In the first regular season game at the Suns arena in almost ten months, Phoenix took care of business and beat Dallas, 106-102.
The Suns were able to control the flow of the game early, which is not unexpected for a team led by Devin Booker and Chris Paul, but nevertheless was good to see. Early on, the Suns were running hard off Dallas turnovers and missed shots (which there were a lot of). Booker and Mikal Bridges attacked the rim and got open shots inside.
They combined to score 19 of the Suns’ first 23 points.
Paul was an early sub out, which meant Cameron Payne entered the game to play alongside Booker around the 6-minute mark. Payne looked aggressive and like his usual slithery self during his first stint.
Cam with the spinorama! pic.twitter.com/IPI1v8aZ0B— FOX Sports Arizona (@FOXSPORTSAZ) December 24, 2020
On the other end, Bridges set an aggressive, physical tone against Luka Doncic. The MVP candidate started 0-6 from the field after he looked to stub his thigh coming around a screen while being defended like a glove by Bridges. However, Doncic responded at the end of the first period by drawing fouls repeatedly on Suns centers.
Both Deandre Ayton and Damian Jones accumulated three fouls each in the first quarter alone, which, with Dario Saric out, forced Monty Williams to have to play rookie Jalen Smith at center, something he did not seem to want to do.
Smith started the second period at the 5 with Jae Crowder at the 4. This was also when we saw Williams’ rotation when it came to staggering Booker and Paul. When it was time for Booker’s rest late in the first, Paul came back in along with Jevon Carter. The combos we’ll see early in the season seem to be Paul/Booker, Payne/Booker and Paul/Carter.
It wasn’t until early in the second when Paul checked out that we saw Payne and Langston Galloway on the floor together, the first minutes with neither of Paul or Booker. The Suns stayed afloat in those minutes thanks to a Galloway triple, a couple free-throws from Jae Crowder, and a floater from Payne.
Throughout training camp, Williams mentioned how he liked the idea of playing Crowder with the second unit, and sure enough, the veteran forward played extensively with the bench group in the first and second quarters. Time will tell if that means Cameron Johnson plays more with the starters.
When Booker checked back in at the 7:22 mark of the second, the Suns were up four, 33-29.
That roughly coincided with Doncic’s second-quarter stint, at which point the Mavericks’ offense started to come alive. Doncic assisted on two threes in his first few minutes in the game and the Mavs drew within two points, leading to a Suns timeout.
Matching Dallas, Williams went back to his starters at this point, and Bridges once again affected Doncic’s timing and the Mavs’ offense stagnated. The Suns built back a 9-point lead, finished off by a triple from Cameron Johnson followed by a sick dish from him to Bridges.
This was a beautiful :30 sequence by the Suns! pic.twitter.com/21A9pJ855h— FOX Sports Arizona (@FOXSPORTSAZ) December 24, 2020
The Suns went into the half up, 53-45, despite all the foul trouble. Doncic was 5-15 at the half while Booker and Bridges combined for 28 points on 9-14 shooting.
Booker opened up the second half trying to test the defense with pull-up threes while Doncic got into the paint to create shots for himself and his teammates. Both worked. That’s what you get when great players face off.
A few minutes later, we saw Ayton get to the free-throw line for some rare foul shots, but the big man somehow went 1-4. Of course that’s the kind of physical play you want to see from Ayton, but it seemingly corresponded with him getting in his own head about it. A moment later, he notched his fourth foul on a Doncic drive and Doncic gave the Mavs the lead by nailing both free-throws.
The Suns’ bigs really just could not stop fouling, so it wasn’t long before Jones gave up his fifth foul. That meant more Jalen Smith at center, which led us to a pretty fun lineup: Payne, Booker, Bridges, Johnson, Smith. Young, offensively potent, versatile. More please!
Really the story of the second half was Bridges just dominating. When all of Suns Twitter starts talking simultaneously about this being your breakout season, something good is happening. The third-year wing scored another five points in the third period and continued to stymie Doncic, who went into the fourth shooting 8-20 from the field.
There was also this nice little highlight showing how brilliant a basketball player Booker is in addition to being highly skilled and increasingly athletic:
Wonderful, impeccably timed play here by Cam Payne and Devin Booker. As Payne comes off the screen at the left wing, Booker cuts from the right wing. The pass comes around the free throw line, giving Booker a full head of steam to the cup. pic.twitter.com/zeIOP6r0TM— Positive Residual (@presidual) December 24, 2020
To start the fourth quarter, Williams brought Galloway off the bench again, this time alongside Payne, making it the fifth guard combo we saw on opening night (there was also a brief Payne/Carter stint). Galloway proceeded to hit an and-one triple from the corner the moment he checked in. The dude is a walking bucket.
However this meant we did not see E’Twaun Moore at all in the game. The vet who was one of the more lauded value signings in the NBA at the tail end of free agency now hasn’t seen the floor in the final preseason game or the first regular season game for the Suns.
A completely different version of Ayton came in around the 9-minute mark. This guy came in and immediately got two seal post-ups in the paint when Dallas tried to guard him with the undersized Maxi Kleber. Rather than fade away for jumpers, Ayton got into Kleber’s body and scored two quick buckets on hook layups inside.
After this one earlier in the game, there’s plenty of tape from opening night to show Ayton to keep convincing him he’s at his best when he uses his physicality and athleticism to create advantages on offense.
With a few minutes to go, Dallas made their run. From the 7:27 mark to the 3:38 mark, the Mavs outscored the Suns by 7 to tie the game at 96. Doncic started to gain some rhythm and kept getting to the free throw line, plus backup guard (and the man who stole the POY trophy from Bridges in 2018), Jalen Brunson, finished some bonkers shots at the rim.
Tie game. Four minutes to go. Basketball is fun!
Carlisle and the Mavs did a few things here. First they played with better pace in the halfcourt after often slowing down late in games last season. They also downsized with Kleber at center to pull Ayton out of the paint. Lastly, they started to have Dorian Finney-Smith screen for Doncic early in each possession to remove Bridges from his on-ball assignment guarding Doncic.
That left Doncic free to isolate on Johnson and score at will.
Paul nailed his signature mid-range pull-up jumper with just over a minute to go to put the Suns up, 103-100.
Then Doncic missed a pull-up three.
Next: Booker iso jumper from the same spot as Paul’s. Wet.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker back to back clutch shots from almost the same spot is beautiful. pic.twitter.com/YJUH608uQ4— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) December 24, 2020
Another Doncic score later, Booker missed a jumper over Kleber but Bridges grabbed the offensive rebound, forcing Dallas to foul Booker. He made both. The Suns went into a sideline out of bounds play by Dallas up 4.
The Mavs got a solid corner three out of the possession but missed.