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DALLAS — Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic felt that he let his teammates down with what he accurately described as a “horrible” defensive effort during the second half of a Game 2 loss to the Phoenix Suns. His backcourt partner Jalen Brunson needed only one word to sum up his performance in the 0-2 trip to Phoenix: “Terrible.”
They both arrived at the American Airlines Center on Friday night determined to make sure that Game 3 was different. The duo succeeded, spoiling Suns star Chris Paul‘s 37th birthday and leading Dallas to a 103-94 win to give the Mavs their first win of the Western Conference semifinals.
Brunson scored a game-high 28 points — six more than he had combined in the first two games of the series — and kept the Mavs comfortably ahead while Doncic sat much of the second half in foul trouble. Doncic finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and two steals.
“Everybody joined the party,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said, playing off his comment after Game 1 when Doncic didn’t get much support. “They helped out on both ends. Luka was great defensively. He participated, too. It puts us in a different position when that happens.”
The Mavs’ guards significantly outplayed the Suns’ All-Star backcourt of Paul and Devin Booker, who combined for more turnovers (seven) than made field goals (11). The dozen turnovers were their most in any game during their two seasons as teammates, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
It was a stark contrast to the Suns guards’ dominance during the opening two games of the series in Phoenix.
“It wasn’t like us,” said Booker, who had 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting. “You can credit them. They came out and played hard, played desperate. But that’s that. We got a series.”
Paul committed seven turnovers, one shy of his playoff career high, while being held to 12 points and four assists. By comparison, Paul had 14 points just in the fourth quarter of the Game 2 rout, relentlessly hunting and exploiting switches on Doncic.
“They came out and did what they’re supposed to do,” Paul said. “We’ll be back on Sunday.”
Forwards Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith, the primary defenders on Paul and Booker, respectively, led Dallas’ effort on that end of the floor. The Mavs made some schematic changes as well, such as double-teaming Booker more often and mixing in some zone. But Doncic’s drastically improved effort, which came hours after Kidd publicly called on him to “participate” on defense, was a key.
“The first or second possession, he was diving on the floor,” Finney-Smith said. “When you see the best player do that, it kind of sets the mood.”
Doncic downplayed the criticism of his Game 2 defense, whether it was from his coach or others, as a motivational factor. He put the brunt of the blame on himself that night for Dallas’ defensive issues.
“I knew I had to do better,” said Doncic, who is averaging 35.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists in the series. “I knew I could do better. I think I made a big jump on defense this year. The second half (of Game 2) was horrible by me, and I knew I had to get back to my team and play better defense.”
Brunson had been a breakout star in the first round, averaging 27.8 points per game in the six-game win over the Utah Jazz, but was a nonfactor in the two games in Phoenix. He got in early foul trouble in both games, part of the reason he couldn’t find his rhythm, and shot only 32.1% from the floor.
“I just wanted him to be aggressive,” Kidd said. “We talked before the game — just be yourself. I thought this was the first time he was aggressive. He didn’t wait. He wasn’t surveying.”
Brunson stayed in attack mode despite missing his first three shots, finishing the first quarter with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting. He had another 10-point quarter in the third, which was critical because Doncic sat out the final five minutes, 14 seconds due to foul trouble.
“I kind of found myself playing with a little bit more hop in my step, getting to spots quicker and making decisions faster,” Brunson said. “Decisions came from me just being aggressive. My teammates just kept giving me confidence to go make plays, and I just kept doing that. … I found a way to bounce back tonight, but I just can’t be satisfied with this.”
The win snapped the Mavs’ 11-game losing streak against the Suns, which dated to November 2019, a drought that Dallas’ players and coaches had intentionally avoided discussing during this series.
“We’re going to believe until the end,” Doncic said. “Somebody’s got to get to four wins, and no matter if you’re down or you’re up, you’ve got to believe.”