10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Suns -6, Over/Under: 213.0
After a one-sided start to this Western Conference Semifinal, it appears that we have ourselves a series, as the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns look to break the deadlock in this all-important Game Five from Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. My, oh my, what a difference a few days has made for the Mavericks (52-30, 4th in Western Conference), who after falling into an 0-2 hole have rallied back to square this series away at two games apiece. So, what in the name of Dirk Nowitzki has happened to Dallas, you ask? Well, in the most basic of phrases, in what has commonly been referred to as a make or miss league, they’ve been making a lot more than their opponent. Granted, even though they were beaten soundly in Games One (121-114) and Two (129-109), the Mavs had very little trouble finding the bottom of the net; they averaged 111.5 points on 46.3% shooting from the field, including a blistering 41.3% from beyond the arc, despite being relegated to just 17.5 assists. The problem was that they simply had ZERO answers for the Suns, who posted torrid numbers of 125.0 points, 56.9% shooting, and 45.3% from downtown. However, that all changed once the scene shifted to American Airlines Center, where the hosts really locked in on the defensive end of court, reminding us all why they were one of the best teams in that regard this season. Indeed, the improvement on defense was significant under (Head Coach) Jason Kidd, who in his third tenure with the franchise oversaw an evolution in Northern Texas; his troops ranked sixth overall in defensive efficiency (109.4), second in points allowed (104.7), and first in three-pointers conceded (10.9). And it’s with that said, that the Mavericks finally revealed themselves to that end, smothering the visiting side to the tune of just 97.5 points on 45.6% shooting, including 41.5% from three in Games Three (103-94) and Four (111-101). Though Phoenix has still managed to shoot a stellar percentage, they’ve been completely disrupted at the point of attack, as Dallas has harassed them into seventeen turnovers in each of the last two contests, parlaying that into a combined FORTY-FIVE points via takeaways. This is how you turn the tables against a team that has outrebounded you throughout the series (-40), though it certainly helps to be able to make it rain from the perimeter. As we stated earlier, the Mavs have carried over their three-point shooting from their conquest of the Jazz in the First Round, where they outscored Utah by a whopping 132 points in that regard. Through the first four games of this Western Conference Semifinal, they’ve bested the Suns by SIXTY points on threes, which translates to a 15-point advantage per contest. This was clearly the case in Sunday’s 111-101 victory, as they drilled 20-of-44 triples (45.5%), topping them by THIRTY-THREE points in that category. For the third consecutive game, Kidd’s charges started quickly, shooting 13-of-21 overall (61.9%) and 8-of-13 from long range (61.5%) in a first quarter that they won in convincing fashion, 37-25. In the end, (All-NBA Guard) Luka Doncic (28.4 PTS, 45.7% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 74.4%, 9.1 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.6 BLK, 25.1 PER) led the way with twenty-six points despite just 9-of-25 shooting from the field (36.0%), and 1-of-10 from beyond the arc (10.0%), though he did knock down 7-of-8 free-throws (87.5%), while totaling seven rebounds, eleven assists, and three steals. The Slovenian international has been excellent throughout this series, nearly averaging a triple-double with 33.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists, but the biggest difference between the first two games in the desert and these last two in the Lone Star State has been the emergence of the supporting cast, which has been nothing short of essential to their success. After torching the Jazz for 27.8 points on 48.4% shooting and 36.4% from downtown, with much of coming in Doncic’s absence due to a strained calf muscle, (emerging Guard) Jalen Brunson (16.3 PTS, 50.2% FG, 37.3% 3FG, 84.0% FT, 3.9 REB, 4.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 17.1 PER) struggled mightily in Phoenix, where he could muster a pedestrian 11.0 points on 32.1% shooting and 25.0% from three. However, he’s certainly enjoyed the home cooking in Dallas, posting 23.0 points on 44.7% shooting, including twenty-eight points in Game Three. And then there is (unheralded Forward) Dorian Finney-Smith (11.0 PTS, 47.1% FG, 39.5% 3FG, 67.5% FT, 4.7 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.1 TL, 0.5 BLK, 12.5 PER), who has really grown into a valuable supporting actor alongside Luka; the 29-year-old scored fourteen in Game Three before going off for twenty-four on Mother’s Day, drilling 8-of-12 triples (66.7%), bringing his total over the last two outings to a dozen. Furthermore, the bench as a whole outperformed the Suns’ unit, with the likes of (veterans) Maxi Kleber (7.0 PTS, 39.8% FG, 32.5% 3FG, 70.8% FT, 5.9 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.0 BLK, 11.0 PER), Spencer Dinwiddie (15.8 PTS, 49.8% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 72.5% FT, 3.1 REB, 3.9 AST, 0.7 STL, 19.0 PER), and Davis Bertans (5.3 PTS, 37.5% FG, 36.0% 3FG, 80.0% FT, 2.5 REB, 0.7 AST, 11.2 PER), accounting for thirty-three of the reserves’ thirty-six points, shooting 47.8% from the field and 7-of-13 from downtown (53.8%). Moving forward, the supporting cast MUST carry this form with them back to the desert, for apart from Kleber, none of them particularly stood out in a good way. By now, we know that role players tend to perform better at home than they do on the road, but the difference between good teams and great ones is that the “other guys” find ways to make a difference in their opponent’s house. Something else to keep an eye on is Doncic’s handling of the basketball; the young floor general committed nearly as many turnovers (12) as assists (15) in Games One and Two, before cleaning up his act with a stellar 20-9 ratio in Games Three and Four. Operating at the slowest pace in the NBA (95.4 possessions per 48 minutes), the Mavs rely almost exclusively on the three-time All-Star’s ball-handling skills.
Meanwhile, as dominant as they looked in the first two games of this Semifinal, the Suns (56-18, 1st in Western Conference) have looked VERY human of late, as they find themselves squared away at two games apiece for the second consecutive series. Through four games it has been the home team who has looked convincingly superior, though it has been more than simply home court advantage that has caused such a dramatic shift. As we stated earlier, Phoenix was OTHERWORLDLY on the offensive end of the hardwood in Games One and Two, averaging a ridiculous 125.0 points on an insane 56.9% shooting from the field, including 45.3% from beyond the arc, with 27.5 assists in comparison to committing just 12.5 turnovers. Furthermore, they held significant advantages in points in the paint (+24), rebounding (+24), and assists (+20). However, anyone who has watched their share of playoff basketball will tell you that it’s rare to see a team continue to shoot at such a high percentage the longer a series progresses, and that is precisely what has happened to (Head Coach) Monty Williams’ troops as the scene shifted to Dallas. In Games Three and Four, the visitors weren’t remotely as prolific as they were in the desert as the hosts slowed the tempo to a veritable crawl; there were only TWENTY-FIVE combined fastbreak points between the two teams in those contests, which is a telltale sign that this affair was played almost exclusively within the halfcourt. And that is not where the Suns are at their most comfortable, for unlike their opponent, they liked to speed things up this season, averaging 99.8 possessions per 48 minutes, which equated to the ninth-fastest pace in the Association. One of the most efficient teams in the league, Phoenix has been anything but that of late, committing seventeen turnovers in each of the last two outings, which become all the more glaring in an affair with a dearth of possessions. And they’ve seriously been made to pay for those mistakes, as the Mavericks have scored FORTY-FIVE points via turnovers over the last two games, in comparison to a meager twenty-four for the visiting side. So, what in the name of Charles Barkley has happened, you ask? Well, though we hate to admit it, look no further than (All-NBA Guard) Chris Paul (14.7 PTS, 49.3% FG, 31.7% 3FG, 83.7% FT, 4.4 REB, 10.8 AST, 1.9 STL, 20.8 PER). Undoubtedly the biggest component for the Suns’ unexpected rise to the top of the Western Conference over the last two seasons, the veteran floor general improved this team by SEVENTEEN wins a year ago en route to their first NBA Finals since 1993 and led them to a franchise-record FIFTY-SIX wins this campaign, marking the fourth different team that he has done that for. Furthermore, his influence served as the catalyst for a wealth of internal growth throughout the roster with the likes of (All-Star Swingman) Devin Booker (26.8 PTS, 46.6% FG, 38.3% 3FG, 86.8% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 21.3 PER), (young Center) Deandre Ayton (17.2 PTS, 63.4% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 74.6% FT, 10.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.7 BLK, 21.9 PER), (versatile swingman) Mikal Bridges (14.2 PTS, 53.4% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 83.4% FT, 4.2 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 14.4 PER), and (young sharpshooter) Cameron Johnson (12.5 PTS, 46.0% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 86.0% FT, 4.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 15.2 PER) all reaching new heights thanks to the ten-time All-NBA selection. With that said, the man that so many around the league so affectionately refer to as the “Point God”, is 37-years old and has REALLY looked his age at various points of this postseason. Despite his heroics against the upstart Pelicans in the previous round, Paul laid some eggs too, with a 5-of-16 performance (31.3%) in Game Two and a mere four points on 2-of-8 shooting (25.0%) in Game Four. This affair with the Mavericks has been no different, for after averaging 23.5 points on an efficient 62.1% shooting along with 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.0 steal through the first two games, he’s been in a tailspin ever since the series moved to Texas, posting just 8.5 points on 53.8% shooting, with 6.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.0 steal, all the while committing five more turnovers. Furthermore, it was awfully ironic that on a day in which he turned thirty-seven he looked every bit of his age; in Sunday’s defeat, CP3 could muster only five points on 2-of-4 shooting (50.0%), while saddled with foul trouble before eventually fouling out for the first time in his playoff career. Simply put, this guy is the head of the proverbial serpent, for no matter how much deeper and more experienced the Suns are this season, they will continue to live and die on the performances of their leader. As the old adage says, “Father Time is undefeated”, and at this point of his career it is difficult for Paul to maintain such a high level of play at this stage of the postseason. With that said, we expect more from him and his teammates with the series shifting back to the desert, where they were so dominant earlier in this series. We’d also expect to be rather motivated as his family was visibly harassed at American Airlines Center on Sunday afternoon, with security forced to expel a pair of disrespectful fans from the premises. At the end of the day, this series could boil down to what happens tonight, for historically speaking, when a series is tied at two games apiece, the winner of Game Five has gone on to win said series 82.8% of the time. The ball is in your court, Phoenix. What will you do?