Phoenix’s first trip to Dallas during the second round series against the Mavericks was eventful. Before the team flew last Thursday for Game 3, the Suns in Arizona had an hour-long layoff due to storms in Dallas. Delays forced them to rehearse late in the evening as they arrived in and out of the bowels of a downtown Dallas arena minutes before “The Who” hits the stage that night.
Things didn’t go any better the next day on the field. The Suns will lose Game 3 — a game in which Chris Paul committed seven transformations on his 37th birthday. Luka DonjicIn the meantime, he was proving to be a tough cover, averaging 35.3 over the first three matches. So when Coach of the Year winner Monty Williams — who led Phoenix to the Finals last year and had to face the best players in the game such as LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo during that run — was asked after the game if he enjoyed the adjustments and strategic pressure that come with managing a playoff streak. He was only half joking when he answered.
“Does it look like I’m having fun?” He said.
There’s nothing fun about trying to slow down one of the greatest goalscorers in post-season history. This is the task of the first seed Suns in a home and away match, and to compete fiercely with the Mavericks in the second round.
In his brief post-season career, Dončić has already proven to be one of the most lethal offensive weapons of the second season of the NBA. With 21 playoffs in a career, Doncic is averaging 32.5 points per game second only to Michael Jordan. And scoring is just one aspect of what makes the Slovenian star great: His death could be just as devastating, especially when Dallas decides to surround him with bowlers. (Dallas has averaged 10.1 corner kicks per game this season—the fourth most in the league. That’s increased to 11.5 in the playoffs, most teams remaining, a credit to the attention given to Dončić.)
On the other side of the ball from this single strength is Phoenix, who posted the third best defensive rating during the regular season. The Suns boast one of DPOY’s best perimeter defenders runner-up Mikal Bridges, clever veterinarians in Paul and Jae Crowder, and a thriving rim guard in Deandre Ayton. And during the series’ first five games, in which the Suns lead 3-2, Phoenix had the upper hand at slowing Doni’s pace.
Focus on slight.
In the most basic terms of participating in the series, the Suns had to figure out how to stop Dončić in high screen and roll, the basic procedure for nearly every great scorer in the playoffs. And it starts with Bridges, who has guarded Dončić for 20 minutes longer playing time than any other Maverick in the series.
Bridges told SI after the first game: “To play against incredible talent is a challenge for me personally. It makes me better as a player. I definitely accept the challenge.”
In a perfect Phoenix world, Bridges and any big man in the game – Ayton, Javale McGee, or Bismack Biyombo – could have Donči and whoever counts with just a couple of defenders. While switching has become popular in the NBA, the Suns would prefer to give up their position in most scenarios. Phoenix’s perfect possession would see Bridges fight through the screen and catch up with Dončić before he got too deep into the paint, giving him enough time to recover from the screen setter.
But it’s rarely that simple with Dončić. He is adept at keeping his first defender on his back after receiving a screen. He’s one of the top scorers out of the untied area, which means that once he starts sniffing at the elbow, your defense is already in deep trouble. And while he wasn’t exactly consistent of the three, you have to respect Dončić’s ability to retreat beyond the bow, because if he goes from deep, at this point your fate is in his hands.
In every game of the series, at some point, the Suns had to stop falling and start switching due to Luka’s scoring prowess. This is the moment the assist defense comes into play, and that is arguably the gist of this series and the most important aspect of what the Suns do when Dallas has the ball.
“Our plan is to defend the ball,” McGee says. “We try not to over-help because he has an amazing passing ability to get paint and looks like he’s going to shoot, pass to a man wide open for three.”
Triples were key for Dallas in the playoffs. The Mavericks abused their opponent in the first round, the Jazz, by spacing the ground and attacking weak defenders. Once the Dallas ball player headed toward the edge, the Utah assist’s defenders would have to collapse into the paint and this would create open triples that were often just one pass.
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Phoenix fell victim to that strategy as well this series. The Mavs fired nearly 41 hat-tricks per night over the first four games of the series, including 44 in their Game 4 win. Whether the Suns were in a downfall or switching all screens, their attempts to stop Dončić opened up opportunities on the periphery, because who was far away off the ball was shaded in its direction.
And here the details of the basketball game become very important, even if it is almost imperceptible unless you are as attentive as possible. If you’re Jae Crowder, for example, and you’re a cover shooter on the wing, how do you decide how far you’d like to go away from your man when Dončić wins a matching key at the top of the key? One foot in the paint or nothing? Do you lean on the movie? Instinct? Feeling the game?
