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2022 NBA Playoffs preview: 5 keys for Suns in second round vs. Mavericks

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
May 2, 2022

Despite being the NBA’s top seed and winning a league-leading 64 games, the Phoenix Suns looked less like themselves during their first-round playoff matchup. Devin Booker’s absence for three games had a lot to do with it, but the New Orleans Pelicans tested them in that six-game series.

Heading into the Western Conference semifinals, the Dallas Mavericks may be a better team, but they represent a more favorable matchup.

They won’t challenge Phoenix on the offensive glass the way the Pelicans did, since Dallas ranked 24th in offensive rebounds and 29th in second-chance points during the regular season. They don’t play with bruising size or physicality, with their small-ball frontcourt of Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith. And despite Luka Doncic’s reputation for drawing whistles, the Mavs are only average in free-throw rate, ranking 14th in that category.

Giving up offensive rebounds, dealing with a size disadvantage and getting crushed in the free-throw disparity plagued Phoenix in the first round, but it’s tough to see any of those issues being as glaring in this matchup. So what do the Suns have to worry about with Dallas? Let’s examine five keys to the first postseason battle between these two Western Conference rivals since 2006 (aside from the obvious of Booker being 100 percent).

1. Defending Doncic

It’s impossible to talk about the Mavs without mentioning Luka Doncic, especially in this first postseason meeting between him and the top pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Deandre Ayton. DA has become a vital, two-way stud on a Suns team that went to the Finals last year and became a juggernaut this year, but Doncic is a singular force and top-10 talent capable of changing a series by himself.

Limiting him as the head of the snake is objective No. 1 for the Suns’ top-five defense, which is better-equipped than anyone to do so. Coach Monty Williams noted no one’s been able to take him out entirely, but not allowing him to score and playmake and hit 3s and get to the paint and get to the foul line is the focus. In other words, it’s all about taking away at least one or two of those categories, since he’s going to find a way to impact the game no matter what.

“The thing about Luka is he’s in that category now of high-level guys that’s seen every defense, and he’s so doggone big and strong that he can take the punishment, but he also can see the other side of the floor,” Williams explained. “He’s got great pace. Once he gets to the lane, he’s so strong, he’s got that push-off, and then he’s under control. And those are things, quite frankly, you just can’t take those away. You just try to make it as tough as you can on him.”

Their regular-season meetings from this season aren’t very instructive, since Doncic played in just one matchup against the Suns. He scored 28 points with 8 assists and 8 rebounds back in mid-January but was held to 9-of-23 shooting.

The matchup data from last year is more insightful, but only to a certain point, given Dallas’ recent roster changes. In three meetings, Mikal Bridges spent more time guarding Doncic than anyone in the NBA, defending him for 20 minutes and 108.5 possessions. Bridges held him to 24 points on 10-of-21 shooting, with 7 assists, 4 turnovers and one shooting foul.

Given that he spent the most time guarding him in this year’s lone meeting too, it’s fair to assume Bridges will spend a fair amount of time on Doncic in this playoff series. The Defensive Player of the Year runner-up understands the challenge of guarding someone who can do everything, but the extra reps over the last four years help.

“Obviously it makes it easier, just reppin’ and knowing how many times you went against somebody,” Bridges said. “It’s good that we have film as well, to watch possessions where he scores or where he doesn’t, and we just learn from it. I think we’ve played Luka a lot, and he’s seen us in pick-and-rolls, and we’ve seen him.”

However, even putting the emergence of Jalen Brunson aside for a second, Luka won’t be Bridges’ sole assignment. The Suns had Devin Booker, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder all spend some time on Doncic in this year’s matchup, and even Deandre Ayton (who did not play in this year’s meeting) has switched onto him for a considerable number of possessions in the past.

For Phoenix, it’s all about keeping Doncic on his toes. Having all those options — including Torrey Craig, who was unplayable against Brandon Ingram last round but could prove extremely useful in this kind of matchup — should pay dividends here.

“You have to be able to change up not just the looks, but the people guarding them,” Williams said. “You can put bigger bodies on certain guys, and then you could put smaller bodies on Luka at times, just to get underneath him a little bit to see if that helps, but he’s proven that not many defenses can stop him one-on-one. So again, it’s a huge challenge for us to try to mix it up as best we can, not just the scheme, but also the people on those guys.”

Doncic holds career averages of 25.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.5 assists in 12 games against the Suns, but he’s only shot 46.3 percent from the field and 25.7 percent from 3-point range. Against this current Phoenix powerhouse over the last two years, he’s put up 28.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists, but they’ve come with 4.3 turnovers per game and .431/.231/.789 shooting splits. The Suns will live with that, especially since Dallas went 0-4 in those games.

As Ayton said himself, facing Doncic in a playoff series will be a “different beast.” But the Suns have a top DPOY candidate and multiple, switchable wings that can make life difficult for him, as well as an encouraging track record against Luka that extends much deeper than his 3-9 all-time record against Phoenix.

