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Bourguet Breakdown: How the Suns mercilessly hunted Luka Doncic in Game 2

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
May 5, 2022

“Golob” is the word of the day after Game 2. That’s Slovenian for “pigeon,” which is exactly what the Phoenix Suns turned Luka Doncic into Wednesday night.

Make no mistake about it: Chris Paul and Monty Williams were hunting pigeon as ruthlessly and relentlessly as they have since Michael Porter Jr. in last year’s Western Conference semifinals.

In a resounding 129-109 win, the Suns atoned for their lackluster close to Game 1 by throttling the Dallas Mavericks down the stretch. Trailing by 2 points at halftime, Phoenix outscored their second-round opponent 71-49 in the second half, including 40-26 in the final frame.

What stood out most was how surgically efficient they were in those final two frames. The Suns shot a franchise-record 64.5 percent overall, due in large part to their absurd 29-of-41 shooting from the floor (70.7 percent) and 9-of-16 shooting from 3-point range (56.3 percent) in the second half.

In the fourth quarter, they were just historically efficient, shooting 16-of-19 overall (84.2 percent). It was just the third time in the last 25 years a team shot 80 percent or better in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, and their true-shooting percentage put them in rarified air as well:

So how did the Suns manufacture the most efficient postseason outing in franchise history? Well, by spamming the “run play at Luka Doncic” button. Here’s the latest Bourguet Breakdown on how they did it.

Monty’s rope-a-dope strategy

None of this is meant to disparage Doncic or downplay his impact. Through the first two games of this series, the 23-year-old is averaging 40.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists on 53.8 percent shooting, including 42.9 percent from 3. He’s clearly an unsolvable problem, and there’s a reason that — through his first 15 games, at least — he has the best all-time scoring average in NBA playoff history (34.4 points per game), just ahead of Michael Jordan (33.4 points per game).

For the second game in a row, Doncic put up MVP-caliber numbers without much help.

“He had a great game, but no one else showed,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “We’ve got to get other guys shooting the ball better. We can’t win with just him out there scoring 30 a night — not at this time of the year.”

Unfortunately for Dallas, that may be by design.

In the first half, it felt like the Suns were playing a dangerous game. They were soft switching on Luka Doncic, allowing him to target mismatches rather than keeping Mikal Bridges glued to him; they didn’t stagger Devin Booker and Chris Paul; and in similar fashion to Paul’s extended first-half rest in Game 1, Book came out with a minute and change left in the first period, despite typically playing that whole quarter.

It felt like Monty Williams was trying to see how much he could get away with, and that he was bordering on getting greedy. In reality, he was waging a war of attrition. Doncic got his 24 points in the first half, but as soon as the second half began, the adjustments came on both ends.

“Obviously, you have to be not just impressed but proud of the way that we continue to win games mentally,” Williams said. “I thought the shots that they hit in the first half, that can deflate you, when you’re playing that hard and a guy or guys continue to hit shots. To only be down 2 points said a lot about, one, our defense and our ability to just hold the line.”

The Suns were a lot less inclined to switch after the break, letting their Defensive Player of the Year runner-up hound Doncic through screens. While the Mavs superstar still finished with 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting, he was also forced into 7 turnovers, only scored 11 second-half points and finished as a -28 in 36 minutes.

The reason? The Suns turned him into a pigeon, which is their internal term for a player who gets targeted as a defensive liability.

“I think they’re trying to go at matchups they like, and we’re doing the same thing on the other end,” Booker said. “So, tough matchup to guard, but he’s gonna have to guard a bit.”

After playing 44 minutes and taking 30 shots in Game 1, Doncic looked dead tired in the second half of Games 1 and 2. The Suns’ rope-a-dope strategy of letting Luka go off while clamping down on everyone else is working, and it’s made him a bigger, more exhausted target on the other end.

“Well yeah, he played like 44 minutes in Game 1, we talked about that,” Jae Crowder said. “If you’re gonna be out there that long, we obviously feel like we gotta make him work even more, not be able to shoot 40 shots a night, maybe get that number down a little bit. So I think tonight we just did a good job of just fluidly running into stuff on that end of the court, and I think defensively, just give him multiple different looks to try to keep him off-balance.”

