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Game Preview: Suns, Mavericks will come down to shooting, and by that I mean defense

The Phoenix Suns host the Dallas Mavericks. Read here for keys, matchups, odds, betting lines, how to watch, and more!

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

What: Dallas Mavericks (4th seed) at Phoenix Suns (1st seed)

Why: Game 1, 2022 NBA Playoffs, Western Conference Semi-Finals (Second Round)

When: 7:00 PM AZ Time

Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: TNT, Bally Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Odds/Betting Line

DraftKings has the Suns as a 5.5 point favorite at home in Game 1. Amazing the difference in having Devin Booker back (they were smaller favorites in Game 5 against the Pelicans).


Officials

Considering both teams were very good this year, those Zach Zarba records got to be concerning for each side...


Probable Starters

Injuries

The Mavericks continue to be without Tim Hardaway Jr. (broken foot) while the Suns continue to be without Dario Saric (ACL/rehab).

THJ and Dario are good players, but each team is playing great without them. Dallas has the league’s third-best record (25-9) since THJ went down and the Suns had the league’s best-best record (64-18) by 8 games this year without Saric for the whole season.

No one else is on the injury report. The Phoenix Suns were fined $25,000 by the league office for failing to disclose Devin Booker’s practice participation ahead of Game 6. They just left his status to OUT until two hours before game time when he was suddenly AVAILABLE and starting.


Did you know...

The Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks face off in the playoffs for only the third time in their history. The Suns and Mavs each won one series, but each time the Suns suffered a playoff-killing injury as it unfolded (Joe Johnson in 2005, Raja Bell in 2006).

Let’s try to get through a series against the Mavs without an injury, okay?


Keys to the game

Win Game 1!

Historically speaking, the winner of Game 1 of any playoff series has a 75% chance to win the series. The Suns have gone 4-1 as winner of Game 1 since they got back to the playoffs last year, giving them an 80% win rate after taking Game 1.

On the other hand, the Mavericks are unpredictable. With Luka, they are 0-1 as the winner of Game 1 and 1-1 as the loser of Game 1. They just finished pulling off the 25% side of the equation in round one against the walking dead Jazz.

Still, just win Game 1. Heck, win every game. hashtag: analysis

Outwork the Mavericks

The Suns have built a hard-working reputation, but they lost that a bit against the Pelicans. To the point where Monty Williams got fed up and called them on it in Game 6, down 10 points at the half.

“We talked at halftime about the spirit of the team,” Williams said simply. “They were playing with their heart, and just playing harder than us. It was like every time we win a game in this series, the next game we come into it and we didn’t have the same juice.

“And it was like, enough’s enough.”

Because of the tough first round, many onlookers now think less of the Suns. They think the Suns are overrated if they can barely beat a 10th seed that needed a new play-in twist to even see the postseason.

“All playoff series are hard,” Williams said after the Suns took Game 6. “This [Pelicans team] is not an 8th seed. No way. This was a big time battle.”

We will see in the semis whether the Suns really are in trouble, or if the Pelicans really were just that damn good.

Box out, hit first

Luckily, the Mavericks don’t have a Jonas Valanciunas anywhere on their roster to extend Mavericks possessions with offensive rebounds.

The Mavs do have a guy like Larry Nance Jr. who hunts offensive rebounds on the move. His name is Dwight Powell. When the Mavs are playing Powell, watch out for him. He doesn’t stand still, so Ayton runs the risk of ‘losing’ him when a shot goes up. For his career, Powell averages about three offensive rebounds per 36 minutes.

The Mavericks as a team, though, are not good at offensive rebounding. Since the All-Star break, the Mavericks were 23rd in offensive rebound rate, just behind the Suns’ 21st. For reference, the Pelicans were 2nd in the whole league after the All-Star Break.

The Suns just need to keep the Mavericks where they are at offensive rebounding: bad.

Make more shots!

The Mavs play smaller than the Suns, so you’d better believe this game will be about who makes the most shots. That’s simply the bottom line: the team that shoots better, wins better.

