The Phoenix Suns got tested more than anyone expected in the first round of the playoffs against a scrappy New Orleans Pelicans team. A hamstring strain to star guard Devin Booker certainly played a role in that series going to six games, but New Orleans deserves some credit for how competitive it made that matchup. A vintage performance from Chris Paul in Game 6, as well as the dominance of Deandre Ayton throughout the series, helped get the Suns into the West semifinals, where they'll face the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
Although the Suns are favored against the Mavericks -- as they should be as the No. 1 seed -- it won't be an easy task getting past a Dallas team that had a similar path as Phoenix to get here. A calf strain to superstar guard Luka Doncic forced him to miss the first three games of Dallas' matchup against the Utah Jazz, and while many expected the Jazz to roll over the Mavericks, Dallas ended up getting out to a 2-1 lead without its Slovenian guard. When Doncic returned, he showed no lingering effects of the calf strain, and along with the breakout performance from Jalen Brunson the two guards led Dallas to its first playoff series win since winning a championship back in 2011.
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Dallas finally got past the first round of the playoffs, and its reward is facing a dominant Suns team that has very few weaknesses. But just because Phoenix is the superior team, that doesn't mean Dallas is going to roll over and go away easily.
It's going to be a battle between several stars in Doncic, Booker and Paul, so ahead of Game 1 on Monday, here's everything you need to know about this Western Conference semifinals matchup.
(1) Phoenix Suns vs. (4) Dallas Mavericks
All times Eastern
- Game 1 (at PHX): Monday, May 2 | 10 p.m. ET | TV: TNT
- Game 2 (at PHX): Wednesday, May 4 | 10 p.m. ET | TV: TNT
- Game 3 (at DAL): Friday, May 6 | 9:30 p.m. ET | TV: ESPN
- Game 4 (at DAL): Sunday, May 8 | 3:30 p.m. ET | TV: ESPN
- Game 5* (at PHX): Tuesday, May 10 | TBD | TV: TNT
- Game 6* (at DAL): Thursday, May 12 | TBD | TV: ESPN
- Game 7* (at PHX): Sunday, May 15 | TBD | TV: TBD
1. Doncic vs. elite defense
One thing that was abundantly clear in Dallas' first-round matchup against Utah was that the Jazz didn't have anyone that could adequately slow down Doncic. In the three games he played after sitting out with a calf injury, the three-time All-Star averaged 29 points, while shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from deep. The Jazz tried to throw a number of defenders at Doncic, primarily Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O'Neale, and neither could stop Doncic from getting to the spots he wanted and doing damage.
That will likely change against the Suns as they have two more-than-capable defenders in Jae Crowder and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Mikal Bridges, who will surely make life difficult for Doncic. In past meetings, Bridges has done a great job of disrupting Doncic's offensive flow, and can guard Doncic out on the perimeter and has the size to handle his own when Doncic tries to post him up.
However, while Phoenix will try to keep Bridges on Doncic as much as possible, Dallas will also be trying to hunt for switches to get someone else in front of Doncic, like Paul or Booker. This is going to be the biggest key of the series, because if the Suns can figure out a way to shut down Doncic, then this series could be over quickly.
2. Phoenix's size vs. Dallas' small ball
Another area where the Suns can win this series is in the frontcourt, where they have the clear size advantage against the Mavericks. Ayton was a force in the first round against the Pelicans, averaging 20.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and shooting an astounding 70 percent from the field. He'll have the benefit of facing a Mavericks team that has only two traditional centers in Dwight Powell and Boban Marjanovic, the latter of which only sees garbage-time minutes. Powell is going to have his hands full guarding Ayton, who is far more productive on offense than Rudy Gobert was in the first round. Aside from Ayton, the Suns also have better depth down low with JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo, both of whom are aggressive rebounders and are adequate rim protectors.
But while the Suns will try to dominate the Mavericks with their size, Dallas will try to spread the floor and force Phoenix's bigs to guard out on the perimeter. This is where Maxi Kleber's 3-point shooting will be crucial for Dallas. In the first round, Kleber shot 51.6 percent from deep on over five attempts per game. Ayton will be a more capable defender out on the perimeter compared to what Gobert offered, but if Kleber catches fire again from long range, it'll force Ayton out of the paint, allowing Doncic and Brunson to get to the rim.
The Mavericks can also go even smaller, using Dorian Finney-Smith as a small-ball center, which they tried in spurts against the Jazz in the first round. Finney-Smith is the more consistent 3-point shooter, and if Ayton is forced to commit to him on defense to stop him from knocking down corner 3s, it'll leave an open lane to the rim. These adjustments will have a significant impact on the series, because both teams can force the other into playing a style of basketball they're not comfortable with.
3. Can Brunson replicate first-round success?
Brunson became the breakout star for the Mavericks in the first round, as he captained the ship for the Dallas in Doncic's absence. He averaged 27.8 points against the Jazz, and looked unstoppable in a more ball-dominant role. If Doncic is held in check by Phoenix's tandem of elite defenders, then it will be on Brunson to once again carry the offensive load for the Mavericks. He's already shown that he's capable of exploding for 30-plus points while orchestrating the offense and limiting turnovers, but can he repeat that success against a tougher Suns opponent while reverting back to his secondary ball-handler role now that Doncic is fully healthy?
The Mavericks won't need Brunson to put up 41 points like he did in Game 2 against the Jazz, but he will need to continue to be aggressive and look for his shot more frequently if Dallas wants to keep pace with a Suns team that ranks fourth in the playoffs in offensive rating (117.8). While Brunson made a living from mid-range and around the basket against the Jazz, where he could do the most damage is beyond the arc. Brunson only averaged a little over three shots from deep during the regular season, but that number has increased to over five attempts per game in the playoffs, and he's making them at an efficient 36 percent clip. If Brunson can maintain that volume and efficiency, it'll go a long way in Dallas' hopes of trying to upset the Suns.