PHOENIX — Every time Luka Doncic turned a corner looking for daylight, there were dark jerseys around, equipped with long arms and anxious stares.
He made mincemeat out of Utah defenders a few days ago, but the Phoenix Suns are quite different. Deandre Ayton comfortably switched on him, and later, JaVale McGee made Doncic the No. 1 entry on his career highlight reel with a steal and Statue of Liberty-style dunk that set the Footprint Center crowd off on a high.
And that’s before you get to arguably the best collection of defensive wings in the game, led by Defensive Player of the Year finalist Mikal Bridges. Defending a nuclear weapon like Doncic requires all a team has to offer, and while Doncic still had a productive night, it wasn’t nearly enough to make Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal more than competitive in spurts.
Doncic appeared to be favoring his left thigh, but it only bothered him so much, as he finished with his sixth 40-point playoff game, a 45-point, 12-rebound, eight-assist offering. But Dallas moved to 2-4 in those contests, and a good amount was accumulated late when the game was essentially out of reach.
“He got whatever he wanted. You look at the shots, in the paint, behind the arc, midrange,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “I thought he played great. I know he’s gonna look at those turnovers [five] and say he can be better, but he did everything to help his team in position to try to win on the road.”
The Suns jumped on the Mavericks early, as both were still wearing their previous playoff opponent’s scent. Kidd warned his team about Ayton not being like Rudy Gobert, and it showed. Ayton tied Devin Booker for the most shot attempts (20), finishing with a workman-like 25 points and eight rebounds in 33 minutes.
It’s not that they’re conceding to Ayton, it could just be the best of all available options given how well and cohesive the Suns play together. Dallas doesn’t have the size to run at Ayton, and if it keeps the ball away from Booker and Chris Paul for extended stretches, Kidd and his staff could believe it’ll throw Phoenix’s precision offense out of rhythm.
It wasn’t over when the Suns took a 15-point lead eight minutes into the game, but it highlighted several things Dallas will have to address when all this is over. Jalen Brunson was a star in Dallas’ first-round series against Utah, particularly when Doncic was out with a calf strain. But he struggled to find space against those same long defenders Doncic was navigating against.
Doncic worked himself to a 50% night, but Brunson — who isn’t as physically imposing as his backcourt mate — didn’t have similar success. For Dallas to make the Suns do more than sweat, it’ll have to be Doncic, Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie applying the pressure with their shot creation.
Dinwiddie was a low-key 3-of-8 in 30 minutes, while Brunson was 6-of-16 in 31 minutes. Brunson will be a coveted free agent this summer and while valuable to Dallas, finding an athletic wing to play next to Doncic could be the ultimate goal in getting this franchise to a place of real championship contention.
“I don’t think offense was the problem tonight. On the defensive end, I think everybody was a little bit lazy, especially in the first half,” Doncic said. “Now we got to change them.”
Minus Doncic, Dallas shot 45% and felt like it had enough offense to compete. But the slow start seemed to doom the Mavericks.
“Getting [Brunson] going there in the second half, and Spencer, we gotta do a better job there,” Kidd said. “[Doncic] was good in the second half, too. We just gotta help get someone to join the party.
“I thought we were rushing a little bit there because we got off to a slow start. We’re on those shots we normally get, we just take our time. The game of basketball is about makes and misses, we didn’t shoot it well in the first half, we gotta bounce back.”
Until a big-name free agent takes Mark Cuban’s money, this is what Kidd has to work with — and it’s not that he doesn’t have capable players. Kidd has helmed the franchise to its first second-round appearance since 2011 — the year it won the NBA title.
For Dallas to become a fixture in these parts, keeping defensive attention occupied, especially vertically, is objective No. 1. At times, Doncic put Paul in the post to do damage, but it’s not like he can go to that strategy often.
Maxi Kleber was the only one to join the party, but despite his 19 points and five threes, he was being hunted on the defensive end.
And that dichotomy may very well spell doom in the big picture for the Mavericks, at least for now. For every leak that’s plugged, another one springs — and you can’t have that in May. They were outrebounded 51-36, and more than enough long rebounds stayed on the Suns’ side of the court, deflating any true comeback attempt.
Booker scored 23 with nine rebounds and eight assists. Paul was in his H-O-R-S-E bag, with tough fadeaways and leaning jumpers to score 19 with five rebounds and three assists, and reserve Cam Johnson scored 17 off the bench.
The Suns’ toughness and physicality were evident, perhaps indicative of their goal to avenge last year’s NBA Finals loss. Booker, who blocked Brunson’s shot from behind in the first half, talked trash to him and earned a technical foul.
Later, Doncic was doubled over after being kicked in the groin accidentally by Jae Crowder — one of his many defenders through the night.
“We gotta be more physical, we gotta play a little bit more faster,” said swingman Dorian Finney-Smith, who found himself guarding Ayton in the fourth quarter when the Mavericks went super small.
Finney-Smith is giving up four inches and 30 pounds to Ayton, so the battling rhetoric means a little more than the usual.
“We played with a lot more tenacity and fight that fourth quarter, so it was everybody moving and talking. It’s gotta be that way the whole game,” Finney-Smith said.
Dallas feels it found something late and it’s probably the best approach to take given the real answers won’t arrive until July.