DALLAS — Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic felt he let his teammates down with what he accurately described as a “horrible” defensive effort in the second half of a Game 2 loss against the Phoenix Suns. His backcourt partner Jalen Brunson needed only one word to sum up his performance in the 0-2 trip to Phoenix: “Terrible.”
They both arrived at the American Airlines Center on Friday night, determined to make Game 3 different. The duo pulled it off, spoiling Suns star Chris Paul’s 37th birthday and leading Dallas to a 103-94 win to give the Mavs their first Western Conference semifinal victory.
Brunson scored a game-high 28 points – six more than he had combined in the first two games of the series – and kept the Mavs comfortably ahead while Doncic spent much of the second half in mistake. Doncic finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and two steals.
“Everyone joined in the fun,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said, playing his comment after Game 1 when Doncic didn’t get much support. “They helped on both sides. Luka was great defensively. He also participated. It puts us in a different position when that happens.”
The Mavs’ guards significantly outplayed the Suns’ All-Star backcourt of Paul and Devin Booker, who combined more turnovers (seven) than field goals (11). The dozen turnovers were the most in any game in their two seasons as teammates, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
It was a stark contrast to the dominance of Suns guards in the first two games of the series in Phoenix.
“It wasn’t like us,” said Booker, who had 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting. “You can credit them. They went out and played hard, played desperate. But that’s it. We have a series.”
Paul committed seven turnovers, one shy of his playoff career high, while being limited to 12 points and four assists. By comparison, Paul had 14 points just in the fourth quarter of the Game 2 rout, relentlessly chasing and exploiting switches on Doncic.
“They went out and did what they were supposed to do,” Paul said. “We will be back on Sunday.”
Forwards Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith, key defenders for Paul and Booker, respectively, led Dallas’ effort at this end of the field. The Mavs also made some schematic changes, such as double-teaming Booker more often and mixing up in certain areas. But Doncic’s vastly improved effort, which came hours after Kidd publicly called on him to “come in” on defense, was key.
“First or second possession, he was diving on the floor,” Finney-Smith said. “When you see the best player doing that, it kind of sets the mood.”
Doncic played down criticism of his Game 2 defense, whether from his coach or others, as a motivating factor. He blamed himself that night for Dallas’ defensive problems.
“I knew I had to do better,” said Doncic, who is averaging 35.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists in the series. “I knew I could do better. I think I made a big leap in defense this year. The second half (of Game 2) was horrible for me, and I knew I had to go back to my team and play better defense.”
Brunson had been a star in the first round, averaging 27.8 points per game in the six-game win over the Utah Jazz, but was not a factor in the two games at Phoenix. He had some foul trouble early in both games, in part because he couldn’t find his rhythm, and shot just 32.1% from the floor.
“I just wanted him to be aggressive,” Kidd said. “We spoke before the game – be yourself. I thought it was the first time he was aggressive. He didn’t wait. He didn’t watch.”
Brunson remained in attack mode despite his first three missed shots, finishing the first quarter with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting. He had another 10-point quarter in the third, which was critical as Doncic missed the last five minutes and 14 seconds due to a foul issue.
“I kind of found myself playing with a little more jump in my step, getting to spots quicker and making decisions quicker,” Brunson said. “The decisions came from me just being aggressive. My teammates kept giving me confidence to make plays, and I kept doing that. … I found a way to bounce back tonight, but I just can’t be happy with that.”
The win ended the Mavs’ 11-game losing streak against the Suns that dated back to November 2019, a drought that Dallas players and coaches had intentionally avoided discussing during that series.
“We will believe until the end,” said Doncic. “Somebody’s got to get four wins, and it doesn’t matter if you’re down or up, you gotta believe.”