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DALLAS — For the second time in these 2022 NBA Playoffs, the Phoenix Suns find themselves in a 2-2 dogfight. But after a second straight underwhelming performance on the road, they need to rediscover their identity on both ends of the floor.
Game 3’s 103-94 loss to the Dallas Mavericks was easy to chalk up as an aberration. The Suns had dominated the first two games, the Mavs were desperate, Phoenix wouldn’t play that poorly again, yadda yadda yadda. But then for Sunday’s matinee Game 4, the Suns were just as lifeless in a 111-101 defeat.
Phoenix isn’t panicking, possessing home-court advantage in what is now a best-of-three series. But this team also hasn’t looked like their regular-season juggernaut selves in about a month.
“Everybody’s gotta take ownership, and it starts with me,” coach Monty Williams said. “I made some decisions tonight and put us in a tough spot.”
In his and the Suns’ defense, Chris Paul probably isn’t going to foul out of another playoff game, let alone foul out with 9 minutes left on the clock. A lot of Phoenix’s shortcomings in the last two games are fixable, like Chris Paul resuming Point God mode. Heading back home, the Suns are still in the driver’s seat.
But much like their first-round battle with the New Orleans Pelicans, a once inevitable team suddenly feels vulnerable. Here are a few adjustments that need to be made for Game 5.
1. Close the 3-point disparity
Few would dispute that the Suns are the better team, but they’re fighting an uphill battle against simple math: Through four games, Dallas is averaging 40.8 attempts per game from beyond the arc, and they’re making 40.5 percent of them. The Suns, despite making 43.4 percent of their 3s, are averaging only 26.5 attempts per game.
Phoenix has been the more accurate team, but it doesn’t matter when the Mavs are averaging five more 3-point makes per game.
“It’s a lot,” Chris Paul said of the Mavs’ 20 made 3s. “Man, we’ve gotta be better.”
The gap was glaring on Sunday, as Dallas went 20-for-44 from beyond the arc. Dorian Finney-Smith (eight) made nearly as many 3-pointers as the entire Suns roster (nine) by himself. Davis Bertans — who should be unplayable defensively — wasn’t targeted enough, which not only allowed him to stay on the floor but go 4-of-6 from downtown.
“I thought our first-half defense was about as bad as it’s been all year as far as recognizing the shooters,” Williams said.
The Suns weren’t terrible from beyond the arc, shooting 36 percent, but getting outscored by 33 points on 3s and taking 19 fewer attempts is asking for trouble…especially when the midrange well dried up in Dallas.
During the regular season, the Suns were the NBA’s fifth-best team at defending the 3-point line. But with all the attention being paid to Luka Doncic, the Mavs have sliced and diced Phoenix’s defense over the last two games like they did to the Utah Jazz in the first round.
“We’re allowing too many middle drives,” Williams explained. “That’s a recipe for disaster. Most teams like to funnel it away from the middle, ’cause you have more guys to help. When you give up middle drives, it can, one, pull in the slot defender, and two, sometimes the guy on the block is looking right at Luka, and it’s hard to get out to the corner.”
The Suns got burned on those corner 3s again in Game 4. According to Cleaning The Glass, Dallas is leading all playoff teams in corner 3-point attempts, taking 14.6 percent of their shots from that area. They’re also making 46.4 percent of those attempts.
Deandre Ayton fared well against small-ball in last year’s Western Conference Finals against the LA Clippers, but the Mavs have caught him over-helping in the paint several times, swinging the ball once or twice to locate the open corner shooter. The early drop coverage certainly didn’t help, but some of these are just late or nonexistent rotations:
Ayton has talked at length about how much he enjoys defending guards out on the perimeter. He relishes the opportunity to prove he’s not a traditional big who can be played off the floor. But the Mavericks turned him into a pigeon, and he’ll need to step it up in a big way in Game 5 to redeem that Game 4 effort.
Part of the problem is how far the Suns are sagging off their man to show help on Doncic. In Games 1 and 2, they waged a war of attrition on the Mavs star, letting him tire himself out with high-scoring first halves before targeting him ruthlessly on the defensive end to wear him down.
Now, the Suns are still soft-switching and allowing the Mavs to target whatever mismatches they like, but the ball is moving and Dallas’ role players stepped up at home. Phoenix is getting beat off the dribble, and Doncic’s court vision is helping him stay a step ahead of the pre-rotations and over-helping defenders on the weak-side.
