Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns beat Mavericks in Game 1

PHOENIX — The last time we saw Chris Paul in the playoffs, he was sending home the Pelicans on a perfect shooting night. On Monday, we didn’t see him as much as we’re accustomed to.

The Suns took Game 1 against the Mavs in their second-round series with a 121–114 win. Paul, who scored 33 in the Round 1 clincher, played only 29 minutes in the victory, an indicator of how balanced his Phoenix team is. Dallas, on the other hand, got 45 points from Luka Dončić, but not much from everyone else. Every Suns starter scored in double figures, compared to only three for the Mavericks. Deandre Ayton actually led Phoenix in scoring despite missing his last five shots (he still converted on 60% from the field). Meanwhile, the same Dallas backcourt that had significant success against the Jazz wasn’t as much of a factor Monday—Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie combined for only 21 points on 9-of-24 shooting.

The contrast in styles between these teams was evident from the start in Game 1. Phoenix got off to a hot start, with each of its five starters scoring a field goal before anyone else made their second. The ball movement and egalitarian approach were hallmarks of the Suns’ success during the regular season, and the team-wide onslaught allowed Phoenix to hang a 130.1 offensive rating on the NBA’s sixth-best defense from the regular season. The Suns finished with 27 assists compared to their opponent’s 16.

And doing so without putting a heavy burden on Paul is a big win. The Point God took on an extra dose of responsibility during the first round when Devin Booker missed three games (and a fourth quarter) with a hamstring injury. CP3 averaged nearly 37 minutes a night against New Orleans. On Monday, he played under 30 minutes for only the second time since he returned from a hand injury on March 24. Phoenix coach Monty Williams said after the game he wasn’t thinking about Round 1 when he gave Paul an extended break in the second, but in general he likes to get Paul extra rest when he can. The big lead the Suns built in the first half—going up by as much as 14 in the second quarter—gave Williams the luxury to ride other units.

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That’s not to say Paul was thrilled. Williams said CP had some “choice words” for him when he took Paul out again in the third quarter.

“First and foremost I just want to win. I just told coach I ain’t play much in the second quarter,” Paul said after the game. “It’s not that I don’t trust my teammates or nothing like that. I just be wanting to play.”

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Paul’s teammates certainly stepped up in multiple ways. Booker helped with the playmaking burden, dishing eight assists and collecting nine rebounds to make up for a subpar 7-of-20 shooting night. (He finished with 23 points, anyway.) Cam Payne hit four of his eight attempts after shooting only 29.5% against the Pels. And Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson combined to hit six threes.

On the flip side, Luka played 44 minutes and looked a little worse for the wear toward the latter half of the fourth quarter. That could be an issue in close games in this series because of how relentless Phoenix has been in crunch time. Only two other Mavs aside from Dončić recorded an assist before garbage time. And Maxi Kleber’s 19 points were largely offset by his defensive struggles. (The Suns had a 140.8 offensive rating in Kleber’s 24 minutes.) Part of this is by design—Luka is always going to be a high usage player, and he’s young enough to carry such a load for Dallas. But it’s a style that often becomes more difficult as the playoffs endure. At least in Game 1, Phoenix was blessed with a full rotation that contributed in several ways.

And winning without having to put extra weight on Paul’s shoulders is significant for the Suns. Remember: Paul sustained multiple injuries during last year’s Finals run, including a wrist ailment that hampered him during the Finals and required surgery in the offseason. CP3 will turn 37 during this series, and while he’s still more than capable of winning as either a facilitator or scorer, Phoenix needs to make sure he’s fresh for all four rounds. After a first round matchup that was draining both emotionally and physically, as well as the injury scare with Booker, every minute could end up counting for the Suns.

Also, with the way Dallas closed Game 1, it’s not a given Paul will have the same benefit of rest as the series progresses. The Suns were largely in control of the game for over three quarters. Their lead even ballooned to 21 after a JaVale McGee strip and score with just under nine minutes to go in the game. (JaVale stripping Luka at the top of the key and then running a one-man fastbreak is something that really happened.) From there, the Mavs closed on a 29–15 run. How much of that was real? And how much of that was Phoenix taking its foot off the gas?

Those will be interesting questions moving forward. The Suns definitely missed some good looks and played unfocused offense down the stretch. At the same time, Dallas seemed to bother Phoenix a bit by playing super small—taking Kleber off the floor and going with Luka, Brunson, Dinwiddie, Reggie Bullock, and Dorian Finney-Smith. Dončić was able to find some driving lanes, while Ayton curiously couldn’t take advantage late as well as he did earlier in the night.

“I won’t say it gave us trouble, but we were missing shots,” Ayton said of the smaller Dallas look. “And them dudes were being relentless, just doing what they do, scoring the ball as best as they can and that’s why it got kind of ugly during that stretch a little bit. We got away from our principles, but stuff like that, I’m glad it happened early. A little eye-opener to be aware that these dudes don’t give up.”

There is certainly still a lot of fight left in the Mavs, who will soon have a chance to punch back. Game 2 is Wednesday. 

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