The stars shine bright in Phoenix and Dallas, but do they have enough help?
DALLAS — Four superstars in their primes combined for 137 points in a premium Sunday matinee between the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks on national television that came down to the final seconds.
Two of the combatants, Luka Doncic and Devin Booker, were in each other’s faces furthering a festering feud that dates to last season’s playoffs. The other two, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, icily ignored each other like exes at an awkward social event just a month after their breakup radically altered the NBA landscape.
It was a delicious scene, the Suns’ 130-126 victory over the Mavericks, about as good as a regular-season game gets with a wonderful combination of drama, bad blood and shot-making.
But it was the fifth star, future first-ballot Hall of Famer Chris Paul, whose role in this game was perhaps the most relevant in demonstrating where these two high-profile teams go from here.
The Suns and Mavericks are headed toward a full-blown rivalry. Failing that, their midseason trades made them two of the NBA’s most intriguing teams for the foreseeable future.
But they both have the same issue to grapple with as they try to catch momentum to assemble a playoff run: Do their superstars have enough help?
The Mavericks might as well have posted a sign on the videoboard goading Paul into shooting Sunday.
Calling it disrespect wouldn’t be fair because there’s nuance to the game plan, but it’s an odd sight to see a player of Paul’s repute totally left alone over and over. As Dallas swung defenders to manage the Durant-Booker tidal wave, that is what repeatedly happened.
Paul is having a poor shooting season by his standards, shooting 42.5%, the second-lowest mark of his career, en route to a career-low 13.5 points per game. It’s simple game theory; he’s the weak link in this alignment.
And in the fourth quarter, Paul made Dallas pay, drilling three jumpers including a pair of 3-pointers.
But the Mavs also ignored Josh Okogie, who went 0-of-8 on 3-pointers, and Torrey Craig, who went 1-of-4. It would’ve worked for the home team if Ish Wainright, who was promoted from a two-way contract 10 days ago, hadn’t made four 3-pointers when Suns coach Monty Williams was desperate.
“You ain’t gonna find greatness on the beach,” said Williams, using one of his old-school sayings. “You find the growth you need under stress, and the more stress you’re under when you get in these moments, it just becomes more like this. And so Chris has been in those moments, maybe not as a catch-and-shoot guy, but I think he’s ready for it and he wants it.”
This is what the Suns’ season could come down to in the playoffs: Can Paul shake off a bad shooting season to stab the disrespect? Can a player on a minimum contract break the opponent four times in seven games? Or at least do so in the possible game or two that could swing a series?
Booker had 36 points Sunday, Durant had 37, including a game-winning jumper with 11 seconds left. They played their first three games together on the Suns’ just-concluded road trip and combined for 188 points. That is the most points for the first three games between teammates since the 1961-62 season when Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 a game and any new face who showed up made the list.
Yet had Doncic, who scored 34 points, made a bunny at the end, all that scoring wouldn’t have won it for Phoenix.
“We have ultimate confidence in everybody, telling Chris to shoot it every time, telling Ish to shoot it, Josh to keep shooting,” Booker said. “We’re gonna keep working on it.”
The Mavericks are in a similar position. Both teams hollowed out their depth by trading away key supporting players in their midseason blockbuster deals and those margins are already showing up.
Things get heated between Luka and Booker
Luka Doncic and Devin Booker get into a shoving match following Doncic’s game-tying attempt late in the fourth quarter.
Dallas is now 2-5 with Doncic and Irving, who had 30 points and seven assists. All five losses have come down to the final minute. The Mavericks could easily be 5-2 or, in some simulations, 7-0. Doncic and Irving have combined to average more than 60 points a game since the trade but the narrow losses highlight the difference the supporting cast makes.
Just as Williams has been searching, so too has Dallas coach Jason Kidd. He has tried different starting lineups. He moved promising prospect Josh Green into the starting lineup Sunday, which some have called for because he represents a good defensive option; Green was scoreless in 28 minutes and the defense was still steamrolled.
Finding a lineup that can score — Tim Hardaway Jr. nailed six 3-pointers off the bench — but can also defend well enough is Kidd’s biggest hurdle. The Mavs ranked 24th in the league in defense before the trade and are 26th since sending their best defender, Dorian Finney-Smith, to the Brooklyn Nets.
A year from now, once these teams go through an offseason and another trade deadline, they will likely have more complete rosters, though neither has a ton of trade assets left and Irving will be a free agent this summer.
For now, though, Phoenix and Dallas are probably headed for a number of games like this: Stars playing amazing, pressure on the diminished supporting casts and razor-close finishes.
Potentially, if the basketball gods allow it, those games will happen against each other in the playoffs.