The NBA has a longstanding rule of thumb that the team that plays better almost always wins a playoff series.
Notice that theory doesn’t say that the better team almost always wins.
Right now, nobody can say with certainty who the better team is in this Western Conference semifinals between the Mavericks and Suns. But the team playing better – at the moment – is the Mavericks, thanks to their 113-86 spanking of the Suns in Game 6 Thursday.
Phoenix’s gaudy 64-18 regular-season record means nothing now. This series is tied at three wins apiece.
The Mavericks are one win – maybe one hot shooting night, one fluky play or one more really chilly night from Devin Booker or Chris Paul – from upsetting the Suns and moving on to the Western Conference finals.
The Suns are one home win away as Game 7 will be Sunday in Phoenix. It would be what everybody has expected from them. And it would have taken considerably longer than a lot of folks thought it would.
The Mavericks, in Jason Kidd’s terms, have had “a hell of a season,” no matter how this turns out.
It would be even better if they can keep the party going by proving they played better for seven games against the best team in the league for 82 games this season.
All they have to do is reprise Game 6’s greatness.
Speaking of which, let’s relive that masterpiece with our takeaways from Thursday night.
LUKA TOOK CHARGE: Luka Dončić had shot 5-of-25 in the previous three games from 3-point range. He still launched eight of them on Thursday and made just two. But it was his efficiency in other areas that made this one of his best playoff performances ever. Specifically, the number “one” was the star of his night – as in one turnover in 35 minutes. Considering he had eight assists, that was a very Chris Paul-like assist-turnover ratio. And it’s especially spiffy when you factor in his 37 assists to a whopping 25 turnovers in the first five games of the series. Moreover, his four steals cannot be overlooked. The Maverick starters had just that one turnover. They had only seven as a team. This is the kind of ball protection and efficiently run offense that makes life easier for everybody. And Luka was posting up and getting to the paint more in Game 6, which contributed to their overall offensive potency.
BULL ON BOOK: While the offense hummed along, the defense really stood out, particularly Reggie Bullock’s job on Devin Booker. Bullock had mostly guarded Chris Paul in the previous games, but he was switched on to Booker by coach Jason Kidd. It was a genius move, no doubt endorsed, or perhaps hatched, by assistant coach Sean Sweeney, who directs the Mavericks’ defensive schemes. Booker shot 6-of-17 from the field and didn’t make a 3-pointer for the first time in this series. Bullock has been a great defensive sidekick to Dorian Finney-Smith all season. Together, they can switch off on Booker and Paul. And even help out on Deandre Ayton if needed. These options have kept the Suns guessing on the offensive end. No matter who they are checking, Bullock, Finney-Smith and Co. need to pack their best defense with them for Game 7. Defense, as they say, travels.
WAITING ON PAUL: The Mavericks know Game 7 is going to be an absolute bloodbath. What they also know is that Chris Paul has had only one game in this series that would be considered “Killer Chris” material – Game 2 when he had 28 points. In the last four games (three Mavericks’ wins) Paul has averaged 9.3 points and 6.3 assists. The Mavericks have to brace for a monster outing from Paul. He’s too good and has been too quiet not to come up with a silver-bullet effort in Game 7 on his home floor.
DEPTH BECOMING A FACTOR: The Mavericks have become the clearly deeper team in this series. They’ve had different games when Maxi Kleber, Spencer Dinwiddie, Davis Bertans and Frank Ntilikina have stepped up with important showings. On Thursday, it was Dinwiddie and Ntilikina. Dinwiddie hit five of his seven 3-pointers and had a series-best 15 points. Ntilikina didn’t score, but had four steals and was a pest on Paul and others defensively. And Kleber had a quietly effective game with nine points and four rebounds, while hitting 3-of-5 from 3-point range. The Suns have gotten little to nothing from the Camerons (Payne and Johnson. Bismack Biyombo has supplanted JaVale McGee in their rotation and Landry Shamet has yet to find his scoring or shooting touch. Advantage Mavs.
CAN WE HAVE A GAME, PLEASE? The six games have produced three pure blowouts and three games decided by seven, nine and 10 points. None of the games have come down to the last possession, or even the last minute, really. And while a blowout win for the Mavericks would be nice in Game 7, it also would be interesting to see who can handle the ultimate pressure in a series-deciding game that comes down to a final possession. You would have to take your chances with Luka. But Paul is a proven assassin in those situations, too. Hopefully, the basketball world gets to see it.
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