Phoenix’s success vs. Luka Doncic

The Phoenix Suns advanced in the playoffs and will now take on the Dallas Mavericks in the second round.

As usual, Empire of the Suns will take you through the biggest keys to the series, beginning with how well Phoenix defends Luka Doncic.

PHOENIX — Luka Doncic through his first 16 career playoff games is shooting 49% while averaging 32.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. The only player to average more points per game in playoff history is Michael Jordan (33.4), per Stathead.

The 23-year-old Dallas Mavericks superstar that is likely about to be awarded his third straight First Team All-NBA selection is a beast capable of winning a playoff series on his own in a way where the opposing defense can do everything possible and still come up short.

“I mean damn near everything!” Suns center Deandre Ayton said Saturday when asked what challenges come to mind with defending Doncic. “The man do everything. He knows where his guys are at on the floor, can get to the rim anytime, everybody knows his step-back 3. He’s a playmaker man and a scorer so we have our hands full so we gonna really have to be a team effort with him.”

OK, we’ve established that. Good.

Now, with that said, the Phoenix Suns are more equipped than any other team in the NBA at limiting Doncic. They have an excellent defensive pairing to primarily defend him, multiple on-ball options beyond that and a terrific scrambling defense to recover when overcommitting to Doncic.

That has shown when the Slovenian faces Phoenix. He has not beat them in his last seven tries. The last win was Monty Williams’ 18th game coaching the Suns. There’s a reason Doncic has been saying the Mavs will need to almost play “perfect” basketball in order to get by Phoenix.

The only four relevant ones are fixtures that came when Williams and Chris Paul were both in Phoenix. Doncic in those games shot 39-for-90 (43.3%) with 28 assists and 17 turnovers.

Like the New Orleans Pelicans, though, this Dallas team is a different group since the last time we saw the Suns take ’em on. Doncic only got to feature in one of the meetings this year, a Jan. 20 Suns victory that was the final clash of the regular season.

Since then, the Mavericks traded center Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards for guard Spencer Dinwiddie and forward Davis Bertans, one of the best deals of the season. Dinwiddie has rediscovered himself in Dallas while the Mavericks’ offense as a whole looks like it can finally breathe without worrying about appeasing to Porzingis.

There’s also the breakout of point guard Jalen Brunson, who just scored 167 points across six games versus the Utah Jazz in the first round.

More on him in future previews, but he’s worth bringing up because Brunson’s the type of small and nimble guard the Suns stick Mikal Bridges on, but Bridges will need to wait to square up with his friend and former Villanova teammate because he’s gotta be on Doncic . Then again, who guards Brunson? Is Devin Booker’s hamstring ready for that? Can Jae Crowder fair well in that matchup? Would Paul take that?

For now, let’s treat it like Bridges will defend the best player, as usual.

The aforementioned defensive pairing to shadow Doncic is Bridges and Deandre Ayton, two members of the 2018 draft class like Doncic that have an innate understanding for navigating through ball screens together on the front and back side.

“Me and DA man, it’s tough to just describe the chemistry we have out there,” Bridges said on April 18. “We just know. Sometimes we might not say something and I know that he might do this or I might do that. The bond we have, it just makes it easier because of how close we are off the court. That’s my brother.”

“It’s almost like muscle memory,” Ayton said. “We usually talk before we get into the game. … It’s really off of seeing what he does. Reading off his body language and how his angles are set up and he knows if he’s deep or he can’t get through, he knows I’m on the other end for him until he gets there.”

This whole Suns team overall seems to really get up for defending Doncic but those two specifically have proven to be major thorns in Doncic’s side, dating back to over two seasons ago.

We’ve previously highlighted in this space how Bridges and Ayton cover space together, switching in an out of elimination pockets to force the ball-handler into certain parts of the floor.

“It’s a read,” head coach Monty Williams said Saturday of those 2-3 seconds once Bridges hits a screen. “I think that when you’ve been in it as many times as they have been in it — when to communicate, if you’re going to switch, when you should switch and then like applying it is somewhat of a skill that I think comes with experience. It’s not always perfect but Mikal has risen to this level of Defensive Player of the year status but DA is the quarterback of the defense.”

Williams said those two will have their own conversations together while the team is going over the scouting report, reviewing the intricacies of the covers they’ll have. Both Bridges and Ayton said they are quick to take responsibility for who screwed up and improved a ton through failure.

“It’s always whatever I see him do, I’ll go cover up for him and he sees whatever I’ll go do, he’ll go cover up for me,” Bridges said of Ayton.

This part of their dynamic really shines in the matchup with Doncic, a guy who they’ve defended hundreds of ball-screen actions against at this point.

“Ever since I came into the league, drafted the same year and I’ve been guarding him four years now,” Bridges said of Doncic.

Here’s the synergy in action:

Ayton, the recently anointed “triplet” by Bridges to join the “twins” Bridges and Cam Johnson, will sometimes switch the action entirely and has proven over the years he does well on Doncic. It is not the mismatch you think of when you hear a center is switched out onto an offense’s primary initiator.

Doncic will not let the Suns stick with this 1-2 on him the majority of the game. He loves hunting switches to isolate. But this part of the matchup is also a bad draw for him in that regard.

Guys like Booker and Crowder have the defensive gusto to at least make everything tough on Doncic.

Not featured in these clips is Johnson, who spent lots of time defending Doncic the last two years as well.

If Paul is the target, he is at the very least going to be incredibly annoying.

Doncic’s most underrated attribute, however, is his strength, and that’s one he used a few times in the 2022 meeting against Booker, Bridges and Johnson.

Torrey Craig did not have a good showing against New Orleans but this is absolutely going to be a series the Suns need him in. On top of having another option to defend Brunson and Dinwiddie, Craig is a bruiser like Crowder that will take on those bumps from Doncic.

As you can see in some of those clips already, high atop my list of what to watch for in Game 1 will be how much the Suns sell out with help to clog the lane. They did this a lot in the prior meetings.

With Dinwiddie (40.4% from 3 with Dallas) plus the shooting improvement of Dorian Finney-Smith (39.5%) and Reggie Bullock (39.6% since Christmas), there are a few shooters the Mavericks have at their disposal and they use ’em. Dallas attempted a playoff-high 41.8 3s per game against Utah and shot an above average 37.1% on them.

“A lot more five-out, a lot less if any bigs that post up,” Williams said of the change in Dallas’ play since the Suns last played them. “Their smalls post up more than their bigs do. The way that they’re playing is really fast, trying to get 3s in transition and you have to be able to guard the ball while relying on your team concepts to help with that.”

This could be a series where we see more of Bismack Biyombo than JaVale McGee. Biyombo’s deceptively agile when it comes to hopping around ball-screen defense situations and in general just has a really great feel for it.

To repeat two points again with this clip, Biyombo denies the lane while allowing Bridges to get back in time and Paul is right under the basket by the time Doncic sets one foot inside the 3-point line.

There will only be so much the Suns’ defense can do versus Doncic. He is still going to have a monster series regardless.

But Phoenix’s premium defensive toolbox that almost caters to shutting down a player like Doncic is going to make it an immense challenge for the guard to have an impact large enough on the series to really shift it in the Mavericks’ favor.

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