DALLAS — The biggest adjustment the Phoenix Suns have to make after a 103-94 loss to the Dallas Mavericks is a mental one.
Phoenix’s lapses across the entire game indicated its level of focus had dropped compared to Games 1 and 2 of the series, when everyone knew that the Mavericks’ attitude for Game 3 down 2-0 was that their season was on the line.
“They played with a level of consistent physicality that was appropriate for the moment,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said after practice on Saturday.
The Suns got that wake-up call. Should they have even needed it? Doesn’t matter now.
Dallas’ play as the aggressor started with its leader Luka Doncic playing a downhill brand of basketball as a ball-handler that got him several opportunities around the basket.
As The Dunker Spot’s Steve Jones Jr. highlighted, the Mavericks showed more intent to specifically get Doncic to work through his back-to-the-basket game.
That’s where the Suns’ defense wasn’t sharp in a number of areas.
Doncic had 11 field goals on Friday and eight of them came within three feet of the basket. The All-Star guard getting into the paint is all well and good, but once he has two feet in the paint, that’s when you’d expect some help to come.
It didn’t, though, and allowed Doncic’s craftiness with footwork and strength to create easy angles to finish.
Williams was asked what the key is to stopping those looks and he said it starts with the guy on the ball.
“Toughness,” Williams said Saturday. “You gotta get in a guy’s way, sit down and guard. That’s how I was taught when I came into the league. You can’t rely on help. Now, the help is there, but you have to be able to guard. And our guys understand it.
“And yet, our integrity on the back side has to be there as well. There were times where we were just too spread out and when a guy has four, five, six dribbles in the post, it’s hard to guard anybody from that particular part of the floor.”
Williams mentioned it felt like the Mavericks’ ability to generate 3s got Phoenix’s defense “distorted” a bit and too spread out. He noted the team looked those sequences over and that there are better things the staff can do with the defense’s positioning.
“Even if it’s a late contest from the back, we can do a much better job there, but it starts with the initial wall where a guy just can’t back you down with two dribbles and get to the rack,” Williams said.
Doncic’s play was an extension of the play of his teammates like Jalen Brunson and Maxi Kleber, who also were on the front foot getting to the hoop.
Dallas outscored Phoenix in the paint 50-32. The Suns were coming off a six-game series win over the New Orleans Pelicans in which they won that battle by a +28 margin.
It sits at -6 through this series’ initial three games and that’s surprising considering the size advantage Phoenix has with Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee.
Ayton has not been a factor since Game 1. He was sensational versus New Orleans and had shown a new level of his offensive game.
McGee’s got 18 total points in the series.
The Suns have done a very good job this year at getting those two guys the ball when mismatches are there and playing through their bigs naturally without forcing it. There’s a certain cadence that this group has developed but Dallas has been able to disrupt it.
When McGee was in during Game 3, the Mavericks went even smaller with forward Davis Bertans as the “center” while Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell were both on the bench.
The floor spacing of those Dallas lineups offensively is obviously going to cause some issues for McGee, so the Suns need to capitalize on his size around the basket for their own offense.
“We didn’t take advantage of that at all,” Williams said. “When you think about Game 3 in New Orleans, JaVale and even [Bismack Biyombo] when he had a chance to play, we took advantage of those kinds of lineups. I thought we were a bit rushed and I thought they had a lot to do with it. They got up in us a bit and sped us up.”
If the Suns are unable to utilize McGee’s offensive talent again on Sunday, that’s when the conversations really need to start with either Biyombo getting the nod or going just as small as Dallas with a bunch of wings and guards.
It would be shocking if the Suns got another performance from Devin Booker or Chris Paul anywhere close to Friday’s poor effort. The Suns will have their counters ready for the Mavericks’ increased pressure and those two always bounce back after rough showings. The backcourt showing more of a desire to score in the key would be a bonus as well.
They can’t be solely relied on to take the series home, however, because the Suns’ uneven play in Game 3 allowed the Mavericks to stabilize. Phoenix will have to get much closer to their level of team play from the first two games in order to have a chance to end the series at home on Tuesday.