DALLAS — It’s amazing what the Dallas Mavericks can do when Luka Doncic gets a little help.
The Mavericks got back into their Western Conference semifinal series with the Phoenix Suns, thanks to a 103-94 win at the American Airlines Center, cutting the Suns series lead to 2-1.
Doncic scored his fewest points of the series so far, but was able to distribute the ball more effectively. He finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, and 9 assists.
And welcome to the series, Jalen Brunson.
The Mavs hero from the opening series against the Jazz, Brunson had been largely absent through the first two games of the series, but scored 10 points in the first quarter, and added 10 more in the third quarter. He turned in a 28-point performance to lead the Mavs in scoring -- and finally give Doncic a reprieve from carrying the entire team on his shoulders.
"It was awful," Brunson said of what it was like to have to sit with his Game 1 and Game 2 performances over the last 48 hours. ""But I can't be just satisfied with this. Sunday I've got to bring the same intensity, the same energy."
The Mavs defense finally showed itself in Game 3. After getting roasted by the Suns tremendous shooting in the first two games of the series, Dallas held Phoenix to – a still impressive, but less literal-face-of-the-sun scorching – 44.7 percent.
"Energy, man," Doncic said was the difference in Game 3. "I think the energy was insane.
"Reggie and DoDo [Finney-Smith], those guys were incredible all year on the defensive end, they showed it today once again."
Mavs get defensive, top Suns 103-94 for 2-1 series deficit
Bullock, who played through a rib injury in the second half, played exceptional defense on Suns superstar Chris Paul. Paul committed seven turnovers on the night, all of them in the first half. The Mavs spoiled his 37th birthday by holding him to just 12 points on the night.
"Happy birthday, CP," Mavs head coach Jason Kidd said with a good-natured laugh.
Bullock denied Paul the basketball at multiple points in the game, forcing the Suns to filter their offense through someone else.
Doncic was also much more pleased with his own defensive effort.
"I knew I had to do better. That was really poor, that second half [of Game 2, on defense]," Doncic said. "I knew I had to get back with my team, and play better defense."
And the Mavs were far more balanced offensively, getting 28 from Brunson, 26 from Doncic, 15 from Reggie Bullock, 14 from Dorian Finney-Smith and 14 more from Maxi Kleber.
The Mavs fell in an early 9-3 hole, as Devin Booker hit a pair of threes, and Jae Crowder buried a triple as well. But Brunson finally got something going for the first time in the series, scoring on three successive Mavs possessions, rounding it out with a transition layup plus a foul on Chris Paul. The free throw gave him seven points in 59 seconds, and the Mavs had cut the Suns lead to one, at 13-12.
Brunson would keep it going, burying a 3-pointer to give him 10 points in the opening quarter. He had averaged 11 points per game in the first two games of the series.
The starkest way to illustrate how different this first quarter was from any other in the series – Doncic tallied his first bucket of the game at the 4:10 mark of the first quarter, to give the Mavericks a 20-13 lead.
But Doncic was absolutely distributing the basketball, tallying five assists in the first ten minutes of the basketball game.
And the Mavs defense, largely absent through Games 1 and 2, finally reared it’s head in the first quarter of Game 3. The Suns shot 47.1% in the first quarter – still rather good, but a drastic departure from their penchant for 60% or better, in the first two games of the series.
The Mavs finished the first quarter on a 22-5 run to lead 29-20 after the opening period.
The Mavs defense, a later arrival to the series, finally showed itself in the first half of this game. The Suns turned the ball over seven times in the first 14:04 of the game, including six of them by Paul. And through that point, the Suns were shooting 39.1% from the field.
The Mavs didn’t take much advantage in the opening stretch of the second quarter though, merely outscoring Phoenix 4-2 over the first four minutes of the period.
Brunson made a couple more big buckets to keep the Mavs in control until Doncic returned. And then Luka went to work on the offensive end.
Working primarily against Mikal Bridges, who is one of the premier defenders in the NBA, Doncic heated up, hitting three shots in close succession over Bridges, helping Dallas extend the lead to 11 and looking down at Bridges on the floor, after the third bucket.
Spencer Dinwiddie hit a triple, and the Mavs extended the lead to 14, before a Suns run cut that advantage in half at 48-41.
Doncic scored another bucket over Paul, drawing the foul, and extending the Dallas lead back to 10, but missing the free throw. Crowder would hit a three to establish the halftime margin, as Dallas led 51-44.
Dallas started the second half strong. After a Bridges jumper cut the Mavs lead to five, Dallas initiated an 8-0 run, to build the lead to 13 at 59-46. Two Dorian Finney-Smith three-pointers, and a Doncic lob to Dwight Powell forced the Suns to call a timeout 2:15 into the period.
Doncic and Brunson led the charge, as the Mavs took firm control of the basketball game. A three from Doncic built the lead to 18 at 69-51. And Brunson had ten points in the quarter, just like he did in the first period, to help Dallas keep the Suns at arms length throughout the period. Dallas led by 15, 82-67, going to the fourth quarter.
The Mavs had some very tenuous moments in the fourth quarter, when Doncic tallied his fifth foul of the game. The Mavs second unit did an admirable job of keeping the Suns from feasting while he was gone, going from the 8:07 mark to 4:39 left in the period, and only allowing the lead to drop from 17 to 11.