Tuesday, May 24, 2022 May 24, 2022
75° F Dallas, TX
Basketball

How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Phoenix Suns? Start With Belief

History says the Mavericks shouldn't win this series. Here's what has to happen for them to buck the odds.
By  |
Image
Chris Paul presents problems whether he's shooting the ball or creating for others. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

After 11 long years, the Dallas Mavericks finally made it out of the first round of the NBA playoffs. Now, to become more than just a feel-good story, they’ll have to go against all odds—and I literally mean “all,” as none of ESPN’s 20 NBA experts picked the Mavericks to upset the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Semifinals. 

And who can blame them? The Suns are the NBA’s best team by a wide margin—Phoenix won eight more games than second-place Memphis—and are only the 25th team to win at least 64 games since the NBA settled on the 82-game regular-season schedule in 1967. Fifteen of those previous 24 went on to win the NBA title. Only two failed to advance beyond the second round: the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs and a team most Dallas fans want to forget, the 2006-07 Mavericks, who got ambushed by Don Nelson and the “We Believe” Warriors in the first round.

So this is not a typical No. 4-seed-meets-No. 1-seed matchup. History is hardly on the Mavericks’ side, which is why they need belief most of all. If the Suns’ record weren’t enough, the Mavericks will be facing their demons, too, needing to win four games against a team they haven’t beaten once in their last nine tries, dating back to Luka Doncic’s rookie season. They haven’t taken down Phoenix at all since Monty Williams took over as the Suns’ head coach. 

The Suns and the Mavericks are built similarly. In a way, the Suns look a lot like a supercharged, big-brother version of the Mavericks. Both teams have elite ball handlers who can manipulate any pick-and-roll defense, surrounded by top-notch specialists. In the Suns’ case, specialist might be an understatement: if Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton are not stars already, they could be soon enough. If the Mavericks’ first-round series against the Jazz was a tactical chess match, this one might turn out into a Big Bang Theory-esque “Tri-Dimensional Chess” showdown between the two of the most methodical teams in the NBA. Both teams finished in the top three in half-court offense efficiency, led by two pick-and-roll maestros in Luka Doncic (first in pick frequency league-wide) and Chris Paul (third).

So, do the Mavericks have a chance? Here’s what I have my eye on. 

Things to Watch When the Mavericks Have the Ball

I’ll start with the defense because while most of the Suns talk focuses on how awesome Paul, Devin Booker, and their supporting cast are at scoring, this team is equally intimidating without the ball. The Suns finished the season ranked third on offense and defense, but if I’m Jason Kidd, the question of how to score consistently against them scares me more than what happens on the other side of the floor. 

The Mavericks haven’t solved this version of the Suns’ defense yet, turning in below-average offensive performances in each of the last six games by averaging a mere 103 points per game. The Suns’ defense takes away the best shots in basketball—at the rim and corner threes—and makes their opponents shoot from the dreaded midrange at a rate better than all but one team in the league. The Mavs’ offense revolves around Doncic’s ability to manipulate a defense, get it into rotations, and generate open looks for the shooters in the corners. They’ve done none of those things well during the last two seasons’ worth of matchups against Phoenix. 

Yes, Doncic missed two of the three matchups this season, and, sure, the team’s offense (and spacing) improved significantly since the Porzingis trade. But the fact is that the Suns know how to force the Mavericks into uncomfortable situations, and their pick-and-roll defense has a lot to do with that. It starts with Bridges, who is not only one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA but plays even more impactful help defense. The Suns play a lot of traditional drop coverage with Ayton, who improved significantly as the backline defender. They put additional pressure on the ball handler with aggressive help from the nail—the spot in the middle of the free-throw line usually used for the placement of a help defender—and wing positions while staying attached to the corners. Bridges disrupts a lot of initial pick-and-roll actions with his length and ability to lurk in the gaps, stunt, and still recover quickly enough to close out on the perimeter. Meanwhile, Paul, Booker, and Jae Crowder aren’t on Bridges’ level as on-ball stoppers, but they can all switch on the ball and are smart positional help defenders. Here’s what all that looks like (pay attention to the Suns’ help defense).

Getting by the perimeter defender and finding an open man was good enough for the Mavericks to defeat the Jazz, but they’ll need to be far more patient to beat this Suns defensive scheme. Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, and especially Maxi Kleber will need to make fast decisions and shoot or cut from the wing without hesitation. Doncic will need to do what he did to the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac last postseason and expose the Suns’ bigs after every switch and hit his step-back threes at a high rate (the good news is Doncic has made 44 percent of his step-backs since February and 47 percent when a center is defending him). 

