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When the Phoenix Suns play like they did Tuesday night, they reach a peak that no other team in the NBA can match. They just haven’t done it consistently enough during these 2022 NBA Playoffs.
For the second straight series, the Suns found themselves deadlocked at 2-2 through the four games. For the second straight series, they were met with unexpected resistance from an opponent they had perhaps taken too lightly. And for the second straight series, they took control of the matchup with a resounding Game 5 win at home, shifting momentum back in their favor.
The last time around, they closed out in Game 6 on the road, as they did twice during last year’s NBA Finals run. Now they’ll look to do it again on Thursday in Dallas, where the league’s best road team went 0-for-2 in this series.
“We just gotta come in there level-headed,” Deandre Ayton said. “We just can’t walk in thinking we won the game already. These dudes are gonna be desperate, and the crowd is going to be in it. But we’re gonna have to play together like how we did tonight and bring everything from tonight over to Dallas.”
So exactly what do they need to bring with them back to Texas from this 110-80 win? Not to toot our own horn, but the five biggest things match up pretty well with our “5 adjustments for Game 5” piece.
1. 3-point defense
Through the first four games of the series, the Suns had given up an alarming 40.8 3-point attempts per game, with the Dallas Mavericks making 40.5 percent of them. That meant they were averaging 14 fewer attempts and five fewer makes from beyond the arc than the Mavs. That math just wasn’t on their side.
“I think we can do some things to get more 3s,” coach Monty Williams said before the game. “We’re not in that 40 range where some teams are, but we’ve been pretty efficient with our 3s, because we’ve gotten the highest shot quality. And then from their perspective, or guarding them, there’s some things that we have to do personally, just KYP — like, understanding who’s the hot shooter and closing out to feet and not to space, without fouling.
“Yeah, we’d love to get more 3s, but I don’t want to just jack up 3s just to do it. We’ve been pretty good as far as balance. For us, when we can get stops, it allows for us to play in transition and get the 2s and 3s.”
The Suns followed that formula to a T on Tuesday night. They matched Dallas in 3-point attempts with 32, and they made 12 of them (37.5 percent) to the Mavs’ eight (25 percent).
During the third-quarter stretch that decided the game, Phoenix went on a 17-0 run, holding the Mavericks scoreless over a five-minute stretch. At the heart of it all was their top-five defense, which also ranked fifth in protecting the 3-point line.
“Just defense,” Devin Booker said of that stretch. “Defending at a high level, making it tough on ’em. Keeping ’em out of our paint, and then just getting out in transition and playing the basketball that we play.”
In Game 4 especially, it felt like the Suns were caught shading over to show help on Luka Doncic. The Mavs methodically picked Phoenix apart, blowing by the first line of defense on the perimeter, kicking it out and swinging the ball around for wide-open 3s. Dallas shot 20-for-44 from beyond the arc, and the ball was humming.
But in Game 5, the Mavs accounted for a measly 9 assists — fewer than Chris Paul (10) by himself, and the fewest of any team in a playoff game since 2016. Williams said it was a matter of defending man-to-man for those first 2-3 dribbles, and not getting caught staring at the “magnet” that is Doncic when he starts trying to make a move one-on-one.
“It’s one of our pillars, being able to defend, and the one vein that was at a really high level tonight was just being able to guard the ball in one-on-one situations,” Williams said. “I thought early in the game, we forced them into some late-clock situations that helped us, and there were a number of guys that were able to stay in front of the ball tonight.”
For Booker (who was caught sagging off shooters repeatedly in Game 4) and Deandre Ayton (who was targeted like Rudy Gobert against that five-out offense), Game 5 represented a welcome return to form for the perimeter defense. The vast majority of Dallas’ 3s were contested, and both were plusses on that end of the floor.
“They’ll live and die by the 3,” Ayton said. “They have great shooters over there, and you just gotta have a certain sense of urgency when you’re closing out to them, ’cause they can put the ball on the floor as well and have you in the blender closing out and being late on passes. So tonight, I think the communication was really there tonight. Having your brother’s back, not having everybody on the iso on an island, but at the end of the day, we accepted the challenge.”
2. DA’s production
Speaking of DA, the Suns badly needed to get him going again. In Game 1, the big fella was unstoppable, going off for 25 points on 12-of-20 shooting. In Games 2-4, his numbers dwindled to 13 points on 10 shot attempts per game.
After talking about needing to get back to Game 1 form at Tuesday’s shootaround, Ayton felt he got to that level again in Game 5.
“It felt good, guys was looking for me down in there,” he said. “Even when I had minor little tweaks around the rim, they kept telling me, ‘Yo, DA, that’s what we want. Keep doing it. Keep putting pressure on these boys.’ It felt good and made me want to play a lot more defense on the other end as well.”
Ayton finished his night with 20 points and 9 rebounds on a tidy 9-of-13 shooting. The ball moved better, and Phoenix made it a better point of emphasis to get him involved, but part of that stemmed from closing out possessions the right way.
“The ball movement was there, our ability to get to the paint was there tonight,” Williams said. “But again, it’s the stops. When we can get stops and not have to call plays, that first pick-and-roll with DA has been pretty effective for us all year. I thought he did a really good job of playing in the paint, taking advantage of the switches against smaller guys.”
Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber have no chance of stopping DA. They held him in check by getting up underneath him with his perimeter touches, overplaying the Suns’ handoff-heavy sets and daring Ayton to beat their physical perimeter defense with his dribble.
