DALLAS — It’s time for the Phoenix Suns to prove they are who they and we thought they were.
Maybe the best team in the world, a 64-win juggernaut that dominated the regular season, will rediscover that over the next few games. But this time of year rarely permits that. It’s a tremendous challenge.
For the second straight playoff series, they have lost their identity through stretches of getting outworked and committing mental mistakes. A smart, well-orchestrated and relentless team looked nothing like that in a 111-101 loss to the Dallas Mavericks to tie the series at 2-2.
We did not see one period of last year’s run to the Finals like this, let alone two. And Phoenix has higher expectations this year, deservedly being given the odds of favorites for the championship entering the postseason.
Phoenix’s defense in Game 4 tried to find a healthier balance between leaving the right amount of space between the shooters and ball-handler, so helping was more of an option. The execution of this, however, was disastrous and led to overhelping or even just plain ball watching.
“It’s collective effort,” forward Jae Crowder said. “We gotta get back to being who we are defensively. Right now, it’s gaps in our defense and those guys are doing a good job of capitalizing on it.”
As Crowder said, Dallas torched them for it, starting the game 12-of-19 from 3 to lead by as many as 17 points in the first half.
“All of ’em,” head coach Monty Williams said when asked which 3s were concerning to give up. “We just didn’t run those guys off the line. … That’s just game recognition. You have to have that awareness on your own. Again, this is something that I have to fix as the coach. We have to get guys off the line.”
Williams said between Games 3 and 4 he felt like his team got a bit dazed by the Mavericks’ propensity to shoot 3s and allowed them too much room. Instead of finding a decent middle ground to settle on defensively, the Suns instead overcommitted to drives, being at times “mesmerized” as Williams put it by Luka Doncic’s dribbling.
“Just a tough time defending, so we gotta clean up our defensive strategy and rotations,” Suns guard Devin Booker said.
Offensively, the Suns’ rhythm wasn’t there and once again could not find a way to consistently capitalize on their size advantage. They have at times been overreliant on playing against an unset defense off defensive stops and a much slower pace in Dallas has hurt. Williams mentioned a need to “trust the pass” more.
Outside of that, Phoenix continued getting beat to 50/50 balls in the rebounding department and putting themselves in positions to get called for fouls they couldn’t afford.
In the closing section of the first half when the Suns were beginning to make up some ground, Phoenix got within six before trailing by 12 at the half and point guard Chris Paul picked up his fourth foul with 1.1 seconds left pursuing an offensive rebound off his own miss he had no shot at.
“Everybody’s gotta take ownership and it starts with me,” Williams said. “I made some decisions tonight that put us in a tough spot. Should have kept Chris out of the game, especially right before halftime. As a team, we’ve gotta take ownership as far as guarding the ball so we don’t have to help as much.”
Just a few minutes into the third quarter, Paul was still in the game and tried to bait the Mavericks’ Jalen Brunson into a foul in the backcourt and got called for his fifth. You can criticize Williams for keeping Paul in but his backup Cam Payne has struggled for multiple weeks now so it was a difficult decision.
That was one of a few different moments, like foul trouble for Mikal Bridges and Crowder too, where it felt like the game was about to spiral out of control into a blowout.
Dallas’ offense, however, completely fell apart after a much better defensive effort by the Suns in the second half. It produced only 21 points across the half’s first 17 minutes.
That gave Phoenix not one, not two but three different opportunities to take control of the game. But it just simply could not manage to get it done.
The Suns got within five points in the early third quarter before an offensive rebound and the fourth foul on Bridges brought on a 7-0 Mavericks run that got their cushion back to a dozen.
To close the quarter, two Booker free throws with 1:17 left cut the deficit to four. Then Dallas had a 5-0 spurt to lead by nine heading into the fourth quarter.
Again, even after Paul fouled out with 8:58 left, the Suns had a chance. It was 89-83 Mavs less than 90 seconds later.
Booker attacked on a drive that went nowhere, Dallas’ Dorian Finney-Smith drilled an open 3, Booker missed another shot and then Finney-Smith converted on his second triple.
Back to a 12-point ballgame and this time there would be no fourth opportunity for a team that usually just needed half of one to snatch a game away.
Phoenix turned the ball over 17 times for 23 Dallas points. For the second consecutive game, Williams cited those points off turnovers for Dallas plus its second-chance points (15) as the “same story” like Game 3.
The Mavericks finished 20-for-44 (45.5%) from deep, meaning it only made eight of its last 25 attempts after the blazing start and Doncic was the most mortal he’s looked all series at a 9-for-25 mark shooting.
Booker was terrific as a slasher to get his points around the rim and at the free-throw line. His 35 points and seven assists on 10-of-22 shooting in 42 minutes were reminiscent of Games 4 and 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals when he had to support the offense on his own.
Jae Crowder had his fourth straight outstanding performance in his role. He hit a few shots in the first half that kept things from getting carried away, similar to Game 3. He ended up with 15 points and six rebounds.
As far as contributions worth mentioning, that was it.
One of those poor stretches in the regular season from Deandre Ayton where he seems disconnected from the game has popped up for the first time in his postseason career. He has not been a factor since Game 1 in a series where he is the borderline X-factor. A 14-point, 11-rebound night does not represent his lack of assertiveness.
Beyond Ayton, Mikal Bridges’ scoring punch is nowhere to be found. Payne’s effectiveness continues to be an issue. Landry Shamet’s impact is hard to find. Cam Johnson’s still not the same since his quad injury. Paul played his worst two playoff games as a member of the Suns back to back.
All of this unfolded during the second straight game where the Suns let the officiating get to them.
“I’ve been in 500 basketball games, something like that, and I haven’t quite seen one like today,” Booker said while alluding to the officiating while also saying it doesn’t matter if it feels like the refs are against them or not.
Yes, it was bad. Booker got a technical foul while being fouled for extending his arms purposefully, a call he agreed he’s never seen made before in a game.
Yes, it made things more difficult for them. It also affected their play beyond what was and wasn’t called, and in a two-game stretch where the Suns are already doing a handful of things wrong, allowing anything else to affect their performance is making the margin for error even thinner.
“You probably could make that case,” Williams said when asked if he thought the calls got to the Suns again. “There was some things that happened in the game, especially on the road. The fans behind their team and the emotion of the game, it probably can sway you a little bit. And that’s gonna happen.
“I was more concerned with our ability to bounce back once a call didn’t go our way. We come out of a timeout. We execute and get it down to seven or eight. We just couldn’t put it together as far as consecutive good plays, especially on the defensive end.”
Dallas escaped with a win despite a 43-point second half. An 8-for-12 knockdown rate for Finney-Smith on 3s made up all 24 of his points, a 4-of-6 afternoon on triples for Davis Bertans and 18 from Jalen Brunson was the majority of the Mavericks’ offense.