Devin Booker stated the obvious: They have to fix their defensive rotations and schemes, because a lot of the 3s Dallas made in Game 4 were wide open. Book should know that full well, since he was the worst offender when it came to getting caught sagging off shooters:
“It’s gonna take us to stay in front of our man,” Devin Booker said. “Don’t give him no angle, don’t let him get in our paint and just make it tough on ’em.”
If the Suns are going to be aggressive and trap Luka Doncic, they need to lean into it. Right now, they’re simply shading over and getting caught in the middle ground as soon as he drives and kicks. Doncic himself shot 1-for-10 from 3, but all the attention on him freed up high-quality looks for everyone else, putting Phoenix in rotation.
“You have to recognize that and try to keep him from just getting to the paint, maybe forcing him to shoot a shot,” Williams said. “We were helping to keep him out in the paint, and then there were times where you get mesmerized with him dribbling the ball and he fires a perfect pass for a 3.”
As Jae Crowder has said multiple times over the last few weeks, once the playoffs arrive, it’s less about scheme and more about execution, having some pride and stopping your man, mano a mano. In this case, it’s about both all of those things, but if the Suns’ top-five defense can’t keep Doncic, Jalen Brunson and the rest of the Mavs’ drivers in front of them, their franchise-best season is going to end well short of the ultimate goal.
Part of closing the 3-point gap is simply hoisting more 3s. But the other part of it, the more important part, is the Suns forcing the Mavs to take tougher shots by getting back to their defensive identity, which so often dictated opponents’ shots instead of being on their heels.
“It’s a domino effect of a lot of different things, but we’re trying to overcompensate for one matchup, and we’re just scrambling,” Crowder said. “It’s a scramble drill, and they do a good job of spacing the floor. They have shooters everywhere, they have playmakers. But we gotta get back to just trying to keep the ball in front of you as best as possible. And we will get back to it, I know, at home.”
2. Make a pair of key rotation changes
One of Monty Williams’ best qualities is his trust in his players. Even through rough patches, that faith has paid off so many times with role players and starters alike working through struggles and showing up in key games. One of the Suns’ mantras is “reps remove doubt,” and everyone on this roster puts in the requisite work to earn that trust.
But in the smaller sample sizes of a playoff series, where the margin for error is thinner and rotations shorten, that faith has sometimes proven to be a detriment. For the Suns’ first 10 postseason games, Cam Payne has been the most glaring example.
Through the first four games of the series, Payne is averaging 4.9 points and 2.4 assists in 15.1 minutes per game, shooting 31.7 percent from the field and 15.4 percent from 3-point range. Those numbers have plummeted from his regular-season averages of 10.8 points and 4.9 assists in 22 minutes per game on 40.9 percent shooting, including 33.6 percent from deep.
Before Game 4, Williams chalked up his struggles to the adjustment of being on opponents’ scouting reports now.
“You can see the way teams guard him, when he gets the ball, they’re loaded up, as other teams say — we call it ‘shift’ — to try to take away his paint touches,” Williams said. “So he’s gotta play his game. I’ve talked to him about that all year long, but especially in the first round, I just said, ‘Go out there and hoop.’ And we can live with the results.”
If the Suns are living with those results, they’re slowing dying with them too. They’ve been outscored by 25 points during Payne’s 151 minutes in the playoffs, the second-worst mark on the team, trailing only Torrey Craig (-28).
With Paul in foul trouble and Payne virtually unplayable, Phoenix resorted to a “Point Book” lineup in the second half on Sunday. Aaron Holiday is still inexplicably not getting a look, but Williams did say we may see more of the Point Book lineups depending on what they see in film review.
“We did it a little bit post All-Star break, but we haven’t had to rely on it as much, but we may have to do it a bit more,” Williams said. “Cam — you know, you have off games. We’re going to look at the film first before we make a decision, but I feel like that’s a lineup, one, it may help us on offense, but two, defensively, it gives us bigger guys out there so when we switch, it helps you rebounding and it helps you with size when they have Luke trying to get to the basket.”
Whether it’s more Point Book lineups as the Suns stagger his minutes with Chris Paul’s, or simply unleashing Holiday and seeing what he can offer in high-energy spurts, Phoenix has to have a shorter leash for Payne.
The other rotation tweak is replacing JaVale McGee’s minutes with Bismack Biyombo. If the Suns aren’t going to feed McGee on high-quality looks around the basket, he’s not going to be able to make up for the disadvantages he faces against a five-out offense. This is a nightmarish matchup for him, and the Mavs are killing him in the drop, getting easy perimeter looks whenever he checks in:
Biyombo fared better when Williams turned to him in the second half, and having a more mobile big who can at least hold his own on the perimeter will be key in helping turn around the bench minutes.