Y’all remember the Suns shooting really poorly in the first round, right? Well, here’s a glimpse at how bad.

Jae Crowder and Cameron Payne had two of the 10 biggest declines in effective field goal percentage from the regular season to the first round. Seven of those 10 were knocked out the playoffs. All of the Suns role players who played 90+ minutes in the first round saw a dip in their effective shooting percentages, actually. They will need to step up as the playoffs progress.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Mavericks’ Maxi Kleber — he of the ‘put Rudy in a corner’ fame — saw the biggest jump in effective field goal percentage in that first round. The Mavs designated shooting big man was left wide open behind the three point line over and over again by paint-protecter Rudy Gobert, and he made a gobton of those shots.

The Suns have to make more shots, and make sure none of the Mavericks have a Kleber-like series. That’s where defense comes in.

In their favor, the Suns were 3rd in defense this season, including 4th fewest three-point shots allowed and 5th lowest % allowed.

The Mavericks were 14th in defense since the 2/10/2022 trade of Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans (who hardly plays), but they were among the six stingiest teams in giving up three point attempts.

Which leads us to...

Get Ayton the ball

The Mavericks beat the Jazz with a very simple game plan: neutralize Rudy Gobert with small, stretch bigs. The Mavs went with Kleber or Luka playing the ‘big’ man, pulling Gobert out the paint on defense and trusting that he couldn’t score on a smaller player in the post on the offensive end.

Deandre Ayton is completely different matchup.

“We have to adapt,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said on Sunday. “Our game plan against Utah is not going to work against the Suns. We’ve already changed that mindset because we’re not playing the Jazz. ... (the Suns bigs) can hurt you in the paint ...

“This isn’t Gobert or Whiteside. These guys can put the ball in the basket.’’

The Mavericks were able to trust that Gobert and Whiteside could not operate in the post against a smaller player, while Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee absolutely thrive on smaller players. The Mavericks will try a lot of Dwight Powell, but he doesn’t really have the heft to contend on seals in the post against DA or McGee.

I anticipate a lot of Deandre Ayton scoring, at least in the first half of each game, to force the Mavericks to adjust their defense inward and open up more threes when the Suns need them.

If you see Boban Marjanovic (23 games played, 5.6 minutes per game this year, none in Round 1) against the Suns, you know the Suns have won the matchup battle.

Contain Luka just enough...

No one stops Luka Doncic, but you have to try to frustrate him into taking bad shots at the right time. The Suns will need to work hard to get Doncic off his game.

I’m not talking about what the Pelicans did with the full-court press to Chris Paul, because the Mavericks have Jalen Brunson to help get the ball across the time stripe. I’m talking more about once they are in the half-court. The Mavericks try to screen their way to a favorable matchup against whom Luka can go to work. Expect a lot of screening/switching actions to get Booker, Cameron Payne and Landry Shamet on an island against Luka in this series. They are all smaller than Luka and not quick enough laterally to stop him from putting his head down and driving them into the post, or stepping back into a long three.

The other way to manage Luka’s impact is to make him the ‘pigeon’ as often as possible on defense. Chris Paul and the Suns love to target the other team’s weakest link by setting screens and forcing defensive switches in their favor. You can expect to see Luka forced into the action on defense as often as possible. For a guy playing 40 minutes a night, that could be quite often. The more tired you can make him, the better.

Luka will still get his numbers. He will very likely average 30/10/10 in this series. Monty Williams says they need to control how he gets those numbers. You can’t give him 18 paint points AND 4-5 threes AND 12+ assists. You have to try to take at least one of those away.

The key to winning tonight, and the series for that matter, is containing him in clutch moments. The combination of Luka being tired and the Bridges/Ayton pick and roll defensive duo could be enough to tilt the series in the Suns favor.


Prediction

I picked Suns in 6 in my overall series preview, and I predict the Suns will win Game 1. They are 5-0 in Game 1s with the trio of Paul, Booker and Ayton. I hope that streak doesn’t stop here.

The Suns are favored by 5.5 points and I think they clear that margin safely.

Let’s say, 120-110 Suns...

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