PHOENIX (AP)The Phoenix Suns have proven they can win playoff games without All-Star Devin Booker. The Dallas Mavericks showed the same when their own superstar Luka Doncic was out of the lineup.
If adversity builds strength, then this Suns-Mavericks playoff matchup could be a doozy.
The Mavericks travel to face the top-seeded Suns in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Monday. The Suns are trying to get back to the NBA Finals for a second straight season, while this is the first time the Mavericks have been past the first round since Doncic came into the league.
Some suggested the Mavericks are playing with ”house money” since they’re finally past the first round for the first time since 2011. Dallas coach Jason Kidd doesn’t see it that way.
”I don’t know anything about the house money, but it’s the first team to four and hopefully we can put ourselves in a position to do that,” Kidd said. ”It’s going to start on the road against the Western Conference champs. This is a great test for us.”
The Suns had, by far, the best regular-season record in the NBA. They looked much more mortal during the first round of the playoffs, even though they eventually prevailed, beating the New Orleans Pelicans in six games. The fourth-seeded Mavs pushed past the No. 5 Utah Jazz in six games as well.
Booker missed three games of the Pelicans series with a hamstring injury before returning in Game 6, scoring 13 points in the closeout win. Doncic also missed three games of the Mavs-Jazz series because of a strained calf before returning for Game 4 and tipping the scales in favor of Dallas.
Both should be at relatively full strength for this series.
DONCIC VS BRIDGES
Suns forward Mikal Bridges was one of three finalists for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. It’s safe to say he’ll spend a lot of time over the next week or two trying to make life tough for Doncic.
Suns coach Monty Williams said it won’t be easy.
”He’s in that category now of a high-level guy who has seen every defense,” Williams said. ”He’s so doggone big and strong, he can take the punishment and still see the other side of the floor.”
Doncic had plenty of praise for Bridges.
”It’s really tough against him. He’s different,” Doncic said. ”He’s amazing, really impresses me. But then on the offensive end, he improved so much that it’s really an amazing player he has become. It’s a big challenge going against him.
The good news for the Suns is they swept the regular-season series against the Mavericks, winning all three games.
The bad news for Phoenix is those wins are nearly useless when watching games. The last time these two teams faced each other was more than three months ago on Jan. 20
”I think it’s hard to use those games as a research tool,” Williams said.
Not only did Doncic miss two of those games, but the Mavs’ roster and style has changed substantially after dealing 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards. Now Dallas usually goes with a smaller lineup, trying to create mismatches.
Suns center Deandre Ayton – who averaged about 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first round – said he expects to be chasing smaller players throughout the series.
”We stay true to our coaching,” Ayton said. ”We try to punish matchups just like they try to punish bigs on the perimeter. This is how the game goes. You’ve got to stay in front of your man and finish at the rim.”
Booker’s health will be closely watched in the coming weeks. The 25-year-old has had hamstring problems in the past.
He wasn’t exactly vintage Booker in the Game 6 win, but he did hit a few big shots in the second half, finishing with 13 points in the 115-109 victory.
”I thought he was fine,” Williams said. ”When I talked to him, he was straight with me, he’s like `Coach, I’m fine, I feel strong.’ … It wasn’t like he was cheating the game, he was just more efficient. He hadn’t played in over a week, so that probably had a lot to do with it. But in the second half, I saw more of an effort to just play. And we needed it.”
Dallas’s Jalen Brunson played some of the best basketball of his career against the Jazz, averaging 27.8 points.
He was arguably the team’s top offensive option when Doncic missed time, but even after he returned, Brunson averaged 23.7 points over the final three games of the series.
If Doncic’s healthy, Brunson probably won’t have to score quite as much. But it’s certainly nice knowing the 25-year-old can carry a postseason offense if needed.
AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this story.
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