The Phoenix Suns slumped to another defeat on Christmas Day, this time at the hands of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. The loss leaving the team in a tough spot as 2023 draws to a close, with only one win in their last six contests.
As is so often the case when Doncic plays the Suns, he was at his absolute best. The 50 points put up by the Slovenian the second time that has happened to the Suns in less than two weeks, with former Maverick Jalen Brunson doing the same thing in the New York Knicks' recent win in The Valley as part of this poor run of form.
Doncic is one of the best players in the NBA, and his work in the half-court is exceptional, and his play perfectly exposes the frailties of this Suns roster.
Beginning with the obvious - and any time you let somebody put up 50 against you - it means you simply have no answer for them. But to let that happen twice against players who have certain similarities in such a short space of time, means you have a full-blown problem. Doncic is better than Brunson, but both are excellent at taking their time and creating good looks in a half-court set.
Both can be slow-moving, but then can turn on the pace in an instant to create for their teammates. Both are excellent drivers of the basketball, but where Doncic especially excels is kicking it over to the weak side when he is being double-teamed. A skill Brunson also possesses, he's just not as tall or bulky as Doncic and so can't do so quite as easily.
Through 29 games played, it is becoming clear how and why players like Doncic are a real problem for the Suns. In terms of man-to-man defenders, about the best they have on their roster is Josh Okogie. Behind him, both Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon can stick to opponents for periods of time, but they are absolutely no match for Doncic.
If this is a problem in the regular season - and it absolutely is - then in the playoffs the Suns are going to get killed by an operator such as Doncic or Nikola Jokic. Another player who sets the table brilliantly, and who as a lumbering center can just bully his way into the soft underbelly of this group if he wants to as well.
To this point, the Suns rank second last in pace (98.7), which will likely come as a surprise to nobody, but which they need to try and rectify quickly. Part of the reason for their offensive struggles is the fact they're not executing, but then not getting as many opportunities as the Mavericks for example (16th, 101.4) to have another bite at the apple.
A player of Doncic's skill is always going to take advantage of this, and he was also able to expose the lack of paint protection that this Suns group has. Center Jusuf Nurkic missed the game through personal reasons, but even if he was out there, he's not the kind of big who can help much.
Chimezie Metu did what he could, and he did it well, but if you're relying on him to be a massive part of what you're trying to achieve, you can only go so far. This season the Suns rank 20th in opponent's points in the paint at 52.1, with a player like Doncic (or Brunson) able to get into the seams of the Suns without much fuss, before often finding the open man or cutter for an easy finish inside.
To add to the Suns' woes, they also rank 23rd in opponent's points scored off of turnovers, at 17.6 per game. This is not necessarily the fault of Devin Booker for example, although he has spent this season as the primary point guard on the team. But if you're going to let the below happen, then it is not just Doncic who is going to expose this lack of effort and care in what was a big game.
The defensive rating of the last seven games of 119.9 (20th) is nowhere near where the Suns need it to be in order to win big, and it is not just Doncic who has contributed to that. Brunson played his part as well, although there were soft defeats to the Brooklyn Nets and Portland Trail Blazers in there too. If one player personifies how to beat the Suns right now though, it is Doncic.
It didn't matter if Booker or Kevin Durant took turns guarding him - once he was set up in the half-court - he basically got whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. Given that the postseason will only lead to slower games, Doncic exposed arguably the biggest problem this roster has right now. They can't stop methodical star players who include their teammates to an alarming degree.