PHOENIX — Luka Dončić’s postseason career, during which he established himself as one of the greatest postseason scorers of all time, has been defined by his ability to surgically disrupt big defenses. In Game 1 against the Suns, Dončić went for 45 points. In the first half of Game 2, he picked up right where he left off, scoring another 24 points and leading the Mavs to a 60–58 lead.
Then, when it came to buying time in the fourth quarter, Chris Paul gave Dončić a taste of his own medicine.
Phoenix now leads 2-0 in its second-round series against Dallas after a decisive 129-109 victory on Wednesday. The Suns exploded with 40 points in the fourth quarter, and the leader of the explosion was Paul. CP3 scored 14 in the final frame, more than Dončić had in the entire second half, and he did so by routinely picking the Mavs’ leading scorer in trades.
Of Paul’s six field goals in the fourth quarter, five were the result of attacking defenders after a changeup. And three separate times, the 37-year-old future player left Dončić in the dust for a touchdown. For good measure, one of Paul’s two assists in the final period also came at Luka’s expense, resulting in a 3-pointer for Cam Johnson. It was another legendary performance from the Point God, who delivered his last powerful sermon in a postseason in which he has had four last quarters scoring at least 10 points.
“The amazing thing is that for the first two quarters he feels relaxed, relaxed,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said of Paul. “Then he has a switch and turns it on… Only he is doing what he does. We took him out in the fourth quarter.”
Paul has long established himself as one of the great manipulators in basketball history. When the time comes, he can often bend a game to his will. In the fourth quarter of Game 2, Paul eliminated any notion of surprise with precision and ruthless efficiency. And he did it against Dončić, another manipulator in training, who saw on Wednesday that his particular heliocentric style has limits.
The Suns made sure to attack Luka in the fourth and Dončić just looked too fatigued to keep up. Luka is not the first great scorer who doesn’t have the same talent at the other end. But the Slovenian star has to be better on that side of the court, especially if he wants to succeed in the later rounds of the playoffs. It’s fair to wonder if Luka’s offensive load is sapping the energy he has to play championship-level defense, though he once again didn’t get much help in Game 2.
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Dallas had only two other players reach double figures in scoring on Wednesday, and those two combined for just 27 points on a pedestrian 8-for-19 shooting. Notably, none of those players was Jalen Brunson. The spark plug guard who was a revelation against Utah managed just nine points on 25% shooting Wednesday. Brunson now has just 22 points in two games after scoring at least 23 every night in Round 1.
Paul, meanwhile, has the luxury of choosing his spots. The Suns had four players in double figures, including 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting by Devin Booker. Crowder hit three 3-pointers en route to 15 points, while Mikal Bridges added 11 of his own. Phoenix is everything that Dallas is not. The Suns are an equal opportunity offense, with multiple players stepping up on any given night. For example, even with JaVale McGee and Deandre Ayton dealing with foul trouble, Bismack Biyombo came off the bench as the third center and matched Brunson in scoring while connecting on all four of Brunson’s shots.
That doesn’t make it any less impressive to see Paul get to work in the game’s highest leverage moments. He had Dallas struggling defensively, with players aiming furiously and moving away from the ball before screens were put up to try to prevent another profitable switch. It’s ironic considering CP3 built his reputation as one of the last true point guards in the NBA. However, when the Suns need a bucket, they turn to a 17-year-old, even when he shares the court with someone (Booker) who once scored 70 points in a game.
To his credit, Booker has no problem watching his teammate cook. He even remembers when he and his father watched Paul before he was in college let alone the NBA.
“My dad and I watched him play and he was like, ‘See how he makes sure everyone’s involved and then picks his moments when he’s going to take charge of the game?’” Booker recalled. “And I’ve always admired the way he does it. He is simply in control at all times. He’s two, three steps ahead of whatever the other team is doing. And just leadership, that can never go unnoticed when talking about this man. Just the way he holds people accountable, the will to win. The list goes on and on”.
It’s not just the list of Paul’s attributes that goes on and on, it’s Paul himself. Calling CP3’s big scoring nights this postseason “vintage” would be a disservice to the level he’s still playing at. This was not a flashback performance. What we are seeing from Paul is one of the greats of the game that continues to evolve. He has perfected the art of manipulation. And if the opponent gives him an inch, he’ll find a way to take the whole damn game.
After two games now, it’s clear the Mavs just aren’t on the same level as the Suns, a team Booker described as on a “revenge tour” after losing in the Finals last year. If Dallas is going to have a chance to come back in this series, Dončić will need help with offensive creation, and the entire team will have to find an answer for Paul. The difficulty of playing Paul is that sometimes when you find that answer, it can be what someone as manipulative as he wanted in the first place.
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