Dallas, Texas — The reality of a 3-0 series deficit stared Dallas in the face Friday night, and for the first time all series, the team fought back.
Behind an inspired offensive effort by Jalen Brunson and the defensive consistency of Reggie Bullock on Chris Paul, Dallas found a way to win Game 3 over the Phoenix Suns 103-94 in the American Airlines Center.
“We just played together,” Brunson said. “Can’t be satisfied with this. Sunday is going to be another brutal game, we have to bring the same intensity.”
Brunson scored a team-high 28 points, finding an aggressiveness that Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd admitted Brunson was playing without in Phoenix.
“I just wanted him to be aggressive,” Kidd said. “I talked to him before the game and told him to be himself… We are going to need that again on Sunday.”
Dorian Finney-Smith doubled down on the Brunson praise exclaiming that it “was nice to see” the guard find himself on the court. Brunson was free-flowing and seemingly carefree. And in the playoff equation for Brunson, Game 3 wasn’t a celebration. It was a relief. For the last day, he sat with how he played in Games 1 and 2 in Phoenix. He wasn’t happy with this lack of effectiveness as a secondary scorer to Luka Doncic. And he knew that if Dallas went down 3-0, the season would be all but over. So, he did what he always does when his back is to the wall — he answered the call.
“I found myself playing with a little more hop in my step,” Brunson said. “My teammates kept giving me the confidence to go make plays, and I went out and did it.”
How Dallas won
Dallas won Game 3 by controlling the pace. The Mavericks held Phoenix to 88 possessions and 94 points.
Defensively, Bullock and Finney-Smith made Paul’s life difficult all night long. The 37-year-old point guard was forced into seven turnovers and 12 points. Paul never got comfortable, and neither did Phoenix. That was Dallas’ game plan heading into Game 3: slow the tempo and play an ugly brand of basketball hyper-focused on defense and limiting good looks for Phoenix.
“Energy man, it gets us going,” Doncic, who scored 26 points, said of what made Friday’s defensive effort so different than the two games prior.
One defensive change Dallas made was picking up Paul full court. Few possessions occurred where the defense didn’t make Paul work to catch the ball. And by the second half, the veteran point guard, who has seen every look teams can throw his way, was frustrated.
He picked up a late technical foul because of his anger, benefitting the Mavs in making Game 3 a case study in how to compete against the best team in basketball: push Phoenix out of its game.
Secondary to the defensive effort on Paul, Dallas limited the turnover numbers to single digits. The Mavericks’ magic number was eight.
Phoenix committed 17.
Dallas maximized every offensive possession and played like a team desperate. It was how the Mavericks needed to play in Game 2, but it’s better late than never.
Looking ahead to Game 4
A 2-1 series is drastically different than a 3-0 series. Dallas earned its right to compete in an extra game after the team executed with its back against the wall Friday night. Yet, one win is far from enough. The Mavericks will need three more.
As Doncic said after Game 2, the series isn’t over until someone wins a close-out game. And with Game 3 going Dallas’ way, this dance might last a little longer than everyone expected.
“We are going to believe until the end,” Doncic said. “Until someone gets to four wins, we are going to believe.”
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Feature image via Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports.