This doesn’t look like the same 64-win Suns who cruised past the rest of the league in the regular season.
Phoenix has dropped three of the last four as Dallas evened the second-round series at three games apiece on Thursday night. Now facing a Game 7, one of the league’s most efficient offenses has slowed to a crawl. The Mavs, meanwhile, have found a winning formula, with an upset on Sunday afternoon certainly in play.
We didn’t expect such dramatics from this matchup just a week ago. The Suns cruised out to a 2–0 lead behind a combined 58 points from Chris Paul and Devin Booker in Game 2, making the end of Dallas’s playoff road look imminent. The script has since flipped. Booker finished 6-for-16 from the field and 0-for-4 from three in Game 6. Paul has tallied 25 points over the last three games. Dallas has bottled a previously lethal attack, with its success stemming from more than simple shot luck.
Such smothering defense was largely unthinkable for the Mavericks this time last year. Dallas finished 20th in defensive rating last season, surrendering 126 points in a Game 7 loss to the Clippers in a first-round matchup. The arrival of Jason Kidd changed matters. He and his staff coaxed Dallas into a top-10 defense in his first season as coach, and following the departure of Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks truly found their stride.
Dallas spends significant portions of contests eschewing a traditional center altogether, with $52 million man Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock standing as impact defenders on the wing. Frank Ntilikina is now even getting into the act as a valuable defensive contributor, tallying four steals in 21 minutes on Thursday night. Phoenix center Deandre Ayton is an impressive player, though nobody will confuse him with Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokić. Ayton prefers to trust his mid-range jumper and over-the-shoulder hook, neither threatening the defense from three or consistently at the rim. His inability to punish Dallas in the paint is allowing an undersized unit to thrive.