The Phoenix Suns went from ‘could be a dominating sweep!’ to ‘could be a devastating early playoff exit’ to ‘bring on the Warriors in the Conference Finals!’ in the span of five short days.
Five of the Suns six playoff series over the past two seasons have gone six games. The Denver Nuggets series was a four game sweep, but all of the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, Pelicans and now Dallas Mavericks series have gone (at least) six games.
Of those five long series, the Suns were tied 2-2 in four them. In three of those, that 2-2 tie came with a Game 4 loss.
So why were fans so frustrated about a 2-2 tie this time? Because expectations have shifted. A year ago we knew the Suns were very good but, after a decade without them, we were just happy to be in the playoffs at all.
This year, apparently every series needed to go five games or less, every win by 20 and every rare loss an unexpected, unrepeatable event. Unfortunately, that’s almost never how the playoffs go.
Now, the Suns righted the ship once again. They won Game 5, and now have a 3-2 series lead for the 4th time in 5 tries.
And they didn’t just win Game 5. They trucked the Mavericks in the process, outscoring the Mavericks 80-42 from the 7:24 mark of the second quarter through the end of the game. That included a 52-22 run with mostly starters for both teams from mid-second quarter to the end of the third.
“They went on their run, however long it was,” Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson said. “And there was no looking back for them. I’ve got to give them credit, we just have to be better together.”
Devin Booker was the Suns leading scorer with 28 points on 11-19 shooting, all by the end of the third quarter. Deandre Ayton added 20 points and 9 rebounds, while Chris Paul had a quiet 7 points but very impactful 10 assists. Cameron Johnson had 14 points off the bench.
The Suns didn’t blow out the Mavericks with offense (they only had 49/37/75 shooting splits) but rather with a defense that generated 12 turnovers (7 on steals) in the third quarter alone. For the game, they allowed Dallas only 9 assists against 16 turnovers, a 1:2 ratio that’s almost unheard of, and 38/25/66 shooting splits.
“The Suns did a great job defensively by keeping us pinned on the perimeter so we will give them credit,” Dallas head coach Jason Kidd said.
“We had a great deal of focus on the game plan, personnel,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “And rebounding, was something that, even if we didn’t come up with the board, we had three, four, guys in the paint scrapping for the rebound. But the defense tonight was the backbone of our program.”
The Mavericks had made 20 threes in Game 4 and got off 39+ attempts in all four games, but in Game 5 they only got 32 threes up, making just 7 of them.
“I thought we had really good awareness to steal out to their shooters and get a hand up and we were pretty good at contesting,” Williams said.
Many of their threes this series have been generated by Luka Doncic or Jalen Brunson driving into the paint, forcing help from the wing, then kicking it out for an open three. Those lanes were clogged off on Tuesday by defenders who put more trust into the primary defender to do their job. Doncic only finished with 2 of the Mavericks 9 total assists.
Dallas had also been slowing down the pace dramatically in their two wins, using the entire shot clock to get the matchup and shot they wanted, often draining a three as the shot clock buzzer sounded.
The Suns don’t like that pace. They put pride in their defense to force misses and turnovers, to get out in transition and make quicker buckets. Their effort to increase pace really started to shift at the beginning of that surge, outscoring the Mavericks 19-8 to take a halftime lead and then blowing the doors off the arena with a defensive third quarter that’s probably the best we’ve seen this whole playoffs.
“Coach is coming in with the adjustments and we make them and we follow it,” Booker said of what changed from Game 4 to Game 5. “We prided ourselves on the defensive end all year. I think that’s when we’re at our best, when we’re not taking the ball out of the hoop and having to play a slower-paced game. We like getting stops, getting out in transition because we have a lot of athletes, a lot of people that can make plays for each other.”
As Damon Allred wrote earlier, the Suns made some personnel changes too. They took Cameron Payne out of the rotation (he’s too small to hold up against Luka Doncic in one-on-one situations), giving Landry Shamet and Devin Booker more of the minutes at secondary ball-handler. And they gave Bismack Biyombo minutes ahead of JaVale McGee for his ability to defend on the perimeter in space better than the latter.
But most of the improvements came from the regular personnel. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson, Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul all played better in their minutes on defense than they had most of the series, especially when isolated against the 6’8” 270 pound point guard Luka Doncic.
“We accepted the challenge, man,” said Deandre Ayton afterward.
“I thought did a really good job of pressuring a bit more tonight,” Williams said of Bridges, who gives up at least 50 pounds to Luka. “We were a bit more physical against [Doncic]. He has a high release and he can make tough shots because of that release and he’s longer than you’d think, but I thought Mikal, Jae, and Chris, with this ability to take charges, they were a bit more physical with him tonight and you have to do that, to the legal limit, especially in the playoffs and then just force him to shoot a tough two as best as you can, but trying to keep him in front, is a tall task for any team.”
The Suns hounded the ball a lot more intensely in Game 5, staying in front of the ball better, and allowing their teammates to stay home on the waiting three-point shooters. Once they found a rhythm, Dallas had no answers.
“That was our main point,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “Like I said, they will live and die by the three. They have great shooters over there, and you just got to have a certain sense of urgency when you’re closing out to them.”
Ayton was thrilled with the Suns collective efforts on rebounding (they won the battle, 50-38, including 12 offensive rebounds).
“They were all aggressive and we didn’t play smart in the third quarter offensively or defensively,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said. “We just have to be better. That third quarter was no different than game one or two here.”
Indeed, the Suns have had 20+ point fourth quarter leads in all three home games of this series.
Playing in Dallas has been a different story, though. In each game in Dallas, the Suns have failed to bring the aggressiveness ‘to the legal limit’ and been down 10+ in the fourth quarter both times.
This time, in Game 6, the Suns will have to find a way to play in Dallas like they’ve played in Phoenix.
The Suns play the Mavericks on Thursday night, at 6:30PM.