PHOENIX — Luka Dončić’s playoff career—during which he’s established himself to be one of the greatest postseason scorers of all time—has come to be defined by his ability to surgically pick apart great defenses. In Game 1 against the Suns, Dončić went off for 45 points. In the first half of Game 2, he picked up right where he left off, pouring in another 24 points and leading the Mavs to a 60–58 lead.
Then when it came to winning 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 win Wednesday. The Suns exploded for 40 points in the fourth quarter, and the leader of the outburst was Paul. CP3 scored 14 in the final frame—more than Dončić had the entire second half—and did so by routinely picking on the Mavs’ best scorer in switches.
Of Paul’s six fourth-quarter field goals, five were the result of attacking defenders after a switch. And three separate times the soon-to-be 37-year-old left Dončić in the dust for a score. For good measure, one of Paul’s two assists in the last period also came at Luka’s expense, resulting in a triple for Cam Johnson. It was yet another legendary performance from the Point God, who delivered his latest powerful sermon in a postseason in which he’s had four fourth quarters scoring at least 10 points.
“What’s amazing is for the first two quarters it feels like he’s relaxed, he’s chilling,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said of Paul. “Then he has a switch and he turns it on…He’s just doing what he does. We rode him out in the fourth quarter.”
Paul has long established himself as one of basketball history’s great manipulators. When the time comes, he can often bend a game to his will. In the fourth quarter of Game 2, Paul stamped out any notion of an upset with precision and a ruthless efficiency. And he did so against Dončić, another manipulator in training, who saw on Wednesday that his particular heliocentric style has limits.
The Suns made it a point to attack Luka in the fourth, and Dončić simply looked too fatigued to keep up. Luka is not the first great scorer who is not equally as talented on the other end. But the Slovenian star has to be better on that end of the floor, especially if he wants to have success in the later rounds of the playoffs. It’s fair to wonder if the offensive burden on Luka is zapping any energy he has to play championship-level defense, though he once again didn’t receive much help in Game 2.
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Dallas had only two other players reach double digits in scoring on Wednesday, and those two combined for only 27 points on a pedestrian 8-of-19 shooting. Notably, neither of those players was Jalen Brunson. The spark plug guard who was a revelation against Utah managed only nine points on 25% shooting Wednesday. Brunson now has only 22 points through two games after scoring at least 23 every night in Round 1.
Paul, meanwhile, has the luxury of picking his spots. The Suns had four players in double figures, including 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting from Devin Booker. Crowder hit three threes en route to 15 points, while Mikal Bridges added 11 of his own from him. Phoenix is everything Dallas is not. The Suns are an equal opportunity offense, with multiple players stepping up on a given night. For example, even with JaVale McGee and Deandre Ayton battling foul trouble, Bismack Biyombo came off the bench as the third center and matched Brunson in scoring while connecting on all four of his shots from him.
That doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring to watch Paul go to work in the game’s highest leverage moments. He had Dallas scrambling defensively, with players furiously pointing and moving off the ball before any screens were even set to try to prevent another advantageous switch. It’s ironic considering CP3 built his reputation as one of the last true point guards in the NBA. Yet when the Suns need a bucket, they turn to a guy in his 17th year, even when he’s sharing the floor with someone (Booker) who once scored 70 points in a game.
To his credit, Booker has no issues watching his teammate cook. It even takes him back to when he and his father would watch Paul before he was in college let alone the NBA.
“Me and my dad watched him play and he was like, ‘Do you see how he makes sure everybody is involved and then he picks his times when he’s going to take over the game?,’” Booker recalled. “And I’ve just always admired the way he does that. He’s just in control at all times. He’s two, three steps ahead of whatever the other team is doing. And just the leadership, that can never go unnoticed when you’re talking about this man. Just the way he holds people accountable, the will to win. The list keeps going on and on.”
It’s not just the list of Paul’s attributes that go on and on–it’s Paul himself. Calling CP3’s big scoring nights in this postseason “vintage” would be a disservice to how high of a level he’s still playing the game. This wasn’t a flashback performance. What we’re seeing from Paul is one of the game’s greats continuing to evolve. He has perfected the art of manipulation. And if the opponent gives him an inch, he will find a way to take the whole damn game.
Through two games now, it’s clear the Mavs are simply not on the same level as the Suns, a team Booker described as on a “revenge tour” after losing in last year’s Finals. If Dallas is going to have a chance to come back in this series, Dončić will need help with offensive creation, and the whole team is going to have to figure out an answer for Paul. The difficulty of playing Paul is sometimes when you do come up with that answer, it may be what someone as manipulative as him wanted in the first place.
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