The Phoenix Suns are on a quest to take one more step from their run to the NBA Finals last season, and they have been the best team in the league all season — but they are now one game away from their season fading below the horizon.
Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks have arrived… to the second round. The Mavericks have taken a step forward under Jason Kidd, but they are one game away from making the true “we have arrived” leap into the Western Conference Finals.
Mavericks vs. Suns, Game 7 is Sunday night (8 p.m. on TNT). The winner advances to face Stephen Curry and the Warriors; the loser has questions to answer about what is next. In a series where the home team has dominated, here are three things to watch for that very well may determine this game.
1) Does All-NBA Chris Paul show up?
Nobody doubts peak Luka Doncic will show up — last time he was in a Game 7, a year ago against the Clippers, he had 46 and 14 (and lost).
However, Paul has been up and down this series, hounded by Reggie Bullock into pedestrian outings the last few games. In Game 6 he was passive at times and never got going, finishing with 13 points, four assists and five turnovers. He had five points in Game 4 (when he battled foul trouble), and there were the seven turnovers in Game 3.
In Game 6, the Mavericks switched things up and put Dorian Finney-Smith on CP3, treating the 37-year-old like he didn’t want to shoot (and Finney-Smith has the length to at least trouble Paul). It worked. If the Mavs do it again, Paul has to make them pay with points.
Paul has been a clutch performer overall in his career, and the smart money is on him playing his best game of the series with the chips pushed into the middle of the table. But it’s not a sure thing. The Suns need the Chris Paul that is the glue of the offense, finding the mismatches and mistakes and making the Mavericks pay, plus scoring when needed. If not, Phoenix is going to be on vacation a lot earlier than expected.
2) Which defense dictates the flow of the game?
Dallas was quietly a top-10 defense in the NBA this season, and Jason Kidd has made smart adjustments as the series has worn on — having Reggie Bullock pressure Chris Paul for 94 feet, focusing the defense on taking away the midrange shots that fuel the Suns. Finney-Smith did an excellent job on Paul in Game 6, and in hounding Booker the games before. The other key to the Dallas defense in Game 6? It was Doncic’s best defensive game, and the Mavericks did a good job not switching and letting him get isolated. The Suns had hunted him to wear him out earlier in the series, but that didn’t work in Game 6.
Can Doncic and the Mavs defense do that for one more game?
The Suns were an elite defense all season, but they (and the Mavs) have been Jekyll and Hyde at home and on the road in this series. The good news for the Suns in Game 7 is that they are at home, where their role players have thrived.
Luka is Luka and going to get his (although the Suns need to make him work for it). When the Suns have won, they have taken the other players out of the game — Jalen Brunson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber. If the Suns can again turn Dallas into a one-man show, they will win.
3) This is where Deandre Ayton earns that contract
Ayton wanted max money in a contract extension before the season — and No. 1 picks usually get exactly that — but the Suns would not give it to him. It could have been a distraction for the Suns this season, but credit Paul and coach Monty Williams for not letting it become one.
If Ayton is going to earn that contract, this is the game. Dallas plays small and Ayton needs to punish them for that, both scoring and on the glass. Ayton has the athleticism to play a little on the perimeter and will have to, but if he is a force inside Dallas has a problem.
Ayton is averaging 17.5 points and 8.8 rebounds a game this season (close to his regular season numbers), but he has been up and down this series — 25 points in Game 1, nine in Game 2. Ayton had 21 points and 11 boards in the Game 6 loss, he needs that and more in this game.
The Mavericks have no answer for peak Ayton. Can he bring that in Game 7?