Targeting Doncic

The Suns wasted no time unveiling their second-half adjustments, going at Doncic right out of the gate. The plan was to use Doncic’s man — in this case, Jae Crowder — as the screener, forcing Luka to make the right reads, step up and expend energy on both ends.

Crowder didn’t even need to make contact with Dorian Finney-Smith to free up Devin Booker for an open look on this weak-side curl for 3. Doncic is too deep in the paint to help and doesn’t bother trying to show, let alone shooting the gap, which leaves DFS out of position by the time the ball swings to Book.

Knowing the Mavs were trying to hide Doncic on Crowder, the Suns used him quite a bit as a screener, and his ability to put the ball on the ground compounded the issue.

Here, Doncic closes out on the popping Crowder like he’s wearing concrete shoes. Crowder blows right by him and finds JaVale McGee for an easy dunk:

That wasn’t the only blow-by Crowder had in the third. Another poor closeout at the top of the key yielded another gimme for McGee on Crowder’s drive:

But the Suns certainly weren’t done when Crowder got his breather. Cam Johnson immediately took his place as the designated screener, and his mobility gave Doncic even more problems.

On this screen, Reggie Bullock works hard to trail Booker around Johnson’s screen and recover to his man with the ball. Johnson leaks out to the 3-point line, where Doncic has no hope of getting back to his man in time. Davis Bertans makes the rotation, but Johnson freezes him with a simple ball fake, drives past and puts up an easy floater over Doncic, the not-so-intimidating last line of defense:

On a similar set, Paul finds Johnson wide open for a 3 on the pick-and-pop. Doncic is in drop coverage, with no intention (or energy) to recover to his man:

On the next Cam Johnson screen, the Mavericks just decide to switch it and try to minimize the damage. The problem is, Chris Paul is the ball-handler, and this vengeful Point God hasn’t forgotten how often Dallas has targeted him with switches onto Doncic on the other end.

The midrange swish is thoroughly predictable:

“We’ve just got to play better defense,” Doncic said. “That’s it. It’s mostly me, but I think we’ve got to adjust our shots better, like the way we did in Utah.”

The problem is, Game 2 showed the Suns are more than happy to treat Doncic like he’s the new Michael Pigeon Jr. until they’re proven wrong. According to Second Spectrum (via ESPN), the Suns targeted the Slovenian star as the screen defender in 19 on-ball screens in the second half. They averaged 1.81 points per possession on those plays, which is the highest mark allowed by a player in any game over the last three years (minimum 15 targets).

But wait, there’s more! Through the first two games, the Suns are shooting 50 percent directly against Doncic, per NBA.com. Of course, they were quick to downplay the extent to which they were targeting a specific player with an offensive skill-set they respect.

“We feel like we have guys that can put them in certain positions, but within what we do,” Williams said. “We don’t want to just pull a guy into a pick-and-roll just to go iso with 18 seconds on the clock. We want to make teams work, and over the course of the game, we feel like that serves us well. We’re just trying to win. If we can strategically put guys in a set so that we can be efficient, we’ll do it.”

That’s not to suggest the Suns are obtuse about what they’re doing though. If the above clips don’t confirm it, Booker and Paul’s eye contact (and priceless attempt to hold it together) when asked about making Doncic work defensively said it all:

Paul is smart not to give Doncic any bulletin-board material as the series shifts to Dallas, but the film speaks volumes about what he was seeing on the court in Game 2.

The Point God advantage

This isn’t breaking news by any stretch, but Paul is one of the best the NBA has ever seen when it comes to reading defenses, targeting mismatches and getting to his spots late in games. Wednesday was just another example, and most of those buckets came directly at Luka Doncic’s expense.

At the 11:23 mark in the fourth quarter, the Suns led 89-86. Over the next seven and a half minutes, they went on a 33-9 run to build a 27-point advantage, and the Point God scored or assisted on 19 consecutive points for one stretch of that run.

In the fourth, Paul turned a war of attrition into a full frontal assault.

