The Phoenix Suns made quick work of the Dallas Mavericks earlier this season, pulling out their brooms to sweep them three games to zero. However, almost nothing can be drawn from those outings.
The former two contests were without the services of superstar Luka Doncic, and the latter game occurred against an entirely different Dallas team—one featuring Kristaps Porzingis, and even Tim Hardaway Jr., who’s been ruled out for the rest of the season with a fractured left foot.
The Mavs started the season 16-18, struggling to find their identity under new head coach and former Maverick (and Sun) Jason Kidd.
However, at the turn of the calendar, they readjusted their sails and began ascending toward elite status. After trading Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, they went 19-6 from February 15th through to the finish line.
In that window, they put up the league’s most wins and highest winning percentage. They fortified their rotation while supplying Doncic with a third option to both play within tandem, and someone to help keep the offense humming when he hits the bench.
Offensively, Dallas played at the slowest pace this year behind the heliocentric initiation, isolation, and mid-post touches of Doncic. They established the league’s third best half court offense with 103.8 points per 100 plays, the fourth highest effective field goal percentage at 56.8 percent, and the fourth best true shooting mark at 60.1 percent. They also claimed the ninth best net rating (+3.6) in that window.
Dallas ranked fifth in isolation frequency and second in points on such plays. They ran the pick-and-roll about as frequently as the Suns do, and outranked them in the 86th percentile for efficiency for ball-handlers on such sets.
They possess three creators in their 5-out offense. Outside of those three, everyone else spaces the floor. Their two frontcourt pieces in Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber both resemble talented bigs with jumpers. Powell especially has a propensity for playmaking on the short roll for both himself and being their connector, getting the ball from play initiators to their shooters in a timely and accurate fashion.
Their offense carries a free flowing feel of randomness at times as they freelance off Doncic’s strengths. Funneling an array of ghost screens, slips, and pops while simultaneously having players cut to take advantage of his elite passing ability, they all work like a finely tuned machine.
Independent of Doncic, Jalen Brunson is having a career season under Kidd, in a contract year no less. Kidd granted him the freedom to create at will as a combo guard, averaging 4.8 assists and 16.3 points per game on .502/.373/.840 splits.
He dominates from the mid-range where he ranks in the 89th percentile. He cooks from the short mid-range especially, where he ranks in the 91st percentile. Brunson carries a short center of gravity and quickness in space with great footwork, deceptive and savvy up fakes, a tight handle, and soft touch.
Dinwiddie averaged 15.8 points and 3.9 assists on .498/.404/.725 splits in his 23 games played down the stretch. He also included a few game-winners and clutch plays while doing so—proving his worth and then some.
Defensively, the Mavs clocked in as a middling 16th in rating and 10th in the half court, letting up 95.2 points per 100 plays. Their defensive efficiency ranked eight overall. Dallas frequently conceded offensive rebounding in valuing transition defense, ranking thirds in defensive points added there on the season,
Inclined to the blocks and elbows, they emphasize protecting the paint, surrounding the ball with consistent coverage, and length converging in the middle. They also protect the 3-point line exceptionally well, ranking third in opponent percentage at 34.5 percent, and seventh in attempts allowed.
They do this by running guys off the arc and deploying an often-switching scheme both on-ball and off it, as their playoff rotation is filled to the brim with six-foot-five athletes, sans Brunson.
Dallas also traps or hard-hedges in empty corners or empty side actions against their opponents, erring on trying to generate deflections and establish a pace that benefits their slow tempo.
The Suns will be up against a contrasting method of play with this Dallas squad, as they’re a lot closer to the 40 attempts per game mark from deep than the youthful Pelicans—with a stark contrast in pace as well.
Phoenix Suns vs Dallas Mavericks: X-Factors on Both Sides of the Ball
For the vast majority of the time, expect Bridge and Ayton to draw the Doncic assignment. Jae Crowder might make a few occasional appearances on-ball, but is more likely to only provide help on doubles.
Doncic remains one of the league’s most frequent users of the screen, and he’s as crafty as it gets in manipulating, playmaking, and scoring out of this two (and sometimes three) man action.
I’ve mentioned Bridges and Ayton being one of the most elite defensive pick-and-roll tandems in the league, and they’ll be tested here more than at any other point in these playoffs.
Those two doing what they can with Ayton’s versatility in coverages and Bridges’s point of attack pressure will be vital. The sniping capabilities of Doncic’s supporting cast are proven, and the Suns will need to stay disciplined and avoid over-helping to free any of them up.
Ayton and his play represent perhaps the biggest x-factor in this series. The Mavericks resemble a full-time small ball team, as their 5-out offense suggests. That poses a challenge that most feel will be tough on Ayton, but neither he nor his teammates view it as something to worry about.
Ayton feels due for an utterly dominant series, one that will likely see him outperform what was a career-series against the Pelicans. He displayed significant growth last series in bumping with bruiser Jonas Valanciunas, and can now comfortably play as an aggressor down low.
Aside from him in the paint, the Suns should be able to put into action all of their off-script flow offensively, generating paint touch after paint touch. Their transition pre-screens to induce switches (manipulating more favorable matchups) to then flow into their primary actions will be plentiful.
Watch for ghost screens and slips to become common practice along the wings, as well as short-roll playmaking and passing away from double teams.
Kleber is typically the more versatile pick and roll defender for Dallas, as Powell is more inclined to drop coverage—so methodical manipulation of each is sure to take place accordingly. Generating rim pressure must become emphasized as the Mavericks tend to soften up there no matter which big lurks down low. Aside from that, expect Chris Paul and Devin Booker to also find midrange looks from buzzer to buzzer. The same goes for Bridges and Ayton.
How Dallas decides to match up in terms of personnel will be intriguing, as they possess a few players which Paul and Booker will surely hunt, as well as see plenty of boomerang passes between the two to get into their isolation sets once this occurs.
The Mavericks will be hard-pressed in taking anything away from the Suns, as Phoenix should dictate everything offensively.
On defense for the Suns, they need continued connectivity as Doncic resembles one of the best playmakers in the league, and is surrounded by seven players shooting north of 35.0 percent from deep. Plus, with their shot profile illustrating that most of their shots come from deep, specifically above the break, closing out and recovering promises to be key.
Phoenix will surely extend their off-ball pressure in denial, essentially applying pressure on Doncic, but living with his potential (nearly inevitable) pyrotechnics in scoring—while hopefully stopping his supporting cast from doing the same.
Phoenix Suns vs Dallas Mavericks: The Chess Match
The Suns are as savvy as it gets with counters and real-time adjustments. Doncic is a premier manipulator of opposing tactics, possessing a high-game IQ and thinking the game through extremely well.
But the Suns wield counters for his inevitable “mismatch hunting,” with their scram switching. They also are accustomed to doubling from the passer, often with Cameron Johnson stepping up to provide the help.
Deploying these tactics as well as plenty others in zoning up on the weak sides, x-ing out to their shooters, the peel switching on drives, and remaining both on time and sharp in their collective communication will all be tested and in effect, in abundance, to counter Doncic’s tactics.
The stage is set for these two methodical, high-powered, and heavyweight offenses to clash. Phoenix’s strength in defense and personnel will be fun to watch as they battle Doncic and company. This series promises to offer high-level play with two of the league’s most exciting brands of basketball sharing a stage, and fighting to move onto an even larger one.