How did the Phoenix Suns Get into this Spot with the Dallas Mavericks?

Phoenix Suns. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Phoenix Suns. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The Phoenix Suns took a commanding 2-0 lead over the Dallas Mavericks to start the second round of the NBA Playoffs. However, as it stands, we find ourselves staring right back at an even series. The energy, the offensive fluidity, everything has shifted for the Suns.

So, what happened?

Defensive Game Planning 

Phoenix has the luxury of options, more so than almost anyone in the league. Up until Game 3, it seemed nearly impossible for the Mavs to take any of them away, especially in the fourth quarter.

In Games 1 and 2, they were throwing Luka Doncic and their big men into the fire. Allowing switch after switch they either compromised the defense by dragging out the Mavs best rim protectors, or took advantage of Doncic’s slower feet in isolation. Mavs coach Jason Kidd even made it a point to hold Doncic accountable for his defensive effort in the Game 2 post-game presser.

In response, Games 3 and 4 saw the Mavs essentially blitz every Chris Paul or Devin Booker pick-and-roll. They hedged screens, doubled at the point of attack, and had defenders fight over screens to ensure none of the same easy looks came for the Suns.

They wanted to show length at every opportunity and subsequently take away lanes into the mid-range by placing bodies directly around every corner. They strived to make the Suns guards beat them with their playmaking rather than allowing them to score at will.

This strategy proved fruitful, because while Booker enjoyed a hot Game 4 shooting-wise, he posted 10 turnovers over his last two games, as well as being limited to only 18 points on 13 shots in Game 3.

CP3 on the other hand has had an extremely rough go at it since Game 2, finishing with an uncharacteristic seven turnovers in Game 3 and a combined 13 shot attempts across the last two games.

While there’s something to be said about the nature of his six foul calls in Game 4, and that being part of the reason for such a low amount of shots, it’s undeniable that the Mavs have been successful in preventing CP3 from attaining his regular mid range looks, whereas before they were essentially letting him stroll right into them.

There is also something to be said about the fact that the Mavs have not had to guard Ayton for multiple games now, even despite having no real answer for him down low and Phoenix’s guards struggling with doubles out on the perimeter. In a potentially winnable Game 4, Ayton saw six total touches and one shot attempt in the entire fourth quarter.

All the while, the Suns were preoccupied with driving into help and kicking out to 3-point shots that were not falling. If the Mavs are able to negate the pick-and-roll by sending extra help, then you essentially take Ayton out of the series because for one reason or another, the Suns are fixated on using him as if he’s JaVale McGee with a jump shot, instead of allowing him to make the game easier for his perimeter threats.

Team Ball 

In Games 1 and 2, the Suns strategy remained simple: let Doncic get his points and hold tight on everyone else. In Games 3 and 4 we saw a lot of over-helping in reaction to Doncic’s increased amount of switch hunting and paint touches, resulting in many closeouts that happen well after the Mavericks shooters are already mid-shot.

Because of the increasingly open looks the Mavs shooters have been provided with, they’ve been red hot from beyond the arc. This coupled with their secondary scoring options such as Jalen Brunson getting more on ball touches as the series progresses means that everyone who’s a threat to score is in a better rhythm.

Going Forward

The Phoenix Suns need to decide what they want to give up, because so far, giving up open shot after open shot to stop Doncic has been the losing formula. They also need to decide what their identity is on offense going forward, because the Mavs are getting used to neutralizing the usual looks off of the Sun’s DHO and pick-and-roll centered offense.

Booker has done a solid job penetrating and kicking despite the limited looks, and role players typically shoot better at home, so count on a regression to the mean soon. On top of this, it’s unlikely that all of the Mavs role players continue to shoot such scorching percentages, especially if Phoenix’s rotations tighten up.

However if CP3 continues to struggle, they will need to find better ways to approach the game other than mainly relying on their guards.

The fact is, the Suns will continue to struggle throughout the playoffs if Booker cannot get some scoring backup, and thanks to Cameron Payne’s offensive fall off, it’s become even more apparent that this Suns roster, while complete and capable of making a title run, lacks scoring versatility while relying too heavily on tough shots, and thus far streaky jump shooting to close out games.

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My worry is that teams can make the Suns look regular if CP3 and Book do not have prolific nights every night. Depth is a blessing, but right now the Suns need to reclaim their defensive identity, and they need to have at least two out of the three the best players on the court in order to get past Doncic’s playmaking onslaught.