It’s what NBA players live for when they were kids growing up playing basketball in the park, in their backyard or in their local gym. It’s the pressure surrounding the game, the fanfare, the adulation, and the oohs and aahs attached to a game with so much on the line that makes Game 7 a must-see TV event.
In a way, Game 7s are where reputations are made – good or bad. And it’s where memories are hatched and forever etched in everyone’s mind, and to be repeated over and over again for many years to come.
All of that is what’s at stake when the Dallas Mavericks square off against the Suns in Phoenix on Sunday at 7 p.m. CT in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. The winner moves on to the conference finals against the Golden State Warriors.
If the Mavs win Game 7 against the Suns, the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals will start against the Warriors on Wednesday in San Francisco. Game 2 will be May 20 in San Francisco before the series shifts to Dallas for Games 3 and 4 on May 22 and May 24, respectively.
The Mavs forced a Game 7 by trashing the Suns in Game 6 Thursday night at American Airlines Center, where they tied this series at 3-3 with a convincing 113-86 spanking. In outscoring Phoenix in all four quarters, the Mavs held the Suns to just 39.7 percent shooting from the field and also smothered the visitors into committing 22 turnovers, which Dallas flipped into 29 points.
“I really honestly think that the type of desperation we put in (Thursday) not wanting our season to end is something that we really need to bring into Game 7,” guard Jalen Brunson said. “Both teams are going to play like that. We just got to bring it up a notch and we can’t take any breaks.
“I think, long story short, we’ve got to play all out and not really worry about what happens after that.”
“Bring this same energy (the Mavs had in Game 6) from the jump and be ready to punch them in the mouth early and just try to keep that going throughout the game,” Bullock said. “They’re a great team (and) it’s a hostile environment up there.
“But at the same time we’re just going to come with a lot of energy and just play the way we’ve been playing all year.”
While everyone from coach Jason Kidd to the players credited the fans for being rowdy, loud and proud and playing their role in assisting in the Game 6 victory, the Mavs won’t have those fans in attendance to lean on in Game 7. Still, they’re keeping hope alive that they’ll win Sunday and survive to play another series.
“Everyone was involved, the ball was touching the paint, and then defensively we were active,” Kidd said, reflecting on Game 6. “We got deflections, came up with steals. I thought the vibe was high. Now we’ve got to figure out how to win on the road.”
Figuring that out starts with the incomparable Luka Doncic. After stuffing Thursday’s stat sheet with 33 points, 11, rebounds, eight assists, four steals and only one turnover, Doncic is averaging 39 points in playoff elimination games. That’s the highest of any player in the 75-year history of the NBA with a minimum of three playoff elimination games.
“We won this game on the defensive end, and now we have another game. It’s fun. It’s the playoffs, and we are going to give our everything.”
While playing in Europe and in the NBA, Doncic has a reputation for giving his everything and raising his game to an optimum level when it comes to playing in an elimination game.
In the Game 6 elimination game against the Los Angeles Clippers in the bubble in 2020, Doncic finished with 38 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, and was 15-of-28 from the floor and 4-of-9 form three-point territory. In the Game 7 elimination game against the Clippers last year, Doncic collected 46 points, seven rebounds and 14 assists, and was 17-of-30 from the field and 5-of-11 from beyond the three-point arc.
Thus, in the three elimination games he’s been involved in since joining the NBA in 2018, Doncic is averaging 39 points, nine rebounds and 10.3 assists, and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from downtown.
“I think he just enjoys the moment,” Kidd said. “You guys have seen him a little bit longer than I have up close.
“The stage. He’s not afraid of the stage.”
It’s as if the bigger the stage, Doncic was born to do the spectacular.
“He’s a tough player and he’s a great player,” Bullock said. “I laugh at it when you try to guard him. (The Suns are) going to try to do the same thing to him – bring him up in every pick-and-roll — but when we get a switch it’s a bucket every time.
“I just know we’re going back him up. That’s our teammate. He’s going to hold us down on the offensive end and give us his best on the defensive end. It’s about a team to be able to take a backing and not let anybody talk junk to our superstar.”
In addition to Doncic being the best player on the floor, the Mavs will also need their role players to do what they did Thursday. In Game 6, Bullock scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds, Brunson tallied 18 points and collected three steals, Spencer Dinwiddie nailed 5-of-7 triples and finished with 15 points, and Frank Ntilikina was scoreless, but had four steals while playing some lockdown defense.
“I think it just shows the character of Frank,” Kidd said. “Josh (Green) had those minutes and we felt we wanted to take a look at Frank.
“Again, (Ntilikina) didn’t score (Thursday), but he had a huge impact for us defensively with deflections and steals, and we’re going to need him on Sunday in Phoenix. Again, it’s not always about scoring, but he had a big impact for us on the floor while he was playing.”
The Mavs, of course, have fresh memories of an unorthodox series that went seven games. In the Mavs’ first-round matchup against the Clippers last year, the road team won the first six games of that best-of-seven series before the Clippers broke rank and won Game 7 at home, 126-111.
One thing’s for sure: Everyone knows the pressure is clearly on the Suns. After all, they advanced to last year’s NBA Finals, sported a 64-18 record this year that was eight games better than anyone else, and they also jumped out to a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series that the so-called experts said would be over in a four-game sweep.
Asked his impressions about all of that and if the Suns have more to lose in Game 7, Brunson said: “I don’t know. That’s a good question. Me personally, I’m not really worried about what they have to lose or not.
“I’m worried about what we’re capable of doing and how are we going to let our season end. Are we going to let it end and say how we lost to a team that went to the Finals? Or do we want to put ourselves in a category of getting to where we want to go?”
Inquiring minds definitely can’t wait to see how everything unfolds Sunday.
The Mavs are 4-3 all-time in a best-of-seven series. They also are 2-0 when the first round of the playoffs used to be a best-of-five series.
“We know what we need to bring to this game,” Bullock said. “We know, like I said, it’s a hostile environment. But like I said, it’s a little bit more research now where coach said for us to be able to go out in Phoenix and give them a run for their money.
“We’ve got all the energy behind us right now. It’s about us just performing that on Sunday. We just got to go out there and play hard and give it our all knowing that this could possibly be the last game of the season. And we just got to go out there and just lay it all out on the line.”