In Game 5, the Suns got back to basics in getting Ayton touches closer to the basket, and it paid dividends, as they dominated the points in the paint, 44-24. But he was also simply more aggressive, and Phoenix used Dallas’ over-aggression on the perimeter against them, scheming for DA’s to attack off the dribble:
3. Getting Mikal Bridges going
The Suns won Game 5 by 30, and they didn’t even get a great (or even good) performance out of Chris Paul. So how does that happen? Well, Ayton and Mikal Bridges went back to being unfair.
In the first round, Bridges rose to the occasion with Booker out, averaging 17.3 points per game on 52.9 percent shooting, including 44.4 percent from deep. Through the first four games of this series, his numbers dipped to 10.5 points a night on 44.7 percent shooting, including 2-for-9 (22.2 percent) from 3.
Game 5 was a welcome return to form on both ends.
“His shot-making to start the game helped us,” Williams said. “It settled us down. He had a couple of corner 3s, I think, that gave us a bit of energy.”
Aside from the pair of early corner 3s, Bridges racked up 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting, including 2-for-5 from beyond the arc. He chipped in 7 rebounds and 4 steals while guarding Luka Doncic for the whole game too.
“Just from the eye test and what I felt in the game, I thought he did a really good job of pressuring a bit more tonight,” Williams said. “We were much more physical against [Doncic]. He’s got a high release, and he can make tough shots because of that release, and he’s longer than you think. But I thought Mikal and Jae [Crowder], Chris, with his ability to take charges, they were a bit more physical with him tonight.”
Doncic finished his night with 28 points, but he shot 10-of-23 from the floor, 2-for-8 from 3-point range and tallied only 2 assists to 4 turnovers.
“’Kal, he does it all year,” Paul said. “I think tonight was no exception. ‘Kal guards him most of the game, but they usually set screens to get ‘Kal off of him. So ‘Kal was amazing, but tonight, it was a team effort.”
4. Two rotation tweaks
We had suggested replacing JaVale McGee and Cam Payne’s minutes with Bismack Biyombo and either Aaron Holiday or Point Book lineups, respectively. Williams agreed on Bizzy, but went a different path for the backup point guard minutes, turning to Landry Shamet instead.
On the Biyombo front, while his 7 points and 6 rebounds don’t leap off the page, his +20 in 21 minutes sure does.
“You don’t know how it’s going to work out, but when we looked at some of the matchups and the energy that Biz brings to the game, it was a hard decision,” Williams said. “I tried to play all three [centers], but we felt like Biz’s energy would allow for us to make energy plays. He didn’t wow you with scoring and that kind of thing, but his attention to detail, his ability to play in multiple efforts on defense, and then he can finish around the basket.”
McGee only played 3 minutes, sparing the Suns’ defense a tough matchup where a 7-footer had to stay in drop coverage against Dallas’ five-out attack. Biyombo proved once again that he’s up to the task of switching out onto the perimeter in a pinch, even against an iso king like Luka Doncic.
“Man, that’s the Bizzy effect,” Ayton said. “It’s really contagious how that man can slide his feet and just bring that energy and give a guard in a pick-and-roll a different look. ‘Cause typical bigs, we’re always in the drop and we’re calling out a coverage where we’re not up so high. Just seeing him, how he changed the game up, being up so high and sliding his feet without fouling — me and JaVale sometimes look at each other on the bench, like, ‘I could do that too, bruh.’ So it’s just good seeing that and we have something else at the center position to do that.”
As for the backup point guard role, Payne only logged 4 minutes, all of which came in garbage time. It was the tough but right decision for Williams to make, given that Payne was putting up 4.9 points and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 31.7 percent (15.4 percent from deep) and getting targeted defensively every time down.
Shamet didn’t even need to produce much to be an improvement, but he did anyway, putting up 8 points and 4 assists in 19 minutes of action.
“In his minutes, he’s shown that he can guard and stay in front of the ball a lot better than most people think,” Williams said. “So that helped him, and then he can space the floor and then his ability to handle the ball and initiate with Book allows for him to be on the floor with Book.”
It was strange not seeing Payne’s infectious energy out on the court, but his performance had suffered to the point something had to be done. The Suns will need Payne again down the line, but they had to be encouraged by what they saw out of Shamet in that hybrid role.
“Super aggressive and super confident, and that’s exactly what we need out of him,” Booker said. “Taking pressure off Chris and I, bringing the ball up and getting us in actions and getting us in sets. So I think it was a big game for him, and it was good for us to see that.”
5. Winning the turnover and tempo battle
The Suns committed a total of 27 turnovers leading to 34 Dallas points in Games 1-2. Those numbers spiked to 34 turnovers leading to 45 Mavs points in Games 3-4, but they reverted back to more normal territory in Game 5.
On Tuesday, Phoenix committed only 12 turnovers, leading to 17 points for the Mavericks. Even better, the Suns turned up the pressure, forcing 18 turnovers that led to 24 points of their own.
“The length of our team and the aggression, I think, one, you have to pressure the ball,” Williams said. “Sometimes just pressuring the ball takes away a guy’s vision, and it allows for guys to get steals away from the ball. But that was one of those third quarter heightened awareness, come out of halftime with some juice, don’t ease into it. I thought we came out of the halftime with a great level of defensive focus.”
Raising the ball pressure and physicality played a huge role in making Dallas look more uncomfortable than they ever did back home. The Suns may have only been marked down for 11 fast-break points, but the increase in tempo made a huge difference compared to Games 3 and 4.
“I think that’s when we’re at our best, when we’re not taking the ball out the hoop and having to play a slower-pace game,” Booker said. “We like getting stops, getting out in transition, ’cause we have a lot of athletes, a lot of people that can make plays for each other.”