Dallas, Texas — Dallas earned its first trip to the second round in 11 years, and for the team’s efforts, the Mavericks have to take on the Phoenix Suns starting Monday night.
Few are expecting Dallas to take down a Phoenix team that has been the best in basketball all season. But last I checked, Luka Doncic still plays for Dallas. Jalen Brunson is still hot. And Dallas is a tough matchup. For the Mavericks to win, three things need to happen: neutralize the effects of Deandre Ayton, limit Chris Paul in the fourth quarter, and close games with consistent effort. If Dallas can do all three, the organization may find itself in its first conference finals since 2011.
“They’re the No. 1 team for a reason,” Jalen Brunson said after practice on Sunday. “We’re just going to have to be very efficient, make them make mistakes, and limit ours.”
Limiting mistakes is one way of putting it. However, beating a seasoned Paul, healing Devin Booker and a dangerous Ayton will take more than Dallas not getting in its own way.
Ayton is no Rudy Gobert. He might be better.
Phoenix’s center is averaging 20 points per game and 9.8 rebounds in the postseason. Ayton is a threat to score while also holding his own on defense (1.3 blocks per game). With Dallas’ limited big man rotation, slowing Ayton will be the job of a committee. Jason Kidd knows that. He recognizes that against Utah, Dallas enjoyed the luxury of game planning around a center who doesn’t earn his money from putting points on the board.
Ayton does. And to slow him will require what Kidd and his team call “gang rebounding,” where two or three guys focus on limiting Ayton’s impact on the glass, taking away chances for put-back dunks and easy scores.
“This isn’t Gobert and Whiteside,” Kidd said. “These guys can put the ball in the basket. Our bigs are going to be tested.”
This series is going to come down to Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith and Co. holding their own. If they don’t, Dallas can’t compete.
How Dallas can slow Ayton
The way that Dallas’ defense by committee approach can work is if it can take away Ayton’s mid-post and midrange game. On average, Ayton receives 8.5 elbow touches a game in the playoffs, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. He averages 0.98 points per elbow touch, placing him behind only Mikal Bridges in scoring efficiency in that area of the floor on the Suns.
See for yourself:
Deandre Ayton vs the Pels (6 games): 20.5 PTS, 9.8 REBS, 2.5 AST, 1.2 TOV in 35.1 MIN while shooting 71.1% from 2. Through the playoffs he’s the 2nd-most efficient mid-range shooter behind only CP3. Opponents also posted a 43.2 eFG% when he was the closest defender. Still just 23 pic.twitter.com/4ZLHosGiCO
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) April 29, 2022
Eliminating his in-between game will handicap his ability to score at an efficient clip. Second to taking away elbow touches, Dallas needs to focus on making Ayton’s post touches difficult. In the playoffs, Ayton is averaging seven paint touches a game, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. He scores 1.286 points per paint touch, the highest mark for anyone on the team who gets six or more paint touches a game.
Dallas won’t take away all of Ayton’s paint looks, but it can make it difficult for him to catch, turn and score.
Slow Paul’s fourth quarters
Paul is the closer. He’s the headline act. He’s box office.
The fourth quarters are his stage. Dallas needs to take Paul’s pageantry away.
Again, that is easier said than done. To slow Paul, Dallas needs to take a page out of New Orleans’ book — be physical. Make Paul work for every basket. Wear him down, so that by the fourth quarter Paul doesn’t have the legs to lift Phoenix over the hump.
To do so, Dallas will need to throw multiple defenders at Paul. Give him different looks and hope, for a moment, he gets confused. Outside of making life hard for Paul, there isn’t much any team can do to stop one of the greatest guards of all time.
“Chris [Paul] has seen it all,” Kidd said. “We’ve got to change our pitches. Hopefully, we can keep him off balance.”
Finish in the fourth quarter
Early in the season, Dallas was an awful fourth-quarter team. Since January, that changed.
Against Phoenix, Dallas needs to finish the fourth quarter, refraining from playing hero ball. Too often, the Mavericks fall into Doncic watching. He’s otherworldly, but he can’t save Dallas for four games on his own against the best team in basketball. Having Brunson, Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie, who has struggled this postseason, involved will give Dallas options and offensive creativity.
“For us, what we have to improve in this series is being able to finish games,” Kidd said. “As long as we play hard and play for one another it’s going to work out.”
It will take that, and then some, for Dallas to hang with the reigning Western Conference champions. Dallas may not be the favorite, but it can play its way into an advantageous situation.
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Feature image via Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports.