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Monday, May 09, 2022

Mavericks Make 20 Three Pointers, Even Series With Suns at 2-2

During a playoff series, it is often asserted that the trailing team has no answers for what the leading team is doing--until the trailing team wins a game or two, and then it is asserted that the leading team is in trouble. The reality is often both simpler and more complex than such one dimensional narratives suggest: the simple truth is that, barring injuries, the team with the most significant enduring matchup advantages will win the series; the complex truth is that a variety of factors influence the outcome of a particular game, including role players playing better at home than on the road, differences in officiating, and individual outlier performances that are not sustainable.

The Phoenix Suns beat the Dallas Mavericks 121-114 in game one and 129-109 in game two. Those two home victories did not mean that the Mavericks had no answers for the Suns and no chance to win a game or even two games, but those victories indicated that the Suns have matchup advantages that will likely result in them eventually winning the series.

The Mavericks have now won two home games to send the series back to Phoenix tied 2-2. Those two victories do not mean that the Suns are in trouble, but they served as a reminder that teams tend to shoot better and perform better at home. For example, in the Suns' game two rout they shot 13-25 (.520) from three point range while the Mavericks shot 17-41 (.415) from beyond the arc--but in game four on Sunday afternoon, the Suns shot 9-25 (.360) on three pointers while the Mavericks shot 20-44 (.455). If those trends continue then of course the Suns may be in trouble--but the point is that it is unlikely that either trend will continue: in game five in Phoenix, the Suns will likely shoot better than they did in Dallas, and the Mavericks will likely shoot worse than they did in Dallas.

One interesting trend to monitor is that Chris Paul may be wearing down. Why does this matter more than the three point shooting percentages of the teams? It matters more because Paul wearing down and/or getting injured during the playoffs has been a recurring theme throughout his playoff career, and is a major reason that--despite all of the regular season success enjoyed by his teams--he has played in the NBA Finals just once. In game three, Paul set a playoff career-high with seven first half turnovers. He did not have a second half turnover, but he was also oddly passive, finishing with just 12 points on 5-9 field goal shooting, and just four assists. In game four, Paul had a "triple single" (five points, seven assists, five rebounds) before fouling out after playing just 23 minutes. High turnover rates and high fouling rates are two signs that a player is not focused mentally and/or wearing down physically (resulting in slower reaction time). Perhaps Paul will bounce back with a big game five performance, but his history of wearing down should concern Suns' fans.

After setting a playoff career-high with four first half fouls in game four, Paul hardly made the most of his final two fouls. Paul received his fifth foul at the 9:32 mark of the third quarter. Dribbling the ball up the court, Paul veered into the path of Jalen Brunson, initiating contact that was correctly ruled an offensive foul. Paul knew that the call was correct, and he did not complain, which is quite telling considering that he often complains about foul calls. It is inexplicable that the Suns squandered a replay challenge on this call. Paul fouled out at the 8:58 mark of the fourth quarter after grabbing Brunson's arm on a shot attempt. This was another obvious and unnecessary foul. Paul did not complain about that call, either. A smart player who is mentally engaged in the game is not going to rack up four first half fouls, let alone foul out by committing an offensive foul in the backcourt followed by a reach in foul after giving up an offensive rebound to the opposing team's point guard. 

It is comical when commentators state with great conviction that a team's playoff success is directly connected to whether or not a particular player scores more (or less) than a specific number of points, or whether or not a particular player has more (or less) than a specific number of assists. This is not a new phenomenon, but the reality is that many factors determine which team wins a playoff game. One might assert that Dallas can only win if Luka Doncic scores more than 40 points or if he has at least 12 assists (depending on whether your preferred narrative is that Doncic must "take over" or Doncic must "involve his teammates"), but the reality is that Dallas won game four with Doncic scoring 26 points on 9-25 field goal shooting (.360) while dishing for 11 assists. Dorian Finney-Smith made a major contribution with 24 points, including 8-12 shooting from three point range. 

With Paul playing passively and then fouling out, the Suns did not display the offensive balance and efficiency that were their trademarks throughout the season. Devin Booker poured in a game-high 35 points on 10-22 field goal shooting, but no other Sun scored more than 15 points.

The Suns will likely win game five at home before either breaking through on the road in game six or winning again at home in game seven, but if you are looking for reasons for Dallas to be optimistic then focus on (1) Paul's history of wearing down and (2) Doncic emerging as the best player in the series. Doncic has scored more points in the first 20 games of his playoff career than every player other than Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, and a player who is that great can sometimes will his team to a road playoff victory; if that happens in game five, then the Mavericks could close out the series from the comforts of their home court. That is not the outcome that I expect, but Paul's long-established resume and Doncic's short but growing resume at least make it possible.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:50 AM



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