Meanwhile, Brunson needs to silence his last critics by showing he can score against long defenders. He and Spencer Dinwiddie will need to be quick to attack the gaps, keep the Suns scrambling, and find holes in their second or third rotation. To do that—especially down the stretch—the Mavericks will have to play with more pace and get into their sets faster. Running your first (and only) pick-and-roll action with eight seconds remaining on the shot clock won’t fly against the best clutch team in the NBA. Hopefully, Games Four and Six in Salt Lake City were big enough warnings for Kidd and Doncic to rethink and course correct.

Things to Watch When the Suns Have the Ball

The Suns are a two-headed snake on offense. While Booker is the leading scorer and an elite finisher, it is Paul who runs the show and methodically picks apart opposing defenses. It will be interesting to see how Kidd uses his defensive stopper Finney-Smith at the beginning of the series. A long defender making life difficult for Booker is probably the obvious choice. It worked on Donovan Mitchell, and it’s worked against Booker in the past, too: per Second Spectrum tracking data, Finney-Smith was the best defender among those who guarded Booker on more than 100 actions over the last three seasons. If the Mavericks go that route, it means Bullock will need to harass Paul while trying to fight his way through countless screens. Kidd knows you can’t contain a player like Paul, which means the best you can do is try to keep him off balance by throwing different coverages at him. 

One interesting curveball the Mavericks have tried in the past is putting Kleber on Paul, since starting the possession with size on Paul allows Dallas to switch the pick-and-roll actions. Here’s where the problems set in. Using Kleber on Paul means another big will need to be in the lineup to match up with Ayton. The Mavericks were successful at defending the Mitchell and Gobert pick-and-roll attack in the first round, but Paul is a way better and more willing passer than any of the Jazz guards. He’ll punish mismatches by finding the bigs under the rim with lobs or feeding them with a perfect pocket pass on the short roll. And once Paul does, Ayton presents a new set of problems the Mavericks’ defense didn’t face with Gobert. The Arizona product has great hands and a soft touch, which makes his pairing with Paul one of the deadliest pick-and-roll combos in the NBA. If Ayton continues with his hot shooting—70 percent from the floor and 61 percent from midrange against the Pelicans in the first round—the Mavericks will be in trouble. 

Defending such a sophisticated pick-and-roll attack requires a sound scheme and all five defenders playing in sync, something the Mavericks’ defense proved to be capable of on many occasions this season. Kidd and defensive coordinator Sean Sweeney managed to slow down players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum and the Jazz’s high-octane offense with aggressive schemes and by finding and exposing the weak link. In the first round, that was Royce O’Neal. If Phoenix has one, it might be ex-Maverick Jae Crowder. The veteran forward sunk only three of 26 three-point attempts in the first round, and while the Suns have other alternatives behind Crowder if he continues to struggle—notably, Cameron Johnson and Landry Shamet—all of them are downgrades who will make life for Doncic and Brunson easier on the other end. No matter what, this series will also probably be less taxing defensively for Doncic, who was continuously attacked by the Jazz on switches. The Suns’ guards do not have the same blow-by speed that Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson possess, and Phoenix is not a team that likes to play isolation-heavy basketball to begin with.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, how both teams defend countless screen and double pick-and-roll actions—like the Mavericks, the Suns are the masters of the stack pick-and-roll—on both ends, will determine the winner of this series. 

Let’s be clear, though: a lot of things will have to go right for Dallas to pull one of the biggest upsets in recent playoff history. Doncic will need to impose his will and be the best player in the series. Brunson probably won’t average 28 points per game like he did against the Jazz, but he will need to keep scoring in the twenties. Spencer Dinwiddie will need to help the Mavericks’ win the battle of the benches. The defense will need to find ways to put pressure on Paul and keep Booker in check. 

The Mavericks’ best hope is to hang in there, somehow get to Game Six or even Game Seven and cross their fingers that the Suns’ floor general wears down as the series progresses. Paul, who will turn 37 before Game Three on Friday, averaged 37 minutes per game and had to carry a heavy load with Booker out with a hamstring injury for most of the Suns’ hard-fought first-round series win against the New Orleans Pelicans. Maybe he wears down, or maybe Booker is still well below full strength. The Mavericks might need at least one of those to have a realistic hope of winning this series. 

The odds are not great, but Jason Kidd showed many times this season that one of his greatest strengths is instilling confidence in Ted Lasso-ish fashion. The Mavericks will need every bit of it, along with their best play, to shock the NBA world.

Author

Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

View Profile
Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…