DALLAS — There is no way to explain what is happening to the Phoenix Suns this postseason beyond their biggest strength, consistency, becoming their biggest weakness.
Phoenix’s dominant form of composed, skilled and tireless basketball has gone missing for large stretches over the last month. The latest instance was a mind-boggling 113-86 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 6 on Thursday. One more performance like that on Sunday and a season that was the franchise’s best chance at a championship ever will end shockingly early.
If this team’s loss of that form wasn’t clear yet, the NBA’s best road team by far in the regular season has lost all three games away from home in this second-round series. And all three weren’t really that close, especially Game 6, which followed Tuesday’s Game 5 when the Suns dismantled Dallas.
“I think throughout this whole series we haven’t played the same game in a row,” center Deandre Ayton said. “There’s never a time where we tried to play the same way. It was a different game every time and this was a perfect example. We picked up on everything we was supposed to do in Game 5 (and) we were locked in but the mistakes we had tonight was just off the charts. The communication, we just wasn’t talking.”
Despite the unpredictability of the Suns’ play across this last month-plus, they had one thing going for them ahead of the game.
Phoenix had three previous emphatic Game 6 closeouts on the road, two last season and one two weeks ago. It was ready for the win-or-go-home intensity the home squad would come with, matched it and then was the team to sustain it.
None of that translated on Thursday.
“I didn’t think we understood the desperation they were going to play with,” head coach Monty Williams said. “Couple that with the turnovers that we had tonight, it’s a recipe for what we just got. … We were about as unorganized on offense as we’ve ever been. That’s one of the reasons why we threw it around the gym tonight. We just did not have the focus and determination that it takes to win a game like this on the road.”
Just when the Suns nailed the jack in the box head with a hammer in Game 5, the issues that have plagued them this series popped right back up.
The Suns’ defense only forced seven turnovers, and as a team, they committed a season-high 22. Dallas’ 16 steals had the majority of those turnovers be of the live-ball variety and that unsurprisingly brought on 29 points off turnovers for the Mavericks.
“It felt like a regular season game with the amount of mistakes we had,” Ayton said. “The turnovers. Terrible, unacceptable. It’s that type of game where it was just unacceptable, man. Them dudes, they wanted it more. I think after every loss we’ve had they’ve shown that they wanted it more. It just wasn’t a team that didn’t want it. And it showed. Dramatically.”
After Phoenix denied the 3-point line so well in Game 5, Dallas’ shooters found more room again and produced a 16-for-39 (41.0%) outing.
Across the game’s first 18 minutes, both teams played with a great deal of energy but the execution was missing.
And right when Dallas figured it out, Phoenix started tearing apart at the seams.
A 41-39 Mavs scoreline with under six minutes left in the first half ended at 60-45 Mavs after a 19-6 spurt. Phoenix’s offense completely collapsed and the same defensive problems that killed the Suns in Games 3 and 4 persisted.
The offense actually had some half-decent rhythm to it in the first quarter before turning into a lot more matchup hunting in the following 12 minutes, annihilating its flow.
“Yeah, I think that’s where it slipped for us,” Suns guard Devin Booker said of the second quarter offensively.
The first two possessions of the second half were a poor pull-up 3 by Booker and an open lob dunk for Dallas’ Dwight Powell, a quick indicator that things were not going to change much.
There were multiple opportunities for the Suns to severely cut into the deficit, including foul trouble for the Mavericks’ best player (Luka Doncic) and defender (Dorian Finney-Smith) but the closest the Suns would get after falling behind by 20+ was 16.
It was a mess from a team play perspective.
“They played harder than us and we typically don’t allow that,” Williams said. “We understand that we turned it over and we did not have a focus. Our concepts in our defensive coverages tonight was nowhere near average.”
It wasn’t much better individually.
Ayton’s defensive positioning wasn’t great at times but his offensive impact with 21 points was there and was all the Suns had going for them once the middle quarters came. He emphasized a few times postgame that the Suns weren’t talking much defensively, so you can see how that would impact his ability to be the anchor.
Booker started turning the ball over in the second quarter and didn’t score during the biggest moment where his team required him to do that to keep them alive. He did that superstar stuff in the first half of Game 5 but couldn’t muster it again on Thursday.
He shot 6-of-17 for 19 points with three assists and eight turnovers. Dallas sent extra bodies and traps his way from the jump, and while he was reading it well to start the game, it snowballed for him from the second quarter on.
Chris Paul continues to not look like himself and your guess is as good as mine as to what’s going on there for the last four games. You can call it wear-down effect from the pressure he’s seen the last two series but the way he’s reading the floor isn’t the same either. It’s beyond just being tired. He left the game flexing and looking at his right hand after drawing an offensive foul. Paul attempted seven shots and had four assists to five turnovers.
Mikal Bridges had a rough evening. He was inefficient again shooting the ball (2-for-7) and allowed too much penetration defensively. Williams played the starters minus Bridges and plus Torrey Craig when Phoenix took its last shot at the game in the early fourth quarter.
Jae Crowder’s awesome series to this point didn’t carry over to Game 6 and the bench lacked the pop it found on Tuesday.
Doncic bounced back from a meh shooting start to 33 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and one turnover. Games like this one and the one upcoming on Sunday are about star power and he was the lone guy of the three in this series to be at that caliber.
Reggie Bullock and Spencer Dinwiddie were this game’s edition of the Dallas shooter(s) to go off in a Mavericks win. Bullock hit five 3s and scored 19 points while Dinwiddie knocked down five more of his own for all 15 of his points.
Jalen Brunson added 18. He is quietly averaging 21.3 points per game in his last four, a troubling development for Phoenix.