Doncic in isolation? Food.

Doncic again switched onto Paul on the perimeter? A straight-line drive right past him and dump-off to a cutting Cam Johnson for the bucket.

And while it’s understandable to see Paul get to his spot in the midrange or drive and dish like he’s done for his entire career, when a soon-to-be 37-year-old is leaving you in the dust for multiple layups, that’s when something desperately has to change from Dallas’ perspective:

CP3 scored 14 of his 28 points in the fourth, preying on pigeon with surprising verve for a vegan. Booker, who grew up watching Chris Paul games on TV with his dad, cited his ability to manipulate the defense as his favorite aspect of CP3’s scoring.

“It impresses us every time we see it but doesn’t surprise us,” Book said. “It’s just the will to win. He sees a matchup he likes, and you can hear their bench yelling, ‘Send him left!’ You can try whatever you want to do, but he has a rebuttal move for you at every time, and not only he can score, he can make a play for somebody else if you leave your man. So, tough matchup.”

Falling right in line with Williams’ quiet rope-a-dope strategy, Paul often spends the first half analyzing what opponents are throwing at him before unleashing a fully charged attack in the fourth quarter. He scans for the weaknesses, pinpoints the openings and then exploits them. In Game 2, Doncic was the main target.

“What’s amazing is it feels like for the first two quarters, he’s relaxed, he’s chillin’,” Crowder said. “He’s not too aggressive, he’s just reading the game, and then he has a switch where he just turns it on. He sees how they’re defending him, he sees what’s on the backside, he sees the different coverages they’re throwing at him and he just attacks it.”

By the time that CP3 barrage was over, Doncic was too drained to offer any sort of resistance. Two of the three consecutive 3s Booker hit to add insult to injury late in Game 2 were a direct result of Doncic quite literally being unable to move.

On the first one, he’s rooted in the paint, matched up on no one. Jalen Brunson exasperatedly waves his arms, wondering who needs to pick someone up. Booker gets a wide-open 3 in the confusion, as Finney-Smith literally shoves his own man to the ground in desperation:

On the second, Doncic lazily trails Book around another curl screen, giving him room to launch.

Those may have been Booker buckets, but you’d best believe they were a direct byproduct of the mental warfare Chris Paul waged on Dallas’ superstar.

Potential Mavs adjustments and Suns counters

So what can the Mavericks do, finding themselves in a conundrum where their best offensive weapon is also their biggest defensive liability?

The Mavs tried sending a double-team once or twice to help cover for Doncic and minimize the damage at the source, but the Suns’ ball movement out of those doubles makes them a threat that’s impossible to completely plug up. They got plenty of experience here during last year’s playoff run, and now they have a deeper, better roster.

“When those guys respect our scorers and [they] get double-teamed, we gotta be aggressive out of the double-team to keep the defense true, keep the defense honest,” Crowder said. “I think tonight we did a good job with that. Obviously, sometimes teams just double-team Book high, and we have something set for that. Every time we gotta make plays though out of it.”

There are several wrinkles Kidd could try and throw the Suns’ way, but none represents a permanent fix. Going zone for short spells, just to mix things up, could help throw Phoenix off-balance before theshooting and high basketball I.Q. takes over.

Opting for a more Brunson-centric offense early on is another possibility, just to preserve Doncic for the fourth quarter, but Booker has taken that assignment personally. This is a brutal matchup for Brunson: After putting up 27.8 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting in the first round, he’s managed just 11.0 points a night on 31.3 percent shooting in two games against Phoenix.

In any case, it’s pretty clear Luka Doncic has become a pigeon for the Mavs on the defensive end. With fatigue already setting in, Dallas is going to have to get creative to help their best player conserve energy for the second half.

They can’t lose his production offensively, and defensively, he’s been such a turnstile that his 40 points per game haven’t even mattered.

“We need to do a better job of helping him,” Kidd said. “They’re bringing him up into everything. We knew that coming into the series. We knew that in the last series. We did a better job of protecting one another, not just Luka. We’ve got to get back to protecting one another for Game 3 back at home.”

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