Less than a year ago, the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks faced off in the second round of the 2022 playoffs. The league-leading Suns were favored, with even Dallas-area media predicting a Suns sweep after they went up 2-0 in the series.
But you all know how that series ended. The Mavericks went on to lose the Western Conference Finals in five games and the Suns went into semi-hiding to lick their wounds and hope for future redemption.
On Sunday, they face each other again (on ABC, at 11:00am) for a third time this regular season (1-1 so far) but we all know the outcome doesn’t even matter. The only time of year that matters is April, May and June. It doesn’t matter that the Suns beat the Mavs on Opening Night. And it doesn’t matter that the Suns lost to the Mavs a couple weeks ago at home.
Sunday’s game doesn’t matter in the big picture either. It’s just one of 82.
"It's just another game. I understand the entertainment aspect of what we do and a lot of people on the outside got this game circled on their calendar, but both teams just regularly scheduled programming."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) March 4, 2023
Kevin Durant on facing Kyrie Irving in #Suns-#Mavs game Sunday in Dallas pic.twitter.com/RVfqgIW1dk
But in the small scheme of the regular season this game means... something.
These aren’t the same teams who competed in the playoffs last May. Sure, Luka Doncic and Devin Booker are still around. Either guy can take over a game and win it all by themselves.
Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton are still around for the Suns. Either guy can disappear when the game goes sideways.
Maxi Kleber and Reggie Bullock are still around for Dallas. Either guy can suddenly make a half-dozen threes and tilt a tight game toward Dallas.
I’m being harsh, but you all remember May like I do, right?
Yet, one offseason and trade deadline later, almost everything else about these teams is vastly different.
The changes in Dallas
Out: Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie, their second, third and fourth leading scorers in that playoff series. All playing in the Big Apple now.
In: Kyrie Irving, Christian Wood, Tim Hardaway Jr., their new 2-4 leading scorers.
Those aren’t bad swaps. On the surface, you’d think the Mavericks might be a little better now, yet somehow they’re not. At least not yet. Kyrie and Luka are posting monster numbers, but they’ve gone 2-4 together since he was acquired. None of Irving, Wood of THJ are good defenders and the Mavericks defense has suffered for it.
Worse yet, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd has resorted to calling out his players for their immaturity in close games. Kidd, Wood and Irving all have reputations for wearing out their welcomes in the locker room much sooner than their talent and skills would suggest.
They might put it together still, but last year’s Mavericks were buoyed by the trade deadline and this year’s Mavs don’t seem to have that juice yet.
The changes in Phoenix
Out: Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder, Dario Saric
In: Kevin Durant, Josh Okogie, Damion Lee, Terrence Ross
The Suns went in a much more lopsided direction with their roster changes. While the Mavericks shuffled the supporting cast below Luka, the Suns imported a new alpha that pushed everyone down a peg.
The Suns are 2-0 in the Kevin Durant era so far, with Devin Booker being unleashed thanks to the defensive attention Durant demands. Booker’s averaging 36 points on 54/53/75 shooting, with 6.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds in the two games with some of those shots more open than any he’s taken in years.
It remains to be seen if the Suns monster shift will result in better playoff success, but at this point they do appear more dangerous than any Suns team of this era.
Again, it’s just one regular season game out of 82. But you can bet that both teams will want to show that their changes are better.
I’d expect a playoff-level atmosphere on Sunday, whether the players want to admit it or not.