DALLAS – Four superstars in their primes combined for 137 points in a nationally televised Sunday matinee between the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks that came down to the final seconds.
Two of the opponents, Luka Doncic and Devin Booker, were against each other promoting a big feud that goes back to the games of the last series. The other two, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, ignored each other like exes at an awkward social event just a month after their breakup revolutionized the NBA landscape.
It was a delicious spectacle, a 130-126 Suns win over the Mavericks, about as good as a regular season game gets with a great mix of drama, bad blood and shot making.
But it was the fifth star, future first-ballot Hall of Famer Chris Paul, whose role in this game was perhaps the most relevant to indicate where these two high-profile teams go from here.
The Suns and Mavericks are heading towards a full-blown rivalry. Otherwise, their midseason trades made them two of the NBA’s most intriguing teams for the foreseeable future.
But they both face the same issue as they try to gain momentum to put together a playoff run: Do their superstars have enough help?
The Mavericks might have posted a sign on the video board allowing Paul to take a shot on Sunday.
It wouldn’t be fair disrespect because there is nuance to the game plan, but it’s strange to see a player of Paul’s reputation completely left alone time and time again. As Dallas turned to defenders to manage the Durant-Booker tidal wave, that happened again and again.
Paul is having a poor shooting season by his standards, shooting 42.5%, the second-lowest mark of his career, en route to a career-low 13.5 points per game. It’s a simple game theory; he is the weak link in this alignment.
And in the fourth quarter, Paul made Dallas pay, drilling three jumpers including a pair of 3-pointers.
But the Mavs also ignored Josh Okogie, who went 0-of-8 on 3-pointers, and Torrey Craig, who went 1-of-4. It would have worked for the home team if Ish Wainright, promoted from a two-way contract 10 days ago, had not hit four 3-pointers when Suns coach Monty Williams was desperate.
“You don’t find greatness on the beach,” Williams said, using one of his old-school sayings. “You get the growth you need under stress, and the more stress you have when you get into these moments, it becomes more like this. And so Chris is in those moments, maybe not as a catch -and-shoot. Guy, but I think he’s ready for it and he wants it.”
Here’s how the Suns’ season could come down to him in the playoffs: Can Paul shake off a poor shooting season to make up for the disrespect? Can a player on minimum contract break the opponent four times in seven games? Or at least do that in a game or two that could swing a series?
Booker had 36 points Sunday, Durant had 37, including a game-winning jumper with 11 seconds left. They played their first three games together on a road trip the Suns had just completed and combined for 188 points. That’s the most points through the first three games between the teams since the 1961-62 season when Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 a game and any rookie showed up on the list.
But Doncic had made a rabbit, who scored 34 points, at the end, he would not have won by that scoring for Phoenix.
“We have ultimate confidence in everybody, telling Chris to shoot it every time, telling Ish to shoot it, Josh to keep shooting,” Booker said. “We’re going to keep working on it.”
The Mavericks are in the same position. Both teams kept their depth out by trading away key supporting players in their big midseason deals and those margins are already showing.
Things get heated between Luke and Booker
Luka Doncic and Devin Booker get into a heated matchup after Doncic’s layup attempt late in the fourth quarter.
Dallas is now 2-5 with Doncic and Irving, who had 30 points and seven assists. All five losses have come down to the final minute. The Mavericks could easily be 5-2 or, in some simulations, 7-0. Doncic and Irving have combined for more than 60 points per game since the trade but the narrow losses show the difference the supporting cast makes.
Just as Williams has been searching, so has Dallas coach Jason Kidd. He tried different starting lineups. He moved promising prospect Josh Green into Sunday’s starting lineup, which some called because he represents a good defensive option; Green was scoreless in 28 minutes and the defense was still excited.
He can find the score – Tim Hardaway Jr. He nailed 3 pointers from the bench – but it can also be defended quite well is the biggest hurdle for Kidd. The Mavs were 24th in defense before the trade and are 26th since they traded top defenseman Dorian Finney-Smith to the Brooklyn Nets.
A year from now, once these teams go through another offseason and trade deadline, they’ll likely have more complete rosters, even though there aren’t a ton of trade assets left and Irving will be a free agent this summer.
For now, though, Phoenix and Dallas are probably headed for some games like this: Stars playing great, pressure on the diminished supporting casts and razor-close finishes.
Maybe, if the basketball gods allow it, those games will happen against each other in the playoffs.