3. Take care of the ball
In Games 1-2, the Suns committed a total of 27 turnovers leading to 34 points for Dallas. In Games 3-4, those numbers spiked to 34 turnovers leading to 45 Mavs points.
It’s pretty simple: Stop giving a low-turnover opponent opportunities to capitalize on mistakes.
“It’s the same story, 17 turnovers and it added up to I think 38 points off of second-chance and offensive rebounds,” Williams said. “So again, it’s something that has hurt us.”
In Game 3, Paul had an uncharacteristic 7 turnovers. Foul trouble plagued him all night in Game 4 before he fouled out early in the fourth quarter, and his absence deprived the Suns of a floor general capable of calming them down and making opponents pay with the right play calls at the right time.
Credit the Mavs for speeding the Suns up on that end, but whether Paul’s out there or not, this group has to stop beating themselves.
“I think we got quality looks at times, but at times, we got sped up,” Crowder said. “We turned the ball over way too much. I’m looking at the turnovers, that’s not us. We haven’t done that all year. It’s tough to win games, especially on the road, with almost 20 turnovers. That sticks out like a sore thumb, but the shot quality was there.”
4. Feed DA
Never did the “Feed DA” crowd think those words would come from yours truly, but the day has finally arrived. Call it vindicAyton if you must, but the whole advantage of Ayton hanging with small-ball is his improved ability to punish mismatches on the other end.
The Suns aren’t doing enough to find him on that end, and DA isn’t doing enough to assert himself against a smaller backline of Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber.
“They’ve done a good job of taking us out our first option,” Crowder explained. “I think Game 1 and 2, we got first option and you saw the outcome of it. [Jason] Kidd and his coaching staff have done a great job of just scouting and taking us out our first option. I think that’s what it comes down to, that’s playoff basketball. And we gotta counter that and adjust and make plays on the backside.”
In Game 1, Ayton was an absolute force the Mavs had no answer for, scoring 25 points on 12-of-20 shooting. In the three games since, he’s averaging just 13 points and 10 shot attempts.
DA has missed some bunnies and easy looks, but most of his touches are coming out on the perimeter as the dribble handoff guy or the release valve when the Mavs double on screens. Powell and Kleber are getting up underneath him, rushing him away from the basket and flustering him to where he’s not even thinking about using his dribble to attack.
Everything is east-west for Ayton right now, when it needs to be north-south. Dallas has done well to clamp down on DA as the first option, but Phoenix has to do a better job feeding the ball to a guy with an unblockable, automatic hook shot.
“They sped us up a little bit and they had us not looking at the second or third options, and we’re taking that first look,” Crowder said. “Sometimes you gotta work the offense, and I think that’s when we can find big fella down there sitting on the mismatch. But we as we get sped up with the flow of the game, you just start to tend to shoot the first look, and it’s like, it’s more to be made on the backside of the defense.”
5. Get Mikal Bridges going
Ayton’s lack of engagement on both ends during Game 4 was alarming, but the Suns usually have enough to overcome that type of occasional hitch. In the playoffs, that margin for error gets smaller. When Chris Paul has two of his worst playoff games in a Suns uniform back-to-back, it gets even smaller.
And when Mikal Bridges suddenly disappears on the offensive end, you get results like Games 3 and 4.
In the first round, with Booker out and the Suns in desperate need of offensive help, Bridges stepped up alongside Paul and Ayton. Bridges averaged 17.3 points per game on 52.9 percent shooting in that series, canning 44.4 percent of his triples while locking up CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.
Through the first four games of this series, he’s mostly been a non-factor on offense, averaging 10.5 points on 44.7 percent shooting, including 2-for-9 (22.2 percent) from 3.
Bridges has a monumental task of keeping either Doncic or Brunson in front of him, and in Game 4, foul trouble hindered his night. But with all these soft switches, Bridges isn’t even expending the usual energy level it’d take to hound Doncic up and down the court. No matter what he’s doing defensively, they still need his drives, his cuts and his 3-point shooting to take pressure of Booker and Paul.
That hasn’t shown up in this second round yet, and with all the pressure on Phoenix in Game 5, the Suns will be hoping he, Ayton and Paul can all turn around their performances from a disastrous trip to Dallas.