With the threat of falling behind 3-0 in their Western Conference Semifinal showdown versus the Phoenix Suns looming large over them, the Dallas Mavericks banded together and submitted a complete team effort to take their first win of the series, 103-104.
After wresting control of the lead midway through the first quarter, they led by as much as 18 points in the second half on multiple occasions–the last of which coming early in the fourth quarter following a three-pointer from Reggie Bullock.
It was inevitable that the top seeded Phoenix Suns would mount one last rally and that Bullock three marked the beginning of a test of character for the Mavericks. Doncic subsequently picked up his fifth foul with slightly over eight minutes left in the match and the tensions began to rise.
Dallas still led by 17 at that junction, but the Suns saw an opportunity and quickly cut it to 12 with a three-pointer from Devin Booker and a pull-up jumper from Chris Paul. Phoenix looked primed to claw back into the game, yet the rest of the Mavericks were not ready to yield.
Like when Doncic missed the first three games of their previous series versus the Utah Jazz, Jalen Brunson answered the call in the fourth quarter to carry Dallas in the absence of their young superstar.
Brunson found Maxi Kleber for a lay-up then Bullock for another three that sandwiched a shot from the Suns’ DeAndre Ayton to bring the lead back up to 15 points with 5:39 remaining. Phoenix was resilient and came within 12 though that was all the time that the Mavericks needed to buy as Doncic returned to the floor a minute later.
Still, it was Brunson who led the attack as Doncic was hounded by the pesky Jae Crowder. Dallas’ 6’1 guard scored their next four points to keep the Suns at arm’s length in the dying minutes. Bullock’s third three-pointer of the fourth period with 55 seconds left in the game, this time assisted by Doncic, gave them an 11-point lead, 102-91, that finally secured the win.
Brunson finished with 28 points on 10-of-21 shooting, along with four rebounds, five assists, a steal, and just one turnover. He was clearly the difference-maker in this match after averaging a meager 11 points in the first two outings of the second round. This was following a blistering first round that saw him score no less than 23 points in each of the six games.
Meanwhile, Doncic scored only 26 points, a far cry from his 40-point average in the first two games of this series which were both losses. However, he did round up his line with 13 rebounds, nine assists, and two steals.
It is unquestioned that Doncic cannot do it alone and the fact that they picked up the win, despite him recording his lowest scoring game in the series, further backs the importance of Brunson. The 2018 second round pick will have to continue playing at this level to keep the Mavericks’ Western Conference Finals dreams alive.
A strong game from Brunson allows him to alleviate some of the load that Doncic has to carry on a nightly basis and keeps the defense on its toes. To a lesser extent, the same goes for the rest of their team who all stepped up in Game 3.
Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith played over 40 minutes each and were invaluable on both ends of the court. Bullock scored 15 points while Finney-Smith added 14 and the rest of their statlines were interestingly identical as the two starting forwards chipped in four threes, four rebounds, and three steals apiece.
Meanwhile, Maxi Kleber continued his surprising play this postseason and contributed 14 points, two threes, three rebounds, four assists, and three blocks off the bench. Kleber’s hot shooting this postseason, highlighted by his eight threes in Game 2 versus Utah and five makes in Game 1 of this Phoenix series, have been an interesting variable for Dallas that has the potential to swing entire games for them.
This series is far from over and these Mavericks, who have been persistently overlooked over these past few months, are proving to be extremely resilient. This win has provided them with a blueprint for victory and while it remains a tall task for them to steal this series versus these 64-win Suns, it is difficult to count out any team that has Doncic and a hard-nosed supporting cast onboard.
Stranger things have happened and if Phoenix is not careful, they may find themselves becoming a monumental footnote in the rise of Luka Doncic.