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The Suns’ perimeter defense must improve if they want to down the Mavs

Dallas likes the three-ball. And the Phoenix Suns are letting them take them at will.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks shot the lights out against the Phoenix Suns in Game 4, and in doing so they tied the series 2-2. The Suns’ 10-point loss was difficult to witness for a variety of reasons. Chris Paul had another poor performance, his second in a row. Something about being 37 hasn’t set well with him in his two games since reaching that age. The officiating was...interesting. Aside from turnovers, which the Suns must eliminate if they are to advance to the Western Conference Finals, it was their defensive effort on the perimeter that can only be described as “putrid.”

That is where I want to focus my energy for this piece.

They were a team caught in the middle, not knowing if they wanted to attack Luka Doncic or defend his teammates. And when you are stuck in the middle against Doncic, he will slice you and dice you, abuse you and use you. And flop a little along the way.

What the Mavericks did was impressive. It’s one thing to get as many open shots as the Mavericks did. It’s another to knock down those shots. Dallas had eight made three-pointers in the first quarter alone, and carried with them a 12-point lead after the first. It was a lead they would never cede, and the Suns would only get as close as six points for the remainder of the game.

The hole the Suns dug themselves into with their lack of effort in the first quarter, for the second straight game, ultimately was their undoing.

My thoughts on the “Luka Rules”, a way to have Doncic work while simultaneously not allowing his teammates to be effective, still ring true:

  • Rule #1: Single Coverage and Avoid Doubling Early
  • Rule #2: Attack with Blitzes and Doubles in the Third Quarter
  • Rule #3: Put Doncic in Every Defensive Action in the Fourth

The challenge for the Suns is they have yet to re-create the energy put forth in stopping Luka since Game 2 of the series. Again, the team is defensively in the middle. When that happens, Doncic can pick apart your defense and find his teammates. When his teammates get a feel for the game and gain confidence in their shots, Dallas is dangerous.

That was the case in Game 4. Davis Bertans had 12 off of the bench, shooting 4-of-6 from deep. Spencer Dinwiddie had 10, depositing a couple three’s himself. Maxi Kleber had 11. Jalen Brunson scored 18 points on 7-of-17 shooting. And Dorian Finney-Smith dropped 24 points, including 8-of-12 from beyond the arc.

The team shot 45.5 percent from deep, making 20 of their 44 attempts. It is because they are quality three-point shooters. And also because the Suns failed to defend the perimeter.

Credit should be given where credit is due. The Mavericks’ strategy was to treat Deandre Ayton similarly to how they treated Rudy Gobert in the First Round. DA suffered because he wasn’t willing to protect the perimeter, and when the Mavs tested him early on, he was exposed for this lack of effort.

It’s something DA has typically done well in the past, and it has factored into the Suns’ success. He has the lateral quickness to stick with guards and the length to create a deterrent against the opposition’s shot from deep. This forces opponents to avoid him and try different strategies. Think about the 2021 Western Conference Finals.

In Game 4, Dallas elected to challenge him early, and they were rewarded. How did Dallas attack him? They observed his lackadaisical effort and used it against him. As you watch the following clip, look at the effort put forth by DA. Slow closeouts. An affinity for just watching the ball rather than his defender. Wanting to drop on every screen rather than fight to guard the ball. And while all the shots didn’t go in for the Mavericks, the team knew that Ayton was the pigeon.

It wasn’t just Ayton who was being abused by the Mavericks. Minutes played by JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo were another opportunity for Luka and gang to create switches, pull the five away from the interior, and take shots that were mostly uncontested.

McGee and Biyombo are more of your traditional centers. They want to be in the paint. They want to go for the rebounds. They want to block the shots. Instead of Phoenix attempting to battle through screens and not leave those two guys alone on islands against Dallas, they allowed the Mavericks to dictate switches. The Mavs’ five-out offense exploited them.

Bismack fared better, but I wouldn’t say it was due to his shot deterrence. The looks that Luka got on him were the exact looks that Luka wanted. It just wasn’t Doncic’s night from beyond the arc as he went 1-of-10 from deep.

Once the Mavs established that they were going to attack the five and pull them away from the paint, the rest of the perimeter defense was compromised. In an effort to fill the space, the wings began collapsing on anyone who drove to the paint, leaving white-hot shooters open to tickle the twine.

Devin Booker defensively regressed to a guy who was probing the weak side too much. It’s not like his seeping into the paint had any chance of working. He found himself abandoning his defender and offering little assistance on defense as Jalen Brunson and Luka Doncic penetrated the paint. The Mavericks recognized this and used it to their advantage.

Booker, along with his teammates, must do a better job of staying at home on the defensive end. The Suns need to revert back to the “Luka Rules”. Rule #1: Single coverage on Luka in the first half. Stay at home on his teammates. Make Luka use energy to score all of the points, don’t allow his teammates to catch fire.

That is what we witnessed in Game 4. Dorian Finney-Smith, Davis Bertans, Spencer Dinwiddie. These guys had open looks early, knocked them down, and carried that momentum throughout the entire game.

This is a team that enjoys shooting the ball from beyond the arc. During the regular season they were eighth in the league in three-point attempts. But they were 19th in three-point field goal percentage, shooting 35 percent. In the playoffs they have morphed. Dallas attempts the most three’s – 41.4 a game – and and make 38.4 percent of them, 5th best in the postseason.

Through the first three games of the series, the Dallas Mavericks were shooting 16-of-42 (38 percent) from the corner. It is the easiest of the three-point shots to make due to the fact that it is the closest. In Game 4, the Mavs were 10-of-16 from the corner. That is a whopping 62.5 percent.

Here are those corner three’s:

We could be frustrated with the officiating. Every fan base is this time of year. Inconsistency, head bobbing, acting. All of it makes the sport tough to watch at times. But what the Suns did defensively, especially to open the game, is the true culprit in the loss in Game 4 in Dallas.

You can’t allow the opposition to have such a wide open look at the cylinder from beyond the arc. This isn’t the Oklahoma City Thunder. This isn’t the Detroit Pistons. This is a team that is in the playoffs because they can hit the three-ball. You have to understand that this is a perimeter based team. You must defend that perimeter.

They made 22 three-pointers in Game 2 against the Utah Jazz in the First Round and a total of 93 three-pointers in that six-game series. You know what this team wants to do. They want Doncic to run the offense, attack the paint, force the defense to collapse, and get the ball to wide-open three point shooters.

The Suns were not disciplined in Game 4. They did not put forth the effort that a team with the third-best regular season defensive rating should. They allowed this series to come back to Phoenix tied 2-2. Their length and switchability, especially against a small Dallas team, is a strength they need to exploit. But that only happens with effort.

And after a bad weekend in Dallas, the team needs to question that effort.