2. DominAyton of small-ball lineups

For the second year in a row, the Suns are facing an opponent that used small-ball to pound Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz’s porous perimeter defense into submission. And for the second year in a row, the Suns are hoping Deandre Ayton proves to be up to the task in a way that Gobert couldn’t.

“I think with our team, there’s not anything that we haven’t seen, right?” Chris Paul said. “And especially for DA, he’s been able to adjust whatever series it is. If it’s small-ball, if it’s a big like [Nikola] Jokic and all them guys, he does whatever the team needs, and that’s what makes him so good.”

Last year, Ayton went toe-to-toe with Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic in the first two round before facing off against an LA Clippers team that went small with wings at every position. DA managed well enough on the perimeter to punish the Clippers’ lack of size on the other end.

Ayton said this Mavs team reminds him of that Clippers series, and he relishes the challenge of showing he’s more versatile than a traditional big man.

“Oh yeah, I love it,” he said. “I guess that’s the similarity of the league, where 6-foot-7 dudes are 5s now, so they try to cancel out the traditional big man role, but at the end of the day, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And our stuff ain’t broke. We stay true to our culture and we try to punish matchups just like how they try to punish bigs on the perimeter.”

Ayton said that Clippers series was the first time he realized how much he could punish opponents for going small. He averaged 17.8 points and 13.7 rebounds per game on 68.9 percent shooting in those six games, giving him his highest-scoring, highest-rebounding and second-most efficient series of Phoenix’s playoff run.

But the signs were there much earlier than that, especially defensively. Williams said he started noticing Ayton’s ability to call out opponents’ plays when the team went to the NBA bubble in Orlando. With four months away from the game, the younger Suns had a chance to grow more familiar with the terminology, which helped them actually communicate what was coming.

It was around that point that Ayton — picking up on DeAndre Jordan’s ability to identify opposing teams’ plays — became the “quarterback of the defense.” Against a Mavs team that likes to play five-out, those quarterbacking and communication skills will be put to the test.

“Defensively, he just got way better at just understanding the game even more and knowing tendencies and knowing scouts, and him guarding up there is never the issue,” Bridges said. “It’s tough for bigs who don’t guard that and gotta throw ’em in that rotation, it’s tough. But he’s matured and learned and knows how to do it, and it’s key for us.”

Paul has consistently praised Ayton’s high basketball IQ and has been helping him take charge of the defense since he first arrived in Phoenix.

“I think I’ve been telling him that since I got here last year,” Paul said. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it, but I think it’s about ownership, making sure that he understands he’s our eyes and our ears on defense. He’s the last line of defense, so he tells us what he sees and what’s going on.”

That will be crucial against a Mavericks squad that likes to hoist 3s, run a plethora of pick-and-rolls and let Luka launch out of isos. So too will be punishing Dallas’ lack of true big men on the other end. It may have clicked in Ayton’s head during last year’s Clippers series, but Mikal Bridges saw the signs much earlier on:

In any case, that confidence showed up against the Pelicans, when Ayton dominated their supersized frontcourt. Despite having Jonas Valanciunas, Jaxson Hayes and Larry Nance Jr. to throw at DA, nobody in New Orleans could stop him, as he averaged an impressive 20.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game on a staggering 70.3 percent shooting.

“This year, everything’s a green light for me,” Ayton said. “When I have the ball in my hands, I feel like I could do anything with it. Just knowing how teams guard me and what to expect and when my teammates are at, I’m starting to be way more comfortable to where I can make the play or I can be the playmaker when I have the ball. So definitely with all the spins and using the dribble and using my size, I’m definitely starting to get in a rhythm — not starting though, but I am in rhythm with all of that now, to where I know where my strengths are at completely.”

Williams mentioned how Ayton has mastered “catch high, keep high,” but the biggest difference in his eyes is how much better the Suns are at finding him on those mismatches.

“Our first year, I’m not quite sure he was ready for that, and two, we weren’t ready,” Williams said. “We didn’t take advantage of it when teams would put a smaller guy on him. Now I think there’s some synergy there. The guys who have the ball look for it, but then he’s so much better at sealing and wanting the ball and being big.”

Ayton said his understanding of opponents’ defensive terminology has helped with that ability to dominate inside.

“Some people go under to keep the matchups, and when they go under, I try my best to get a good hit on ’em and seal ’em and bring ’em down to the rim where they have to switch,” he explained. “Just being a big target on sealing. Sometimes it’s not even just a seal to go to the rim to score, it’s just to create. Just to bring attention down there, it gets to open up the floor. So it’s a lot. It’s a lot in this series I’m gonna have to deal with, mainly just being alert on what the defense is giving us and making sure I complete all my rolls.”

Against Dallas’ five-out offense whose only true big man is Boban Marjanovic, Ayton may be the piece that decides whether this is a competitive series or outright dominAyton.

