PHOENIX — The first time the Suns could get in serious trouble was just over two minutes into the game. By this time, Dallas held an insignificant 5–3 lead when Luka Dončić dribbled the ball through the middle of the floor in half court. After calling Deandre Ayton to a screen at the top of the key and forcing Mikal Bridges into a fight, Dončić did what he had done several times before in the series: he dribbled a left and effortlessly backed into a three-pointer, giving him the Mavs’ eight points.
Almost immediately, a faint murmur was heard in the crowd. At that moment the ball crossed the net, Dončić went from 23-year-old prodigy to horror movie villain realizing the strength of his own powers. And he and his team have never looked back.
Phoenix’s season — which before the playoffs had been the best in franchise history — ended in shocking, confusing and humiliating fashion on Sunday night. The Suns were beaten in a 123-90 loss. It still doesn’t feel completely real. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Didn’t Dončić still need more experience in the playoffs before he could qualify for the final? Wasn’t this supposed to be the end of the storybook that had long eluded Chris Paul? Aren’t the Suns by far the best team in the NBA? Dallas put all those issues to bed ruthlessly and brutally in what was a league-changing victory.
You have to start with Dončić. Every time he dribbled the ball across the floor after that first step back, you could feel the jittery, uncomfortable energy in the arena. How will he hurt us next? Luka played with DPOY finalist Mikal Bridges. He posted a center in Ayton and a point guard in Chris Paul and found success doing both. Dončić was ruthless, scoring at ease and laughing in the face of Phoenix’s agony. A few Suns players tried to find ways to relax before Game 7 on Sunday. Devin Booker said he would play video games or dip in his pool to cool off from the sweltering valley heat. Jae Crowder got a massage and watched some ozark on Netflix. But there’s a reason Monty Williams said before the game that he could barely sleep. And that’s largely down to a player like Dončić, who can turn a top-three defense to dust with a smile.
At halftime, Luka had as many points as the entire Suns team combined. (He finished the game with 35. Phoenix’s starters had 37.) It was as complete a shoutout as you’ll ever see in pro sports, and it’s with great players across the board. ground.
It was a particularly ignominious loss for Paul, whose playoff career – fair or unfair – continues to be somehow defined by missed opportunities. OKC’s turnover. The 3-1 lead against Houston. The hamstring injury against the Warriors. The 2-0 lead in the final. And now, one of the most unexpected explosions of all time. How much can one of the best to ever dribble a basketball endure – which is indisputable, no matter how irritated he may be?
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Paul gave nothing after the game. He said it was just a defeat. He said his only message to the team was that it was time to get back to work. He said he felt like they would be back next year (and people say he missed his best shot at a title since 2008). The reality is that it is hard to imagine Paul being in such an advantageous position again. Luka is not going anywhere. Presumably, the Lakers will be a bit better. The Nuggets and Clippers will be healthier. The Warriors still have Steph, Klay and Dray. Paul had a Game 7 at home and couldn’t capitalize. And that doesn’t even get into his personal performance in this series, which dropped dramatically after a masterpiece in Game 2.
Throughout his career, Paul has been one of the most adept players in the league to force a game to be played on his terms. He even over-handled Luka earlier in the series. Which made it all the more shocking that Game 7 got away early, he couldn’t grab a hold. The Mavs defense deserves a ton of credit, from their all-court pressure to crisp rotations. That still doesn’t make Paul’s game any less of a headache. (Although there were quad injury reports after the game. For what it’s worth, Paul was never listed on the injury report during the series.)
Meanwhile, Devin Booker struggled with blitzes and couldn’t find the hoop. Bridges went 0 for 3 from beyond the arc, meaning he finished the series with five threes, the same as Spencer Dinwiddie hit in Game 7 alone. Ayton played just 17 minutes in the amid clear tension with Williams. (After the game, when asked about Ayton’s limited playing time, the normally soft-spoken Monty offered a terse, stern, “It’s internal.”) Nobody intervened. , although, as Cam Johnson said, the “want and desire” was very much there.
The loss was a banner moment for the Suns. You play all year to get a home ground in a game 7 only to be kicked out of the ground anyway. Now what? Paul will be 38 before the final next year. You hope Booker and Bridges improve, of course. But what about Ayton, who ended the series badly and is now heading into restricted free agency? What happens at point guard after Cam Payne was benched mid-series? Does Johnson get an extension or enter a contract year like Ayton? And then there’s the case of owner Robert Sarver, who is the subject of a league hostile workplace investigation, the results of which have yet to be made public. In an ideal world, these questions come after the finale while everyone’s breath still smells of champagne. Instead, they come on abruptly, like all lights on in the middle of the night.
Dallas, on the other hand, happens to be ahead of schedule. Instead of wondering how to build around Luka, the Mavs won a series that no one expected them to win. They’re playing with house money, a dangerous proposition for anyone forced to face their playoff-tailored style of basketball. You could feel the jubilation in the bowels of the arena after the match. The cheers emanating from the Dallas locker room rang louder than anything the fans could muster in the second half. Good luck to the Warriors, the last team forced to face Dončić’s conundrum.
From Paul’s legacy to Luka’s chance to become the guy to beat, the fallout from this game is significant. Only two teams with as many wins as the Suns (the 2007 Mavs and 2016 Spurs) have failed to reach at least the Conference Finals in league history. And that stat still doesn’t quite begin to capture just how shocking Phoenix’s loss was. Those kinds of losses don’t happen in the NBA, both at a game level and at a series level. For the second straight summer, the Suns will have to dig deep to respond.
One of the coachingisms that Monty Williams gave up at the start of the second set was to have an “appropriate fear” of the opponent. You want to believe you can win, but also respect the opponent’s ability to beat you. Apparently, every time Dončić had the ball on Sunday night after that first step back three, you could feel the crowd’s fear growing. Could a player really ruin everything we’ve achieved? It’s not exactly it’s simple. But Suns fans were ultimately right to be terrified.
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