The Dallas Mavericks are heading to the Western Conference finals and there was little doubt they would get there following their hot start to Game 7. The Mavericks jumped out to a 57-27 lead over the top-seeded Phoenix Suns on Sunday night and never looked back on their way to a 123-90 win. Luka Doncic was spectacular for Dallas in the opening 24 minutes of play as he led all scorers with 27 points. While that nearly topped the Mavericks' point total for the first half on its own, Doncic had plenty of help as Spencer Dinwiddie chipped in 21 points of his own off of the bench.
In the end, Doncic finished the win with 35 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in just 30 minutes of action. Dinwiddie provided plenty of help off of the bench finishing with 30 points of his own while Jalen Brunson also chipped in 24 points to help Dallas cruise to a lopsided victory on the road. On the other end, Phoenix struggled all night long on the offensive end as Cam Johnson led all Suns scorers with 12 points off of the bench.
With the win, the Mavericks move on to face the Golden State Warriors to determine which team will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Here are three key takeaways from the Mavericks' Game 7 victory.
1. Luka legend
LeBron James has never loved a player quite like he does Luka Doncic. "The way he plays the game reminds me of the way I play the game," James said at All-Star Weekend. James infamouslyto launch a LeBron Brand built around Doncic as its first signature athlete. NBA history is filled with the stars of one generation publicly blessing their successors. Michael Jordan did it with Kobe Bryant. James has done it with Doncic. It's fitting because Doncic is doing his best James impression right now.
In 2007, a fourth-year LeBron James stunned a No. 1 seeded opponent with Finals experience to get to the NBA's biggest stage himself. Doncic's bout with the 64-win Suns came one round earlier, but had the same feeling. The NBA's best regular-season team had no answer for Luka whatsoever. He scored as many points as their entire team did in the first half of Game 7 (27).
This is bigger than Dallas having a legitimate chance to win the championship. It's even bigger than Doncic potentially becoming the NBA's best player on a day in which Giannis Antetokounmpo's season ended. This is about reaching a point that we see only once or twice in a generation. It's where Michael Jordan was in 1986 when he scored 63 against the Celtics and where James was in 2007 when he slayed the Pistons. It's that pivotal point in a young career in which anything and everything is possible.
Doncic has a long, long way to go before he can be compared to Jordan and James. He'll likely never be the defender that they were. Without a superstar teammate, he'll have a hard time chasing them in terms of championships. But right here, right now, he is hitting the same checkpoints that they did all of those years ago. If his career continues on the trajectory that it is right now, Luka Doncic is going to be one of the greatest players in NBA history. And we, as a collective fanbase, get to spend the next decade of our lives watching him try to do it. There is nothing better in all of basketball than that. So buckle up, people. The Luka Dancic era is upon us.
Chris Paul turned 37 years old on the night of Game 3 of this series. Prior to his birthday, he was averaging 22.6 points, 9.9 assists and 1.6 turnovers per game in the playoffs. Since? He fell down to 9.4 points, 5.8 assists and 3.6 turnovers. Now, players typically don't turn into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight, but it was a stark reminder that the version of Paul we'd seen over the past few seasons was something of an anomaly. Small guards aren't supposed to age this well. Paul came two wins short of a championship last season. He looked completely helpless against Dallas.
At this point, it's too early to say what might have been behind that. Maybe Paul really did just get old overnight. Marc Spears of Andscape reported that Paul was dealing with a left quad injury. There's no telling how serious it was, but in his late 30s, such injuries are probably going to become the norm moving forward. We should also give proper credit to the Dallas defense. The combination of Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith did a masterful job on Paul and Devin Booker.
But Phoenix's entire vision relies on having two star guards. Them winning a championship means Paul has to look like the version of himself he did during the regular season. If he can't be that player, this version of the Suns is effectively out of the championship race. Speaking of which, they have another major issue to sort out now.
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3. What comes next for Deandre Ayton?
Before the season, Deandre Ayton asked the Suns for a max contract. They said no. Ayton handled his business professionally all year long. But he played only 17 minutes in Game 7. When asked why Suns coach Monty Williams replied "it's internal." What exactly is going on between Ayton and the Suns is not fully clear. Here's what is: Ayton will be a restricted free agent this offseason.
That gives the Suns the right to match any offer made to Ayton. The question here is whether or not they'll want to. Re-signing Ayton at the salary he's likely to command would push the Suns into the tax. Owner Robert Sarver is notoriously cheap. Sarver is also under investigation by the league due to allegations that he created a hostile work environment, and if that leads to any sort of change in ownership, we truly have no idea what to expect. The five teams with significant cap space as of right now are the Pacers, Blazers, Magic, Pistons and Spurs. One of them is probably going to sense enough weakness in Phoenix to throw a max offer sheet at Ayton hoping to steal him.
If Phoenix is unwilling to pay him what the market suggests he is worth, a sign-and-trade agreement might make sense. After all, the Suns took Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick that they could have used on Doncic. The optics of losing him for nothing would be terrible, and frankly, such a talent drain would likely end any hope the Suns have of returning to contention next season. But Phoenix went 16-6 without Ayton this season. If there is something going on between him and the team, there's a valid argument in favor of moving him. Centers, with a few major exceptions, tend to become less valuable in the playoffs.
Devin Booker is an All-NBA player that is only likely to get better. Mikal Bridges isn't quite that good, but he figures to improve as well. But after that? The Suns have as many question marks as any team in the NBA. This is going to be a messy offseason for James Jones to navigate.