In a postseason that’s featured six distinct 40-10 games from Giannis Antetokounmpo, an all-timer against the three-time champs by Ja Morant, and Jimmy Butler reaching terrifying new heights, the actual best game of the playoffs might have been Chris Paul’s Game 6 gem against New Orleans. The Pelicans were a feistier eight seed than most basketball knowers expected, thanks in part to Devin Booker’s hamstring injury, and the Suns needed to dig deeper than they probably planned in order to dispatch them. Paul produced a perfect game in the closeout Game 6 in New Orleans, shooting a flawless 14-for-14 and ending the Pelicans’ season with the most voluminous perfect shooting game since Wilt Chamberlain. Without Booker, the Suns needed that sort of production from their other star guard, and once Booker’s injury healed, he and Paul showed how great they can be together as they led the Suns to two wins against the Mavericks. Then Paul turned 37 and everything changed.
Since that Game 2 win, Paul has had four grim performances as the Mavs have out-adjusted Phoenix and pushed this series to a Game 7. After averaging 14.8 shots per game through the first eight games of the playoffs, Paul’s only hoisted seven per game since then. That’s a concerning stat, given how much the Suns midrange-heavy offense relies on both Booker and Paul generating and nailing shots. If Paul is not a scoring threat, opponents are given the initiative to blitz or double or trap Phoenix ballhandlers. Another ominous numerical sign that something is just not quite right is Paul’s odd inability to get to the free-throw line. He is the single most notorious manufacturer of free throws in the entire NBA and is putting himself in position to make a smart flop on every single possession. This makes him tricky to defend. But Paul shot two free throws last night, and they were his only freebie attempts since Game 2. He’s turned the ball over 18 times, committed 17 fouls, and made just 14 shots.
Paul can be goaded into weird stinkers sometimes, as he had a four-point, three-foul, four-turnover game against New Orleans two games before his perfect outing, though a four-game run of disastrous form needs to be taken more seriously. Paul’s five turnovers last night tell a clean story. One minute into the game, he threw the rock directly into a stationary Jalen Brunson’s face. Brunson sprinted with his gift for a free layup. In the second quarter, Paul dribbled it off his foot and gifted Dallas another fast break. At the end of the first half, he passed it straight into Reggie Bullock’s arm, and Bullock ran down and nailed a wide open three. In the third, he tried to cross up Frank Ntilikina but merely dribbled it off his foot out of bounds. Finally, a few minutes later, he got caught in traffic and basically handed it to Luka Doncic. What is the common factor here? Length. The Mavericks are putting a significantly larger defender on Paul on every single possession. Dallas is blessed with a number of rock-solid wing defenders, and also Ntilikina, whose insertion into the lineup has changed everything for Dallas. The beloved Frenchman has never been a competent offensive player, but his on-ball defense has always been stellar.
After basically not playing until Game 3, Ntilikina has carved out a small, yet impactful role as a change-of-pace defender against both Paul and Booker. He had a perfect Frank Ntilikina line last night, with four steals and one field goal attempt. It feels odd that a Knicks castoff, one who languished on the edge of the Knicks’ rotation last year and averaged fewer than 12 minutes per game this season before losing his spot in the spring, is turning the tide in this series, but it’s impossible to argue otherwise. Dallas is only playing five-out offense, with Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson initiating and everyone else tasked with either screening for one of them or spreading the floor, so Ntilikina can just sort of stand there on offense and shoot if he feels like it, without really harming things for the Mavericks. On defense, he can use all of his energy making life hell for the Suns’ ballhandlers. Watching Ntilikina play on-ball defense is fun. He keeps his arms out, but does not foul. He plays physical, but with his chest. He reads incoming screens, but without needing to turn his head. He reads then clogs passing lanes, but does so before they’ve even opened up. Devin Booker has shot 1-for-6 in 29 possessions against Ntilikina, and the Frenchman has done an even better job of neutralizing Paul. The Mavericks adjusted to Phoenix’s dominant wins in Games 1 and 2 by cranking up the pressure and trapping Suns ballhandlers. Paul and Booker are such great shooters from seemingly undesirable spots on the floor that you almost have to pressure them in order to keep them from getting to their spots. Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock have been vital for the Mavs (Doncic has stepped up as a defender too), and Ntilikina gives them another ace to play. The Suns were so frustrated by him, they had to resort to smashing him. I would be too if he was doing this.
On the other side of the ball, Paul is struggling as well. Jalen Brunson and Doncic have singled out Paul and attacked him on switches a number of times in the past four games, to great effect. Paul fouled out of Game 4, and also committed five more fouls in Game 6. With Paul flanked by Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder, the Mavericks know he’s a weak point in the Suns defense right now, and they’re very smartly going after him when the opportunity presents itself. Paul is a genius on both ends of the court, but when he has to read three actions then close out on someone huge like Maxi Kleber, his brain capacity is blunted. As the series has progressed, Dallas has looked increasingly comfortable, while the Suns have languished. It feels bizarre that a Jason Kidd team is doing this against a Monty Williams team, though that’s what’s happening. Dallas does have the luxury of simplicity here, as their personnel is geared towards maximizing Doncic and playing a very specific, hard-to-guard style. Dallas is relying, perhaps to a worrying degree, on converting three-pointers. But they’re generating open looks pretty comfortably (78 more than Phoenix) and they’re only outperforming their regular season average by three percentage points, though given how Davis Bertans has taken Josh Green’s spot in the rotation, actually grades out to hitting their average or even underperforming it.
There is also the Luka factor. Mikal Bridges has defended him better than any other player in the NBA, though Doncic is cooking him here and the Mavs are doing everything they can to get anyone else switched onto him. Doncic isn’t even bothered by any other player’s defense, and as he gets healthier, he gets more comfortable destroying people in one-on-one situations. The Mavericks play five-out specifically to punish teams for trying any trap Doncic, though if you don’t trap him, he’s just kind of going to fake, spin, dribble, and lurch his way in from the perimeter until he’s lofting a simple seven-footer over you, or he’ll just step back and can a jumper. He has also, crucially, dedicated himself to being a Little Fucker.
This series has been fun the entire time, and while the home team has won every game, a number of trends are coming to a head before Game 7. Doncic is not only the best player in this series, he’s only gotten better as it’s progressed, whereas Paul has faded dramatically. There is a concerning history in play here, and though the Suns are playing at home, there is serious pressure on them. To his credit, Booker is openly relishing the challenge of playing in his first career Game 7. Paul needs to get on his level, and thankfully for him, both teams have two days off before playing on Sunday in Phoenix.