The Phoenix Suns weren’t supposed to be pushed to Game 7

If you believe in trends, it seems likely that the Phoenix Suns will win Sunday’s do-or-die Game 7 against the Dallas Mavericks in their Western Conference semifinal series.

After all, the home team has won every game of this play-off series.

But it wasn’t allowed to come to that for Phoenix. Not for the team that had by far the best regular season record in the NBA, and especially after the Suns dominated their first two games against a Dallas team with limited playability outside of its star, Luka Doncic.

On Thursday night, the Suns had a chance to send the Mavericks home for the summer, only to lay an egg. Dallas warmed up from a 3-point range and shot 16 for 39 (41 percent), while Doncic worked his way to the rim for easy dunks. Doncic also backed off repeatedly, overpowering smaller Suns point guard Chris Paul in a matchup that Dallas would have liked to exploit for the entire series. Doncic finished the game with 33 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals.

I don’t have enough time to talk about everything that eats me up,” Suns coach Monty Williams told reporters after the game. “I thought we didn’t understand the desperation they were going to play with.”

This has not been a typical seven-game run. It wasn’t a brawl with stars from both teams swapping clutch baskets. None of the games were particularly competitive or came to the last minutes. The only constants were chippiness and trashtalk.

But there are precedents for a playoff series like this. In 2008, the No. 1 seeded Boston Celtics faced the No. 8 seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round. Boston won the first two games at home in blowouts, but Atlanta repeatedly and unexpectedly kept service at home. The Celtics won Game 7 by 34 points. A similar trajectory formed Boston’s next series, against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, but those games were more competitive. Boston would win the NBA championship.

But precedent is no guarantee, and the Suns could certainly be heading for an embarrassing second-round exit after last year’s run to the NBA finals. Last year, the Bucks and Nets traded home wins for six games in the second round, after which the Bucks won the final on the road. Another off-game from Paul, or a hot game from a Mavericks role-player, and the Suns could be shown the door.

If the Mavericks win, they will have dethroned a Suns team that won a franchise record 64 games, including an 18 game win streak. That kind of success is rare and hard to repeat. For starters, Paul, a 12-time All-Star, is 37 years old. He is still elite as a point guard and led the league in assists per game. But the list of players who excelled at age 38 is small, populated by generational players such as Karl Malone, John Stockton, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Paul is also a generational player but this was not a particularly strong postseason series for him, especially after Games 1 and 2. Since then he has been dogged by dirty problems, struggled to defend Doncic and provided just six assists. one game for the series after averaging 10.8 per game during the regular season.

Not having a championship is a prominent hole in Paul’s illustrious resume. He is 3-4 in Game 7s, excluding the 2018 Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, when he missed the final game due to injury as a member of the Houston Rockets.

The Suns are also said to be at a crossroads with 23-year-old Deandre Ayton, who is one of the top centers in the league and who will be entering limited free agency. Phoenix did not offer him a maximum contract offer for the season, and an early exit from the playoffs could hurt his chances of getting one now.

But the Suns have a lead in Sunday’s game in Phoenix. They had the NBA’s best home record at 32-9. They have been tested, made it to the final last year and with the experienced Paul at the reins. They have shown they can withstand Doncic, who set fire to the Suns in his third playoff run, averaging 32.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists in six games. Doncic has been knocked out three times in his short play-off career – including on Thursday – and he’s gone big every time, albeit in defeat. In a first round Game 7 came against the Los Angeles Clippers last year, he scored 46 points in the loss. In 2020, he had 38 points in a Game 6 loss to the Clippers.

The Suns have won three games despite failing to guard Doncic.

But what they may not be able to resist is their own turnover, which has spoiled the suns on the road. In Game 3, Paul and Devin Booker combined for 12 of them, more than the Mavericks. In Game 4, Booker had five. Paul had two, but played only 23 minutes due to error issues. During Thursday’s Game 6, Booker had eight, Paul five and the Mavericks combined only six.

The Mavericks’ strategy for defeating Phoenix was relatively simple: match Doncic with Paul, or spread the floor and have Doncic or his backcourt, Jalen Brunson, drive and look for gunmen. It has largely worked. Role players like Maxi Kleber have often come through hitting 3s.

One modification the Suns can counter is to stack the paint with defenders to encourage Doncic to shoot 3s. He is an underpowered 3-point shooter, at just 29.6 percent for the series. And when he gets to the paint, the Suns must shut down the gunmen to disrupt their rhythm. In Game 5, Phoenix’s best defensive performance of the series, Dallas shot 8 for 32 from a 3-point range, a dismal 25 percent.

Outside of Game 5, the Suns have been consistently poor on defense and only occasionally have they been able to overcome that with strong offense. It has often looked as if the Suns are rushing their attack – unusual for a Paul-led machine.

The best thing about all these play-off games is that you’re not 20 points ahead of the next game,” Paul said on Thursday. “You know what I mean? Every game has its own personality and now it’s just one game

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