Dallas evened the second-round series at three games apiece on Thursday night, while Phoenix dropped three of the last four. One of the league’s most effective attacks has slowed to a crawl in Game 7. Meanwhile, the Mavericks have found a winning recipe, and an upset on Sunday afternoon is quite likely.
We didn’t anticipate this match to be so intense only a week ago. The Suns raced to a 2–0 lead in Game 2 behind 58 points from Chris Paul and Devin Booker, ending Dallas’ postseason run. The script has since been reversed. In Game 6, Booker went 6-for-16 from the field and 0-for-4 from three.
Paul has 25 points in the previous three games. Dallas has bottled up a formerly devastating offense, and its success is due to more than just shooting luck. Such suffocating defense seemed unfathomable for the Mavericks at this time last year. Last season, Dallas finished 20th in defensive rating, allowing 126 points in a first-round defeat to the Clippers in Game 7.
Jason Kidd’s entrance altered everything. In his first season as coach, he and his staff persuaded Dallas into a top-10 defense, and after the departure of Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks finally found their stride.
Dallas spends huge amounts of time in games without a traditional center, with $52 million man Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock serving as impact defenders on the wing. Frank Ntilikina is finally becoming a strong defensive player, with four steals in 21 minutes on Thursday night. Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns is an impressive talent, but he is no Joel Embiid or Nikola Joki.
Ayton prefers to rely on his mid-range jumper and over-the-shoulder hook, not troubling the defense from three or constantly attacking the basket. An undersized unit is flourishing because he failed to punish Dallas in the paint.
This small-ball strategy is paying off, which is a compliment to Dallas’ front office. Many felt the Mavericks’ trade of Porzingis was a wise long-term decision that would likely still dampen their Finals prospects. That hasn’t happened. Dwight Powell is currently the rotation’s sole real rim runner, and every other lineup paired Luka Doni with a quartet of spacers or backup ball-handlers.
Jalen Brunson appears to be gliding to the rim at will, and Dallas isn’t squandering opportunities on unnecessary post-ups or contested pick-and-pop threes. This is a supporting cast that perfectly complements the superstar’s talents. Such harmony may be sufficient to overcome any perceived talent discrepancy between these two squads.
It isn’t easy to see Sunday going near as horribly as Thursday night for the reigning Western Conference champions. Booker had eight turnovers in Game 6—the Suns totaled 22, and 30 points outscored Phoenix from three-point range.
A return to familiar confines in Game 7 should help square out the three-point difference, and despite a rather shaky résumé, Paul’s considerable postseason experience is valuable. After a two-season run of near domination, Phoenix remains the favorite here.
Despite the home-court advantage, one can’t help but wonder whether we’re on the verge of an upset to cap off the weekend. The Mavericks are constantly attacking the rim and producing open triples. They’re suffocating Phoenix’s dynamic backcourt. They’ve established a successful rotation, and if you haven’t noticed, they have by far the greatest player in the series. As Game 7 approaches, we should remember Kidd’s thoughts on his franchise hero seven months ago.