DALLAS – Mavericks superstar Luke Doncic saw himself drop out of the game with what he described as a “bad” defense in the second half of Game 2 defeat by Phoenix Suns. Defender Jalen Brunson needed only one word to summarize what he did in the 0-2 draw for Phoenix: “Bad.”
They all arrived at the American Airlines Center on Friday night after confirming that Game 3 was different. The duo did well, ruining the 37th birthday of Suns star Chris Paul and giving Dallas a 103-94 victory to give the Mavs their first victory in the Western Conference final.
Brunson scored 28 points – six more than he had in the first two games – and kept the Mavs ahead while Doncic became second in the standings. Doncic finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists and two steals.
“Everyone took part in the party,” said Dallas coach Jason Kidd, commenting on Game 1 after Doncic received no support. “They helped both sides. Luke was very defensive. He got involved, too. It puts us in a different position when this is happening.”
The Mavs guards were the most successful with the Suns’ All-Star backcourt of Paul and Devin Booker, who included more (seven) players than those who made field goals (11). Twelve changes were their most common in each game during their two seasons as participants, according to a survey by ESPN Stats & Information.
It was very different from the control of the Suns guards during the opening of two series games in Phoenix.
“It wasn’t like us,” said Booker, who had 18 points in a 6-of-13 shot. “You can appreciate them. They came out and played hard, played desperately. But that’s it. We have a list.”
Paul played seven games, one of the most embarrassing of his last career, when he had 12 points and four assistants. In comparison, Paul had 14 points in the fourth quarter of Game 2, continuously hunting and using switches on the Doncic.
“He went out and did what he had to do,” said Paul. “We’ll be back on Sunday.”
Supervisors Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith, the first freedom fighters on Paul and Booker, respectively, led Dallas’ efforts to the bottom end. The Mavs also made some changes, such as creating two Booker teams on a regular basis and integrating them into other areas. But Doncic’s success, which came just hours after Kidd publicly called him to “take part” in the defense, was crucial.
“First or second, he jumps down,” said Finney-Smith. “When you see a very good player, it seems like it’s changing.”
Doncic reduced the criticism of his Game 2 defense, whether it was from his coach or others, as an encouraging factor. He blamed himself that night for Dallas security.
“I knew I had to do well,” said Doncic, who has 35.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 8.0 assistants on the list. “I knew I could do better. I think I really jumped on the defensive line this year. The second half (Game 2) was dangerous for me, and I knew I had to get back to my team and play well for the defense.”
Brunson was the winner of the first round, with 27.8 points per game in the six games won by Utah Jazz, but did not feature in both games in Phoenix. He got into trouble first in both games, one of the reasons he didn’t get his song, and he shot only 32.1% off the ground.
“I just wanted him to be angry with me,” Kidd says. “We talked before the game – just be alone. I thought this was the first time he was aggressive. He didn’t wait. He wasn’t investigating.”
Brunson remained in danger even though he missed the first three shots, finishing the first quarter with 10 points in a 4-of-7 shot. He also had another quarter of 10 in the third quarter, which was difficult because Doncic spent the last five minutes, 14 seconds due to a serious injury.
“I found myself playing and jumping a little bit, getting to the point quickly and making quick decisions,” Brunson said. “The decisions come from me just being aggressive. My teammates just gave me confidence to go play, and I just did that …. I found a way back tonight, but I can’t be satisfied with this.”
The victory led to the Mavs winning 11 games against the Suns, which lasted until November 2019, a drought in which Dallas players and coaches deliberately avoided negotiating with them on the list.
“We believe in the end,” Doncic said. “One has to reach four victories, and it doesn’t matter if you are down or up, you have to believe.”