11 years, since 6 May 2011. That day, they boasted a 2-0 lead after beating the crumbling defending champions Los Angeles Lakers twice on the road. A 4-0 series win took Dirk Nowitzki and co. a step closer to winning what remains the only championship ring in the franchise’s history. Since then, Dallas hadn’t returned to the Conference Semi-Finals.

Mavs so far second-best against scorching Suns

The Mavs are up against the best team in the NBA - and they’ve been left in no doubt as to that fact. The Suns won 64 games in the regular season - their best ever record - and are favourites to win the NBA title after coming within two victories of lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in last year’s Finals against a Giannis Antetokounmpo-inspired Milwaukee Bucks. The Suns are nothing like the Utah Jazz, the weak opponent (despite the obvious talent of its stars) that fell to pieces the second the tough got going against the Mavs in the First Round, and that proved unable to take advantage of Luka Doncic’s three-game absence. Having won on the road in the opener, Utah collapsed to a 4-2 series defeat. No, the Mavs are up against a colossus of a team that they must now beat in four out of five games. Phoenix are a side who, above and beyond just how good they are, have a truly dominant head-to-head record against Dallas: 11-0 in the teams’ last 11 meetings since November 2019. What’s more, Doncic has a record of nine losses in 10 games against Suns point guard Chris Paul (across Paul’s spells at the Houston Rockets, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Suns).

The outlook is certainly ominous for a Mavs team that needs to make the most of being back on home court and embrace the age-old maxim that a Playoffs series doesn’t truly get going until a team wins on the road. If they can make their home court a fortress, they can still dream of an unlikely comeback. But if they don’t win tonight…

All eyes, inevitably, are on Doncic. The Slovenian has scored 80 points in the two Playoff games against the Suns. An average of 40, plus 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists. You’d have to say it’s hard to ask any more of him. His points average in the Playoffs is the highest in history right now: 33.5, better than the 33.4 of NBA legend Michael Jordan. They’re the only two players who are higher than 30. Doncic has made 18 appearances in the Playoffs in his career, and in six, one third of his postseason games, he has scored at least 40 points.

Jason Kidd, his head coach, has insisted that the 23-year-old has done everything he had to do to get his team to compete against a beast of a side like the Suns. But he has lacked backup. Jalen Brunson, who exploited the Jazz’s defensive deficiencies to rack up an average of 27.8 points in the First Round, has dropped to 11 in the Semi-Finals, with a 32% success rate. In Game 2, when the Mavs faded away after a good first half, only Reggie Bullock (16) and Spencer Dinwiddie (11) joined Doncic on double figures when it came to scoring. Dinwiddie, who had already had some pretty poor spells against the Jazz, isn’t at the level he needs to be: 9.5 points and 33% on shooting against the Suns’ tremendous defence. Add to that the number of fouls Dallas are picking up, and Dwight Powell’s inability to settle into the team, and the result is a shaky Mavericks side. When it comes to considering their chances of beating the Suns, at least. Not just in one game, but across a whole series.

Now, Kidd will have to make adjustments. It seems obvious that Powell - who has been ineffective against Deandre Ayton, has been swallowed up as a finisher of plays and has been totally dominated on rebounds - needs to hand almost all his minutes over to Maxi Kleber, who is more useful in a pairing like this and can contribute by scoring points and creating space for players such as the smothered Brunson. The Mavs can look to Doncic and greater effectiveness from their other shooters for fluent scoring… but they also need to transform their defence, which has been a strong point all season but, right now, is proving decidedly leaky against the surgical precision of the Suns’ offence, led by a Chris Paul who turns 37 today and is yet again performing exceptionally in this year’s Playoffs. A generational star.

Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd needs to make changes to avoid leaving Luka Doncic defensively exposed.
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Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd needs to make changes to avoid leaving Luka Doncic defensively exposed.Christian PetersenAFP

Dallas’ defensive tactics doing Doncic no favours

The Mavericks need to change their setup, one that left Doncic exposed in Game 2 as he endured what was, possibly, his worst night of the season defensively. In a campaign in which he has improved as a defender, and in which he has developed physically, Dallas’ struggles against the Suns have reopened the debate about his defending and his energy reserves. It’s simple: the Mavs’ style of switching their screens, which has been very useful against other teams, in this case allows the Suns’ Paul and Devin Booker to target Doncic on every offensive play, by having the screening action leave them ball-in-hand and up against the Slovenian. He ends up exhausted and without a second to catch his breath in defence, as well as having to carry his team’s entire offensive load. Above and beyond any question of his general physical condition and stamina, that’s quite a workload.

So in the second half of Game 2, chiefly orchestrated by Paul, the Suns made constant hay up against Doncic: in those 24 minutes, Phoenix left him as the defender against the creator of the pick and roll, and the Suns scored an average of 1.81 points per possession. Almost at a rate of a basket per attack. While far from being a specialist, Doncic isn’t as bad a defender as it seemed at some points in the final quarter. But against two past masters like Paul and Booker, and with gas running low, it’s mission impossible. If he stepped up to put the pressure on, he was easily beaten; if he dropped deep to protect himself, he was punished by a shot from mid-range, a lethal weapon that’s the trademark of a Paul-Booker backcourt. The Suns are much better than the Jazz. Amongst other things, when putting points on the board from dribbles and from mid-range shooting. Beyond the obvious difference in quality, a tactic that works against one team doesn’t necessarily work against another. That’s how it is when you get to the Playoffs.

With smaller fives and constant switching, a recipe for success against a lot of teams, such as the feeble Jazz of a few days ago, the Mavericks will almost always lose against the Suns. They need to alternate their defences, give more minutes to traditional operators in the paint, try to avoid Doncic being left with Paul or Booker after screening actions, and get him some help when he is. The Suns have sunk 57% of their shots in this series. In Game 2 - which went from 58-60 at half time to a final score of 129-109 - they reached 64%, with a 70% shooting percentage in the second half, when Paul and Booker amassed 58 points with a 22/35 shot rate. Doncic, meanwhile, dropped from 24 points in the first half to 11 in the second, for a total of 35. With not much help in offence and without protection in defence. And exhausted: he has played an average of 40 minutes in the first two games of a series in which, it’s worth repeating because it’s an important factor, has its first four matchups in the space of seven days.

Today it’s Game 3: the start of the fightback or the striking of an almost definitive blow. The Mavs need to change. Not so much improve: change. If they do the former, maybe they’ll win a game. If they do the latter, they’ll give themselves at least an outside chance of a series turnaround that would be historic. Because of the situation they’re in, and because of the fearsome team they’re up against.


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