3. Bottle up Brunson

If you didn’t know Jalen Brunson averaged 27.8 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting in the first round, you probably wouldn’t be alone. After all, this is a 6-foot-1 guard who fell to the second round of the 2018 draft and only started in 12 games for Dallas a year ago.

But even before Doncic missed those three Utah games, Brunson was coming into his own at the pro level. Bridges, his former teammate at Villanova, knows all too well how crafty a scorer he can really be.

“They just unlocked the true JB,” Bridges said. “I think that he’s been hoopin’ all year, and when Luka went out and he had to step up, he was ready for it. I’m watching games, and I could be with teammates or somebody or a friend, and I can just tell, like, I know which shots he’s gonna make and all that stuff. I just know, and I know how talented he is and how hard he works and how much of a dog he is.”

Bridges said playing next to a superstar like Doncic forced Brunson to take a step back, but with him out for that critical stretch, his former Wildcat teammate showed the world what Bridges has known all along.

Chris Paul is another Sun who knows what Brunson is capable of. His agent, Leon Rose, actually brought Brunson’s father on as his first client, so Paul has known Jalen since he was in high school. Paul even took his son to watch the Final Four when Brunson was still at Villanova, so he’s plenty familiar with his game.

“I think Jalen gets overlooked a lot,” Paul said. “Jalen is a great player, been a great player. Been that way since he was in high school, just high-IQ, always gonna make winning plays.”

The Suns can only do so much to limit Doncic, a superstar who’s bound to put up numbers no matter what. But letting both Doncic and Brunson run rampant on their defense would make this series a lot more interesting. Phoenix needs to limit his effectiveness, especially with those herky-jerky moves of his off the dribble.

Based on what Williams said about mixing up the defensive coverages, don’t be surprised to see Bridges spend some time on Brunson on the perimeter while Crowder, Johnson, Booker and Torrey Craig switch off on Doncic duty.

4. The Suns’ point of attack defense

Between Doncic and Brunson, this one feels fairly similar, but it needs to be emphasized: Containing the Mavericks at the point of attack will be key.

“It’s a huge deal for us, because everybody in the NBA is prone to help,” Williams said. “It’s just your natural tendency from the time you play grade-school basketball. But you have to have guys who can guard the ball for at least two or three dribbles. If you’re having blow-bys and paint attacks, it’s really going to cause you problems.”

For the last two years, Phoenix’s elite defense has been terrific at keeping opponents in check. But it’s less of an impenetrable wall and more of an amoeba that changes shape to recover, shifting all around the court to pressure opponents into mistakes and late-clock opportunities. Against ball-handlers like Doncic, Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie, the Suns will have to be better at the point of attack.

“It’s going to be something that we’re gonna have to play hard to contain drives, guard the ball, guard all screen actions and watch out for those divers,” Cam Johnson said. “They want to get you going and drive the ball, kick the ball, drive the ball, kick the ball and get open shots that way. So we have to really sit down and guard.”

Keeping opponents from breaching that first line of defense hasn’t normally been their strongest suit, but their communication and rotations are so good they typically make up for it. Williams and the rest of the Suns are sticking by their principles on the defensive end, but against a Mavs squad that ranked eighth during the regular season in 3-point attempts and is now leading all playoff teams in attempts, Phoenix’s defense has to be on point.

“You gotta communicate,” Paul said. “They run a lot of isolations for Luka, but the other guys are shot-ready. They’re ready to make plays, and they done played a full season like that a couple of years.”

Between Kleber, Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock and Davis Bertans, the Mavs have plenty of 3-point shooters flanking their guards, who also enjoy pulling from beyond the arc. Minimizing dribble penetration and forcing isolation 3s, rather than open 3s out of drive-and-kick situations, will be vital.

“In the half-court offense, they have guys that can break you down and get to the paint,” Williams said. “They force you to help, and then they have guys that stand around the the arc that can knock down shots.”

5. Controlling the pace

Like most teams, the Suns are at their best when they’re able to get out and run. Facing Dallas, it’s better not to let that their seventh-ranked defense settle into a half-court game.

That’s especially true considering the Mavs ranked dead-last in pace this season, as well as dead-last among all 16 teams this postseason. From the Suns’ perspective, their ability to score in transition and push the tempo stems from getting stops.

“For us, everything starts with a stop,” Williams said. “If we can get stops, we dictate the pace.”

However, the Suns’ head coach also pointed out that the Mavs are opportunistic with their fast breaks, and that their pace is hurt by how often they walk the ball up the floor. Getting out in transition helps any playoff team when the game slows down into a half-court setting, but it’s not something Williams is actively worried about.

Much like the point-of-attack defense, the Suns are focused on playing their brand of basketball, which usually sets everything else up.

“I don’t think you go out of your way, at least from my perspective, to dictate pace in the half-court,” Williams said. “We’ve been pretty efficient in the half-court. But the one way we know we can dictate pace is just by getting a stop so we can get out and run.”

Prediction: Suns in 5

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