On Wednesday night, the Phoenix Suns trounced the Dallas Mavericks, winning by 20 points, 129-109. They accomplished this by allowing Luka Doncic to get his stats once more. The All-Star guard scored 35 points, bringing his series average to 40 points-per-game on 53.8 percent shooting, including 42.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Luka has averaged 33.5 points per game in the postseason during his career. That puts him in elite company, as it is now the highest all-time postseason scoring average, surpassing Michael Jordan. Granted, Jordan averaged 33.45 points per game over the course of 179 games. Doncic has done it over a period of 18 games.
Oh, and in Michael’s first 18 games, he averaged 37.2.
But, when someone is scoring at that rate, you have to do everything you can to neutralize either the player or the teammates around him. The Detroit Pistons recognized this early in Michael Jordan’s career. The “Jordan Rules” were a set of guidelines created by Pistons’ head coach Chuck Daly that provided a blueprint for stopping his Airness and proved to be effective during the superstar’s early ascension.
The Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs in two consecutive postseasons – in 1988 and 1989 – at the hands of the Pistons due to the way they executed their self-created rules. The Pistons focused on physicality, keeping Jordan grounded, and forcing him to the baseline.
Eventually Jordan won out, returning the favor in 1990 as his Bulls sent the Pistons packing. His talent was too great, his ability unguardable.
The Phoenix Suns face a much different type of scoring threat in Luka Doncic. He’s not flying through the air and dominating that space with athleticism. He is a precision passer who can use his size to score and create mismatches. The Suns’ “rules” for the rising star are vastly different. They aren’t easily replicated and it takes the right personnel to execute.
Phoenix has appeared to have devised their own set of “rules” for neutralizing the Dallas Mavericks, which involves wearing Luke down. It’s their own set of “Luka Rules”, if you will.
Rule #1: Single Coverage and Avoid Doubling Early
What distinguishes Phoenix from other teams, particularly in the first half, is that they do not blitz or double Doncic. The Suns play Doncic straight up rather than allowing him to navigate the passing lanes and set up his teammates for success. The team’s switches aren’t overly aggressive, and they’re primarily focused on keeping Luka in front of them. As a result, they force Luka to be the primary scorer, albeit with contested shots.
If any screens occur, the Suns aren’t aggressively fighting through them, wasting their defensive energy on trying to keep players like Mikal Bridges on him. Conversely, with all of the jab steps, start-and-stops, back downs, and jumpers, Luka is expending his energy to score points and keep his team in the game.
Jae Crowder can be seen flashing down to force Luka to use more of his energy to dribble away from it, but he returns to the perimeter. Sure, Luka scored, but he did so with effort, and the Suns did not allow a corner three-pointer.
With their defensive length and ability to have everyone on the court guard him, he must expend energy against fresh defenders on every possession to earn those points. Luka has averaged 25 points in the first half in his first two games. His teammates as a whole are shooting 45 percent from the field, but Luka has taken 32 of the Mavericks 83 first-half shots (39 percent).
If his teammates aren’t getting the ball, they won’t be able to get into a rhythm. And if the Suns continue to defend straight up rather than double Luka and leave a teammate open, those shots will be even more difficult.
Luka wants to pass. It’s exhausting to play isolation basketball and have to fight for every point. But the Suns are determined to force Luka to expend energy and be the primary scorer. This creates a conundrum for the young Slovenian.
Luka will continue to try to enlist the help of his teammates because he understands that he cannot win the game on his own. But, as a result of Phoenix’s commitment to staying at home and employing a switchable defense, Luka is turning the ball over. He’s tossing the ball to ghosts because fatigue is setting in.
Rule #2: Attack with Blitzes and Doubles in the Third Quarter
The strategy shifts in the second half. While Phoenix did not attack the ball or double Luka in the first half of the first two games of the series, they were far more aggressive in the third.
Mikal Bridges, rather than allow switches to take him off of Doncic, started fighting through screens and making Luka expend even more energy as he tries to navigate them. Double teams are more frequent. Blitzes start to occur. All of these aspects combine to continue to put pressure on Doncic.
When referencing the defense that Mikal Bridges played on Doncic in the second half, Monty Williams observed, “I think if you can be smart about your fouls in the first half, you can be a bit more aggressive in the second, but I think the defense behind him allowed for him to do that. [Mikal]’s long, he’s got an knack for getting his hands on the ball and then we trapped a couple of times and that may have thrown off their offensive rhythm a little bit, but most of it was just great effort by our guys and putting out the fire when we needed to on the defensive end.”
The team begins to meet him at half court and, as screeners are attempting to take those defenders away from Doncic, the Suns fight through them and keep their body on Luka.
Monty Williams stated in his post-game interview that, “We don’t want to just pull a guy in a pick-n-roll just to go ISO with 18 seconds on the clock, we want to make teams work over and over the course of the game, we feel like that serves us well. We’re just trying to win, if we can strategically put guys in a set so that we can be efficient, we’ll do it.”
Rule #3: Put Doncic in Every Defensive Action in the Fourth
Doncic softened to the point in Game 2 where he was no longer effective on defense by the end of the game. The Suns were focused and committed to enforcing Rules #1 and #2. In doing so, they position themselves to toast Luka like a marshmallow over a campfire in the fourth, allowing Rule #3 to take effect.
The Phoenix Suns have owned the fourth throughout the season, and with the Mavericks best player, scorer, and distributor a half-step too slow, Chris Paul attacked and carved Luka Doncic apart with precision. Phoenix put him in every defensive action knowing that he could not defend them with the intensity required to negate their effectiveness.
Chris Paul was the beneficiary of a tired Luka on the fourth during Game 2. The Point God went for 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, adding 2 assists to the fray in the period. Doncic became the pigeon.
The result? A nice little 35-point performance from Luka Doncic, but a 20 point loss by the Dallas Mavericks.
The Luka Rules executed to perfection.
“He had a great game, but no one else showed,” Mavs head coach Jason Kidd said of Luka after the game. “We’ve got to get other guys shooting the ball better. We can’t win with just him out there scoring 30 a night. Not at this time of the year and we’re playing the best team in the league, and so we’ve got to get other guys going.”
The Luka Rules have been simple. But effective.
Suns Strategy: Let Luka get tired with offensive orchestration in the first half, unmercifully attack him on defense in the second half.— Suns Sicko John Voita (@DarthVoita) May 5, 2022
Not every team has the wing depth, length, and ability to recover on defense to negate those around Luka. Those who watched the Mavericks’ series against the Utah Jazz observed this.. You have to have the right personnel in place to enact the Luka Rules, because if you don’t, it will be Luka who is doing the carving.
He is a special talent who plays with a pace that may lull you to sleep, only for you to look up at the scoreboard and be down.
James Jones has constructed a highly effective roster on the defensive end, and due to their ability to execute the Luka Rules, they have had their way with the Mavericks through the first two games of the series. Their defense leads to offense and has them up 2-0 in the series.
The Mavs will surely attempt to make adjustments in Game 3 to free up their shooters, doing everything they can to take the load off of Luka and negating the Luka Rules. But until they show that they can, expect the Suns to wash, rinse, and repeat.