happy birthday? Mavericks put a damper on Suns guard Chris Paul’s 37th

The first indication that Chris Paul wasn’t having a great 37th birthday came early in the second quarter, when he dribbled the ball out of bounds.

Just 4:04 into the second period, Paul committed his sixth turnover, causing us to wonder whether his nerdy TV twin, Cliff, had donned Phoenix’s purple and orange No. 3 jersey for Friday night’s Game 3 of this Western Conference semifinal series.

No, it was Chris, all right. He showed flashes of greatness, but mostly the stifling defense of Reggie Bullock and other Mavericks proved that Paul is human as Dallas rolled to a 103-94 victory at American Airlines Center.

And as the final seconds ticked down in Paul’s 12-point, 7-rebound, 4-assist, 7-turnover performance and Dallas trimming the series deficit to 2-1, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd’s pregame words when asked about how his team might be able to wear down Paul came into focus.

“I think it doesn’t happen in a game,” Kidd said. “It’s a series, where you have to take the bigger approach.”

It’s too soon to make grand declarations about what Friday night means for the rest of the series, but it’s a fact that the longer the Mavericks can extend this thing, the more they like their chances.

The turnaround for Sunday’s 2:30 pm Game 4 is quick for all concerned, but especially so for a 37-year-old point guard, of whom Charles Barkley wondered several times during the Suns’ six-game first-round series against New Orleans whether Paul at this stage of his career can put together back-to-back strong games.

We’ll soon find out, won’t we? Paul played 37 minutes in Game 3. Furthermore, this series doesn’t have a two-day break until the time between Games 6 and 7.

“Energy, man, energy,” Luka Doncic said of the difference between Friday and Games 1 and 2. “I think the energy was insane.

“Reggie and Doe-Doe [Dorian Finney-Smith], man, those guys have been incredible all year on the defensive end,” Doncic said. “They’re our leaders on defense. We go as they go on defense.”

Again, it’s too soon for proclamations, but it’s well-known that Paul is the only player in NBA history to lose on four occasions when his team has taken a 2-0 series lead. Three other times his teams have lost series leads of 3-1, 3-2 and 2-1.

Fair or not, Paul in his 17th season is the NBA’s Greg Norman, a mixture of his teams falling short, himself suffering injuries during postseasons and plain old bad luck of opponents getting hot — like last year’s NBA Finals, when Milwaukee won four straight to overcome the Suns’ 2-0 lead.

“I think when you look at Chris, he’s a competitor,” Kidd said. “His basketball IQ is off the charts. He’s changed his diet from him to be vegan.

“But he understands, at this point of his career, what’s at stake. And that’s winning the championship. That’s what he’s playing for. And you can see his team from him is playing at a very high level for him.

Much credit for Friday night goes to Bullock, who was tasked with guarding Paul for most of the night, despite sustaining a rib injury during the first half.

Bullock and Paul have been like family ever since Paul asked Kinston, NC, high school freshman Bullock to play on the AAU team he was forming, Team CP3.

After Game 1 I asked Bullock what it was like to guard someone in a playoff setting whom he had looked up to as a mentor.

“We ain’t going to keep using this ‘mentor’ word,” Bullock said. “But he’s definitely a family friend of mine. He’s been a person in my life over the years, but he’s my enemy right now when we get in between these lines.

“He can be another family member of mine after the season, but right now you’ve just got to have that killer instinct and try to make things tough for him.”

Bullock and the Mavericks did that on Friday night. Paul was coming off a Game 2 in which he poured in 14 of Phoenix’s first 19 fourth-quarter points as the Suns blew open a six-point game.

After one quarter on Friday Paul had two points and two assists in eight minutes. His flurry of second-quarter turnovers — three in 90 seconds — was shocking.

“We were active,” Kidd said. “Our hands were active, we got deflections that led to steals. We came out aggressive.”

Paul, though, scored five of seven Phoenix points during a late spree that brought the Suns within 51-44 at halftime.

Entering this series, in the five most recent regular season games between these teams, Paul has led a comeback victory of five or more points entering the final quarter.

“When you see him in the fourth quarter, he’s at a different level,” Kidd said. “He’s the best at dictating the game. He knows how to get guys their shot.”

Not on this night, though. The Mavericks proved Paul is human, on his birthday, no less.

And now we have ourselves a series.

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Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) reacts after he was called for his fifth foul of the...
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) falls backwards as he is fouled by Dallas Mavericks guard...
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) makes a no look pass to forward Dorian Finney-Smith...

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