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Game Preview: Suns-Mavericks rematch shows incredibly different paths since opening night

The Phoenix Suns kicked off the season with a blowout win over the Mavericks. Now they rematch on Thursday night.

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

What: Phoenix Suns (4-24) host Dallas Mavericks (15-12)

When: 8:30 p.m. AZ

TV: TNT... Yes, it’s on national television

Radio: 98.7 FM

Some of us can remember that opening night win over the “rebuilding” Dallas Mavericks.

That night Devin Booker scored 19 fourth-quarter points in the momentary unveiling of “Point Book,” breaking open a close game into an eventual 21-point win.

That night Trevor Ariza — the $15 million acquisition who would help the Suns change their culture for the better — nearly posted a triple-double (21 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists) in his Suns debut.

That night the Suns made 19 three pointers, dished 35 assists on 44 made baskets, and saw Deandre Ayton make his NBA debut with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists.

The Suns had arrived, and that “other” rookie was overrated, as some had believed.

Since then, these same Suns have won only three of 27 games while the Mavericks and that “other” rookie have vaulted into seventh place in the West — only two wins out of third place — by winning 15 of their next 25.


The Mavericks

That “other” rookie is 19-year-old Luka Doncic. Many Suns fans wanted Doncic in the draft and so far those fans have been justified in their desires.

Doncic leads all rookies in minutes per game (32.4), scoring (18.0), three point makes (2.2) and free throws made (3.7). He’s also second in assists (4.4) and third in rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.1).

The Slovenian sensation also makes highlights plays each night, and generally helps his team win games in his first season more than any rookie in recent memory.

But Doncic isn’t doing it alone and doesn’t have a pair of other rookies in the starting lineup with him.

The rest of the Mavericks’ rotation has one other young player (Dennis Smith Jr.) but otherwise has nobody under 25 years old playing more than 15 minutes per game. Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, Dorian Finney-Smith, J.J. Barea, Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell all have the life and NBA experience that almost no one in the Suns rotation has.

And the Mavericks have Rick Carlisle, who’s been one of the best coaches in the NBA for more than a decade. Even Carlisle couldn’t win more than 24 games last year when rookie Dennis Smith was his lead guard. But give him a sensational rookie and a veteran center who can anchor the middle and SO MUCH has changed for them.

The return of Dirk!

Reports have 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki making his season debut (ankle) tonight against the Suns.

I can’t wait to see Dirk and Doncic hitting daggers in the fourth quarter — assuming it’s still a game in the fourth quarter — on TNT tonight.


The Suns

It might not be a tight race, but Deandre Ayton still has the second-best odds at Rookie of the Year, behind Doncic.

Ayton leads all rookies in rebounds (10.2), double-doubles (16) and shots made per game (7.0), and is second in minutes per game (30.9) and scoring (15.8). He’s top eight in a half-dozen other categories as well.

Ayton is just scratching the surface of his NBA career. We all can see where he can improve, and so can Ayton himself. This season is the worst Ayton you’re ever going to see, and yet he’s a sure-fire First-Team All-Rookie anyway.

The Suns’ “other” rookies are showing up in a fun way. Non-Ayton Suns rookies are:

  • Second (De’Anthony Melton), third (Mikal Bridges) and eighth (Elie Okobo) in steals per game among rooks
  • Third (Melton) and sixth (Okobo) in assists per game
  • Sixth (Bridges) and seventh (Okobo) in three-point makes per game
  • All despite being only ninth (Bridges), 16th (Okobo) and 20th (Melton) in minutes

Oh, and if you didn’t guess, the Suns have BY FAR the fewest minutes played this season by players between the ages of 23 and 29 years old. You know, those years where players are at their basketball apex, with the best combination of athleticism and basketball IQ.

Directly correlated, the Suns have lost 24 of 27 games, including 10 straight.

Prediction tonight

Back to that opening night win over the Mavericks — that happened to be Ariza’s season high in points, assists and three-point makes. And now Ariza is out of the rotation while he awaits a trade.

In fact, only Deandre Ayton remains from that opening night starting lineup. Ariza (lame), Isaiah Canaan (released), Devin Booker (injuries) and Ryan Anderson (purgatory) won’t play for the Suns tonight. Now the starting lineup has three rookies, second-year puddly mess Josh Jackson and 3J Warren.

But can the new-look Suns win the game?

I loved, loved, loved the effort the Suns put out on Monday night at home against the Clippers. The Suns played well enough to win against a 17-8 team that sits near the top of the standings in the rugged West.

If the Suns can come with that same energy on TNT on Thursday night, they might actually be able to pull out this win.

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