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Preview: The Suns (10-8) face the Mavs (8-12) for final regular season face-off

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The Phoenix Suns try to sweep the Mavs for the 2020-21 season in tonight’s matchup in Dallas on NBATV

Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

What: Phoenix Suns (10-8) at Dallas Mavericks (8-12)

When: 6:30 p.m.

Where: Dallas, Texas

Watch: NBATV, Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


The Suns took care of business in the season opener, limiting Luka Doncic and getting the W. And then the Booker-less Suns closed out the Mavericks in thrilling fashion on Saturday night to go up 2-0 in the season series (and 7-1 since the Luka/Ayton draft).

The Mavericks are now quite desperate for a win, having lost five straight to drop to 13th in the West, while the Suns are trying to bring consistent effort and energy every game.

The Suns have won two straight now, getting their 10th win in only 18 games, the fastest they’ve gotten to 10 wins since the rebuild truly and completely began.


Injury reports

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker is QUESTIONABLE (hamstring strain); Dario Saric (COVID protocols), Cameron Payne (ankle/foot) are both OUT

Dallas Mavericks: Maxi Kleber (COVID protocols) is OUT


Projected starting lineups

Suns: Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton

Mavericks: Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Josh Richardson, Dorrian Finney-Smith, Kristaps Porzingis


Rivalry

Let’s talk about rivalries for a minute. With all the polarization of fans on the Luka/Ayton debate, dating all the way back to the 2018 Draft and continuing to this day, we tend to lose the concept of rivalry between teams and focus instead on who is the better player now and long term.

Frankly, Suns fandom has had to lay team-based rivalries dormant for years since the Suns have not been in the playoffs for a decade. There’s no pure rivalries among lottery teams because the nature of fighting for ‘worst’ at something is much much different than fighting for ‘best’ at something.

Finally, the Phoenix Suns are back to fighting for being the ‘best’ in each and every basketball game. And at the tip-off of every basketball game is some level of certainty that the Suns can/should win the game based on talent alone. This concept is foreign to many Suns fans, especially those younger fans who don’t even truly remember playoff-level basketball on a nightly basis. And any new emotions tend to be, well, not well-managed. Kinda like puberty. We’re in a puberty, or a rebirth, of fandom and team rivalries.

In this new world, the Mavericks ARE A RIVAL of the Suns. Both teams are expected to make the playoffs in the rugged West, meaning there is a likelihood they will face off against one another for a 7-game series to decide who goes home and who stay alive for another round against an even tougher opponent.

In that context of teams being rivals, it’s okay and natural to develop negative feelings towards the opponent’s best player (Luka Doncic in this case). Especially if that best player tends to play really well in the games and is a threat to making the winning shot. And especiallyESPECIALLY if that player whines lobbies constantly to the refs to gain more advantage than they already have with their talents alone. I’ll just mention the names of Kobe Bryant (Lakers), Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker (Spurs) as players that Suns fans held a grudge against for many years because they knocked the Suns out of the playoffs without apology. The only reason the Mavericks weren’t a more visceral rival in the SSOL era was because Dirk Nowitzki was just so damn nice and best friends with Steve Nash. But the teams were still rivals.

Fast forward to 2021, the Mavericks and Grizzlies and maybe the Jazz are the first real budding rivalries to bloom so far in this Suns resurgence, but you can expect more to come. Not sure why Denver hasn’t joined the list yet, but the animosity to Denver as a team simply hasn’t materialized.

It’s okay for Suns fans to dislike Luka for reasons having NOTHING to do with the 2018 Draft and everything to do with him and his team being our rival. It’s okay to hope he misses all his shots. It’s okay to fist-pump when Ayton or Bridges stonewalls him. It’s okay to enjoy seeing him huff and puff when he doesn’t get a foul call he wants.

It’s all okay because they/he are a RIVAL.

Some Suns-Mavs numbers:

  • The Suns all-time record against the Mavericks is 90-74, but only 35-47 in Dallas
  • The Suns are 7-1 against the Mavericks since the 2018 Draft, if that matters to you
  • In the head to head matchup, the Suns are 6-1 against the Mavericks when both Ayton and Doncic play
  • The Suns are 2-0 against the Mavericks this season

Phoenix Suns

10-8; 6th in the Western Conference

ORtg 109.8 (17th) - DRtg 107.1 (5th) = netRtg 2.7 (10th)

The Suns may or may not have Devin Booker back in the lineup on Monday night because they are being extremely cautious of the hamstring and don’t want it to linger for weeks or months to come. They’d rather he just get healthy.

As it is, the Suns have won their last two games without Booker after going 0-7 without him the last two seasons. This is a great development, and a testament to Chris Paul who led the Suns on Saturday night to the win. Paul accounted for 30 of the Suns 34 fourth-quarter points via score/assist. I’m glad to see All-Star level Chris Paul emerge.

After melting down this season in the fourth quarter prior to that Golden State game, ranking 5th-worst in the NBA in point differential at -8.2 efficiency (per 100 possessions), the Suns have been a +9 on the same scale in the last two wins.

It helps that the deep guards have played better. All of E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Abdel Nader have played better than expected while Booker (hammy), Payne (foot/ankle) and Jevon Carter (coach decision) have been out.

It also helps that Frank Kaminsky is finding ways to contribute through his high post passing/playmaking to offset his defensive and scoring limitations.

But most of all, it helps that the Suns have the league’s 5th best defense to offset their still-bad shooting efficiency. We have not seen a top-5 of even top-10 defense in a long time in the valley — dating all the way back to Jason Kidd years — so we’re confused and sometimes weirdly disappointed with the team wins ugly, but they can do it and you should be thankful. These Suns play hard on defense, and we need to start to appreciate that.

Dallas Mavericks

8-12; 13th in the Western Conference

ORtg 109 (19th) - DRtg 111 (20th) = netRtg -2.1 (20th)

The Mavericks are struggling right now. They can’t shoot, especially Luka Doncic who is making less than 30% of his threes on 7+ attempts per game. It doesn’t help that they traded away Seth Curry, and lost Maxi Kleber (COVID) for the moment, but mostly the entire team has regressed this season badly so far. That year, most of this same lineup had the best offense in league history (points per possession), but this year they are only 19th.

I would expect a big correction to the mean for the Mavs coming soon, starting with a blip where the whole lineup starts draining a ton of threes again and people to predict the Mavs will make the Finals. But the first 20 games or so shows us this Mavs team is lacking overall and will be just as worried, if not more worried, as the Suns about playoff positioning as the season goes on.

The Mavs challenges outside the three-point shooting include their struggles on defense — you can’t win a ton of games with a bottom-10 defense if your offense isn’t “best ever” like last year. Sure, the Mavericks will make the playoffs this year. But they won’t go far without better defense.


Prediction

This will no doubt be a tough matchup as two potential playoff teams face off. However, the Suns have shown they can beat the Mavericks. Tough to see the Mavericks losing their 6th straight game, but then again they don’t seem to have all the answers right now.

Expect Kristaps Porzingis to return to the Mavericks lineup, possibly injecting some life into a desperate team.

The Suns have already won the season series by winning the first 2 of the expected 3-game series, giving the Suns a playoff tiebreaker if needed. Winning tonight is important on that front, though, just in case the league decides to switch up the second-half schedule to include more conference games and less travel.

Suns 108, Mavs 102