“I think you put all of those things into one thing,” Crowder said. “Once you get into the game you have to read and respond. You have to really know the shifts, you have to know what your teammates are doing. Obviously knowing your opponent is probably the first thing, knowing what the Mavericks are trying to do on the offensive end.
“Donči does a great job reading the game and knowing where all his teammates are on the court. We are playing chess now.”
Crowder is fond of saying that playoffs begin as a chess match before eventually turn into hand by hand battle. At some point, what happens on Earth can’t be trained. Either you stay in front of your man or you don’t. As when McGee is on the field, Dončić will almost certainly try to attack him in a substitution. Just because this is a favorable match for Dallas, McGee won’t simply give up a basket.
“My plan to play is to guard him the way the bouncer guards him,” says McGee, who actually stripped Donči and scored a goal in reverse on a Fastbreak in Game 1. “I’m not looking for help. If he shoots that third move, he does it on Everyone. But those who drive to the edge where they bully the guys, get them over the edge or get out, I’m there and I’m trying to lock that in.”
McGee mentions that, against Dallas, the Phoenix VIPs have to think like a bouncer, especially when the Mavs go into their wide pentathlon appearance and bring in Maxi Kleber for Dwight Powell. Through the first four games of the series, Luca Kleiber, Jalen Bronson, Reggie Bullock, and Dorian Finney Smith’s five-man group scored a net rating of 18.8, including an astonishing 121.9 attacking efficiency. In this lineup, Phoenix usually has to switch more than once, and one foul by an assistant defender can result in an easy pass for Dončić and three wide open for one of the bowlers. Communication is key here. In each pick and roll game, the Suns talk to each other about which way to send the ball handler, when to switch, and where the help is coming from.
In Game 4, despite the Suns’ commitment not to over-help, that’s exactly what they did. Dončić scored just 26 points in a 9 of 25 shot, but sent his best 11 assists. After the game, Williams lamented the extra steps taken by the Dallas pitchers, noting that he might have been better off living with Luca’s steps. (Dončić only shot 1 of 10 out of three that night.)
In Game 5, Phoenix didn’t come out with a radically different defense. While Cam Payne—who struggled on both ends of the floor against Dallas—was left out of the spin, Suns didn’t have some sort of eureka moment and devised an entirely new scheme to slow the Mavs down. Instead, they were better positioned on shooters, remaining a half-step or a full step from the perimeter. And Williams had to trust the defenders on his attacking points to win Manu Mano fights more often against Donči. Results? The Mavs shot and made the fewest triples in the series. And for good measure, Dallas also finished Game 5 with the lowest nursing total in the second round.
“When they are hired, they are one, if not the best defensive team in the NBA,” Donči said after the game. Mavs coach Jason Kidd added that the Suns did a good job of preventing the Mavs from getting into the paint, forcing Dallas to settle into isolation over expulsions.
“They will live and die by all three,” Ayton said after the match. “They have great shooters out there, and you have to have a certain sense of urgency when you get close to them, because they can put the ball on the floor as well and put you in a mixer, closing late on passes. … But in the end, we took the challenge, man. in front of the ball, and I’ve seen it.”
As inconsequential as it sounds, Phoenix’s best option for ending this streak might be to let Luca go one-on-one and see if he has the stamina to do it for four quarters. Trading the open triples of the two in dispute is probably Suns’ best proposition. And unlike Jazz, Williams has defenders to use such a strategy, because while Phoenix might not win every switch, he also doesn’t allow a throwing line at the edge. While Luka can dominate post-ops or try to bully his way into the paint, it’s just too tiring to play that way when Dallas doesn’t seem keen on using other ballplayers as often. Staying home on bowlers also prevents them from getting into a rhythm, as they were in Game 4 when Vinnie Smith and Davis Bertans got together to shoot 12 of 18 from depths.
Of course, there are still a myriad of adjustments to be made to either side of the ball for either team that can affect the course of this series. Williams was keen to point out after a training session in Dallas that coaches have been messing around since the start of the regular season, although he admitted in the playoffs that he had to find the balance between overreacting and making the right adjustments.
“We understand the team we are on,” McGee says. “We are the team that has had 64 games. We understand that we are not going to win every game. We definitely have a proper fear. We know going into a streak we might lose one or two. We don’t want to, but it is possible. But that is why we have days Every now and then to go back to our dominant ways.”
It’s clear that Sun’s tweaks between Games 4 and 5 resulted in a dominant performance. But the Mavs will surely be looking for their own counters, in attack and defense, as they face elimination at home. However, at this point, both teams know what the other wants to play. And implementation will ultimately be more important than any kind of comprehensive schematic discovery. It may not be fun for the coaches involved, but it is undoubtedly fun to watch.
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