Suns

Suns Match Up Better With Mavs Than Pelicans

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Chris Paul’s historically perfect performance capped off the Phoenix Suns’ first-round closeout win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Suns now turn to Luka Doncic and the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, who eliminated the Utah Jazz in six games despite not having Doncic until Game 4.

THE OPPONENT

Phoenix, of course, will be favored in this matchup, having finished the regular season far and away the best team in the league. However, this is a Mavericks squad not to be underestimated. They have vastly improved from the team who started the season at 17-18.

Since the beginning of 2022, they turned their fortunes around and finished 35-12. Mavs’ head coach Jason Kidd elevated a bottom-10 defense from last season to a top-seven one this season.

At the trade deadline, they shipped Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie (and Davis Bertans). Alongside Jalen Brunson, it gives them two great ball handlers who can take the pressure off Luka when needed. In Games 1-3 of Round 1, they helped lead the team to two victories in his absence.

THE STORY OF THE FIRST ROUND

A 98-96 victory clinched the Mavericks a place in the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2011. A wide-open Bogdan Bogdanovic threatened to force a Game 7, but his three-point attempt wouldn’t go, giving the Mavs a 4-2 win.

The Suns were also pushed to six by a talented Pelicans team, with Paul’s aforementioned 33-point, 14-of-14 shooting outing helping them advance.

Both teams dealt with injuries, with star men Doncic and Devin Booker missing three games each.  Their teammates handled the business without their leaders, and they both recovered in time to help push their squads over the line in Game 6.  Barring any lingering issues for the pair, both teams will be looking at healthy rosters with the exception of long-term absentees Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dario Saric.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Mavs have struggled against the Suns in recent years, with nine losses in a row dating back to January 2020. Doncic’s personal record against the Suns is 3-9, with two of those wins coming in his rookie year.

In the regular season, the Suns swept the Mavs 3-0 despite trailing in all three heading into the fourth quarter. It is difficult to read too much into this, however, as Doncic missed the first two meetings in November, with the third coming in January before the trade deadline, making it a very different team to the one the Suns will come up against this week.

SUNS’ BIGGEST WEAKNESS?

The Suns’ biggest weakness against the Pelicans was rebounding, as they struggled to contain the size of Jonas Valanciunas, Jaxson Hayes and Larry Nance Jr.

They shouldn’t expect to face this difficulty again, though. With Dwight Powell as the only true center in the Mavs’ rotation, surrendering as many second-chance points as they did in round one seems unlikely. In fact, the Dallas’ frontcourt is the smallest of teams still in the playoffs, so Deandre Ayton will look to once again thrive on both ends of the floor after averaging 21 points (70% FG) and 10 rebounds per game.

Uncharacteristically, the Suns also struggled mightily with their three-point shooting, converting 31.9% of their attempts in the series. Having shot 15.4% in Game 3 and 25.9% in Game 4, it picked up in the final two games, but there is always room for improvement. Players like Jae Crowder and Landry Shamet shot well below their season averages. In total, the Suns attempted 163 threes, whereas the Mavs shot 251 on an average of 41 attempts per game with a 37% conversion rate.

FOURTH-QUARTER SUNS

As with many post-season matchups, expect some very close games and clutch situations (score within five points with five minutes remaining). 

The Suns lead this particular department by a very large margin. This means they hold a major advantage over anyone they face. With a record of 33-9 in ‘clutch’ regular-season games, no team even comes close. The Mavs, meanwhile, fall in the middle of the pack at 22-16.  In terms of clutch-time plus/minus leaders, five of the top six belong to the Suns with the one other player being the Mavs’ Dinwiddie.

This makes it hard to bet against the Suns.

WHO TO LOOK OUT FOR

Mikal Bridges‘ emergence as a two-way player has been special to watch.  He is well known as one of the best defenders in the league after finishing second in the DPOY race this season.

It’s his offense that has really caught the eye, however– most notably his phenomenal performance in Game 5. He played 47 minutes in a crucial win, dropping 31 points with his patented lockdown defense. He blocked four shots and held the Pelicans to just seven points on 3-of-17 shooting as the primary defender.

For the series, Bridges averaged 17.3 points per game on 55.1% shooting. With Booker and Paul bound to get a lot of defensive attention, Bridges could be the difference maker.

It would be a very tough ask to expect this type of output on a gamely basis, but if the Suns are able to get this performance out of him every few games, it adds another to Phoenix’s long list of dangerous weapons.

And of course, we cannot overlook the superstar matchup between Doncic and Booker. Before Booker went down, he averaged 28 points across two games, including a 31-point half in Game 2.

Doncic returned in Game 4 and didn’t miss a beat as he recovered from a calf strain. In the final three games of the series he averaged 29 points, 11 rebounds and six assists per contest.

But without Luka, Brunson averaged 32 points per game on 50.7% shooting, making him a percolating option and one the Suns’ defense will have to pay close attention to.

And finally, fresh from a mostly special series, the Point God is as desperate as anyone to finally win a championship. Expect to see him give it all in the coming days.

PREDICTION

It is difficult to predict a series between two teams who have yet to match up in their current forms. This Mavericks team is far different from the one they last brought to the Valley.

But the Suns match up well with them, better than they did against the Pelicans for sure.  The Suns won’t play with as much lethargy and sloppiness as they did at times in Round 1. This series should allow them to get back into rhythm and play the Suns basketball fans had become accustomed to seeing.

The Suns are capable of finishing this quickly, but the Mavs have the talent to push it to six.

SUNS IN 6

About Angelia Ronayne

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