The top-seeded Phoenix Suns and fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks meet in the NBA Western Conference semifinals. Phoenix and Dallas beat the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz in the first round, respectively.
More Yahoo Sports NBA conference semifinals previews:
How they got here
Phoenix Suns (64-18)
The Suns did not suffer from a Finals hangover. They dominated this season from the start, winning eight more games than any other team in the league, and four of their losses came after clinching the No. 1 seed.
Top to bottom, theirs is an impeccably designed roster. Chris Paul and Devin Booker are the NBA's best backcourt. Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson are overqualified 3-and-D role players. Deandre Ayton ranks among the league's best centers. Backup center was Phoenix's biggest concern last season, and even that the front office addressed to perfection, giving JaVale McGee 11 minutes a night.
All the Suns really needed was for Paul to prolong his prime for another season and the young players around him to enter theirs. Done and done. Paul might be better than ever, as his 14-for-14 effort in closing out the Pelicans proved. Booker was a top-five MVP candidate, Bridges was a Defensive Player of the Year finalist, and Ayton did his best to prove he is worth a maximum rookie contract extension at season's end.
All that said, the Suns have not exactly hit the ground running in these playoffs. Booker suffered a hamstring injury 25 minutes into Game 2 of their first-round series, and while he returned in Game 6, his impact was limited — save for a clutch 3-pointer in the final minutes. The 36-win Pelicans gave Phoenix all it could handle, scoring 115.6 points per 100 possessions against the Suns' third-rated defensive unit.
Dallas Mavericks (52-30)
Luka Doncic played his way into shape this season, and the Mavericks followed suit. By February, Dallas had given up on the Kristaps Porzingis experiment, trading him for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans.
All the while, first-year Dallas head coach Jason Kidd molded a top-10 defense out of Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock, Maxi Kleber and a roster full of players who do not exactly have defensive reputations.
Doncic handled the heliocentric offense, and a roster full of quality role players fell into place around him. Dinwiddie and Jalen Brunson share secondary playmaking duties. Everyone in the rotation, beyond Dwight Powell, spaces the floor for them. They are dangerous, so long as Doncic performs at an MVP-caliber level.
All of which made Dallas' performance against Utah so peculiar. The Mavericks took a 2-1 first-round series lead while Doncic was on the bench nursing a calf strain, because Brunson transformed into an elite scorer against Utah's porous perimeter defense, and then they nearly let the Jazz back into the series once Doncic returned. Bojan Bogdanovic's errant wide-open 3-pointer was all that stood between the Jazz and Game 7.
Head to head
The Suns swept their regular-season series with the Mavericks, 3-0.
All three games came before the Mavericks traded Porzingis, and Doncic missed the first two meetings in November, when he was battling a series of early season injuries. Still, Dallas took two of the games down to the final possessions, when the Suns outscored the Mavericks 30-11 in nine total minutes of clutch ball. Phoenix has been the more well-oiled machine all year, and Dallas is still fine-tuning its playoff operation.
The Suns go with what works, closing games with the starting lineup that got them here. Paul, Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Crowder outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions over a whopping 754 minutes during the regular season, and they registered a similar advantage against the Pelicans in the first round. Johnson is also capable of filling crunch-time minutes, should Crowder's jump shot be failing him.
The Mavericks played extremely small lineups to close out the Jazz, unleashing Doncic, Brunson, Finney-Smith, Bullock and Dinwiddie — a group that played all of 15 minutes together during the regular season. Ayton is a different beast offensively than Utah's Rudy Gobert, which will call for the size of Powell or Kleber in place of Dinwiddie. Powell, Doncic, Brunson, Finney-Smith and Bullock made up Kidd's most trusted lineup all season, and they rewarded him with a +14.2 net rating over 367 minutes of the regular season.
Matchup to watch
Doncic is arguably the game's best weapon from the top of the key, and Bridges is arguably its best perimeter defender. Bridges contained both Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum against the Pelicans, but Doncic is another animal. Slow the Mavericks superstar at all, and Dallas has no shot against Phoenix.
Because Doncic missed the first two games against the Suns, Bridges only defended him for parts of 30 possessions in their Jan. 20 meeting. Doncic equipped himself well, and the Mavericks scored 33 points in a six-minute sample size too small to draw many conclusions. Last year did not offer much supporting evidence that Bridges can stop Doncic, either, but the stakes in this series are higher than ever for both.
May 2: Dallas at Phoenix, 10 p.m. (TNT)
May 4: Dallas at Phoenix, 10 p.m. (TNT)
May 6: Phoenix at Dallas, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
May 8: Phoenix at Dallas, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
May 10: Dallas at Phoenix, TBD (TNT)*
May 12: Phoenix at Dallas, TBD (ESPN)*
May 15: Dallas at Phoenix, TBD*
Phoenix Suns (-350)
Dallas Mavericks (+260)
Suns in six.
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