They expected to crow about JaVale McGee’s steal on Luka Doncic that turned into a one-man fast break dunk. They expected to come away happy, or at least satisfied, with a very important win in which they took an early 22-7 lead, never trailed and still led by 13 with just over two minutes left.
The final result, a Phoenix Suns 121-114 win over the Dallas Mavericks to take a 1-0 series lead, will go down in the books as a clean, decisive victory. Winners of Game 1 have won 75% of playoff series throughout NBA history. Nothing is guaranteed, but 75% is a lot better than 25%.
The Mavericks got nearly a 40-point-triple-double from Doncic and drained 16 threes, yet the Suns still blew them out with execution reminiscent of their 64-win season where they were top-3 on offense and defense until the final two weeks of meaningless games.
You are going to read a lot of rightfully-positive stories today about how the Suns have the answers for every problem the Mavericks can present, and those takes are almost certainly dead-on. The Suns are a heavy favorite in this series now.
But they are not happy today. Instead, they walked off the court stunned in disappointment because they lost their edge and allowed the never-quit Mavericks to chip a 21-deficit all the way down to five points in the final minute.
“We didn’t give in,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said after. “We kept playing.”
After JaVale McGee’s steal/dunk put the Suns up 21 points with 8:48 left, many teams would have thrown in the towel. Instead, Kidd left Doncic out there and surrounded him with shooters and ball-handlers.
On the Suns sideline, the McGee play blew the top off the arena and almost certainly had a ‘shut it down’ mental effect on the Suns starters who were celebrating from the sidelines.
In an eight-minute span from 8:48 to 0:54 of the 4th, the Suns were ice cold. As the Mavericks went on a 22-7 run, the Suns made only 2 of 18 shots — TWO of EIGHTEEN — while the Mavericks made 9 of 13.
“I wouldn’t say out of rhythm,” coach Monty Williams said later of what went wrong. “I would say we missed a lot of shots versus their switching. We had an advantage, with our bigs. But we had some bad reads, ended up in late-clock situations. And sometimes that can look like they’re out of rhythm.”
In-game actions speak louder than post-game words, though.
Dallas went super-small in this stretch — with Luka as the ‘big’ man and shooters/drivers all around — to change up the game. After the JaVale dunk, the Mavericks went on a quick 5-0 run to cut the lead to 16 with a pair of clean shots sandwiching a Suns turnover.
Williams didn’t like what he saw and immediately pivoted. Back came starters Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Chris Paul for Shamet, Craig and Payne. Thirty seconds and a couple more bad possessions later, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton were back in for McGee and Cameron Johnson.
But the starters just didn’t ‘have it’ this time. Part of that could be attributed to the Mavericks hard play and small lineup. But a lot of it just seemed like the Suns starters had checked out, lost their ability to make a basket. They missed 14 of 16 shot attempts — many of them wide open — while the Mavericks made 7 of 11.
“We didn’t finish the way that we wanted to, and it was emotional,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “It was an emotional type of energy out there. It got quiet a little bit.”
The bad finish wasn’t necessarily for lack of effort. The Suns +5 on shot attempts in that stretch was thanks to six offensive rebounds to the Mavs’ one, but the cold Suns couldn’t even make their put-backs.
Jason Kidd had avoided such a small lineup all game because of the presence of Deandre Ayton. Ayton had been punishing the Mavericks near the basket (team-high 25 points on 12-16 shooting) all game with Maxi Kleber or Dwight Powell out there to defend him.
But the Mavericks small lineup, which switched everything, worked in those moments. It got the Suns just far enough off their spots to create confusion... and missed shots. Ayton went 0-4 in that stretch. Booker 0-3. Bridges 0-3. Paul went 2-6, plus 2-2 on free throws, to account for all 7 Suns points in that eight minute stretch.
While Monty Williams talked about missed shots and Chris Paul chose to look on the bright side.
“We’ll take the win,” Paul said afterward. “It’s not always going to be pretty. We played well pretty much most of the game. We’ll look at film tomorrow and see what we need to do differently for Game 2.”
Booker took the high road too. His comments focused on the good parts of the game.
“Yeah, I think we did a better job...with everybody making plays for each other,” Booker said of the Suns sharing the ball. “I think we still missed more shots than we usually do, but we liked the looks that we were getting. I heard Chris just say, ‘we hang our hat on the defensive end.’ That’s the Suns team from the regular season. So, I think we picked it up in that area, which led to early success for us in the game.”
Ayton came out a bit later, and was more forthright on what happened.
“Them dudes were being relentless,” Ayton said of the Mavericks in that run. “Just doing what they do, scoring the ball as best as they can and that’s why it got kind of ugly during that stretch a little bit.”
He gave proper credit to the Mavericks, but also took accountability for his own team.
“We got away from our principles,” he continued. “But stuff like that, I’m glad it happened early. A little eye-opener to be aware that these dudes don’t give up.”
You all remember last round right, against the Pelicans? The Suns blew them out in Game 1 for three quarters before letting the game get tighter in the fourth quarter of an eventual 11-point win. The Suns did the same thing there — taking their foot off the gas in the fourth, giving life to the Pels.
Last round, the Suns and Pels carried that game-ending energy right into Game 2. The Suns were a step slow and the Pelicans ran all over them. The underdog Pels led nearly the entire game, fending off Suns runs with a ton of threes and getting every loose ball. The Suns eventually won the series, but didn’t put two games of energy together until Games 5 and 6, and even then it was really only six good quarters out of eight.
That kind of inconsistency won’t work against a more-talented Mavericks team. To win this series, the Suns will need be relentless.
“Basically, just break the dang gas pedal, that’s it, just break it,” Ayton says. “Don’t take your foot off of it because they know, they know.”
Game 2 of the Suns-Mavericks series is on Wednesday night at Footprint Center in Phoenix.