PHOENIX — The Dallas Mavericks had their bags packed for San Francisco while the favored Phoenix Suns were ready for Bora Bora, 10 minutes into an elimination game.
With every basket, the Suns got tight and the Mavericks got more confident, squeezing on the Suns’ All-Star backcourt until they were dry — except it was the first quarter, with Chris Paul and Devin Booker looking out of sorts and out of answers.
The lead could’ve ballooned to 60 if Dallas wanted it to, playing loose and free while the Suns couldn’t muster the magic that garnered them a trip to the NBA Finals last summer — blowing a 2-0 lead and surrendering a 123-90 Game 7 loss at Footprint Center in Phoenix.
“We basically played the worst game of the season tonight,” Suns coach Monty Williams said, matter-of-factly.
Every team loses four of five during the regular season; it’s too many games, schedule quirks, travel inconsistencies and randomness for it not to happen. And every team has a worst game, even the eventual champions.
Never, ever do both instances occur on the same evening — and never in May. A funny thing happened on the way to June.
The Suns collapsed, both from the pressure of the charging Mavericks and their growing on-floor leader Luka Doncic, and perhaps from within. Williams was curt when asked why soon-to-be-restricted free agent Deandre Ayton played only 17 minutes.
“It’s internal,” Williams said, quickly turning the page.
Williams is the Coach of the Year, rightfully so, and tried his very best to own this unexpected disaster, as true to his character. As he conducted his news conference, with his two stars Paul and Booker standing to the side waiting their turn, Williams claimed he might’ve pushed his players too hard during the regular season.
“I probably rode these guys too much this year,” Williams said. “From a minutes standpoint, expectations standpoint. They wanted that. We all just had an off night tonight.”
Nights like this are more costly for Paul, honestly. By the time he connected on his first field goal in the third quarter, his team was down 40 — they needed the steady hand he provided through the season and he played with no sense of urgency, almost resigned to the fate the Mavericks provided in the first quarter when Doncic (35 points) and Spencer Dinwiddie (30 points) blitzed the Suns into indecision and panic.
It’s easy to have games where putting up 10 shots seems admirable in the name of getting everyone else involved, but Paul's team needed him to do more, be more — and perhaps it’s too much to ask at this stage of his career.
That’s why he’s augmented with youth, with Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Ayton, while Booker is the leader of that pack, but he had nothing for the Mavericks’ relentless defense.
“They followed the game plan, did a good job of getting the ball out of my hands,” Booker said. “I try to make the right play, but it wasn’t the right play every time. I missed a few open ones I got.”
It was probably too much to ask even when Paul was in his prime, given how this is the fourth time he’s played a full series and his team has blown a 2-0 lead. He’s lauded for his control on the game, but so many times he’s been powerless when his teams lose control.
This, like the others, doesn't fall only on him but as time goes on and the details fade, the standing memory is the historical point guard failing to maximize opportunities.
“This ain’t tennis, this ain’t golf, we need everybody,” Paul said. “I think Mont said it’s on him. I think that’s on me, the point guard, the leader of the team to get the right shots. It is what it is."
Williams granted his point guard some pregame bail when asked if the wear and tear affects him more now than before.
“I would imagine, yes,” Williams said. “I … used to have hair. I don’t. When we were younger, things were different. I would imagine. But you can’t live there.”
Doncic lived in the Suns’ heads and in their nightmares, though, scoring the same amount as the Suns at halftime (27) — while Booker and Paul were 0-for-11 in 40 combined minutes.
Youth is serving all through the league, even though the older guys are playing longer and more effectively than in previous eras. The defending champions went out due in large part to Jayson Tatum putting it together, and the three-time champion Warriors might’ve very well been joining Milwaukee if Ja Morant’s body didn’t fail him.
This title window seemed like Paul’s best chance at launching himself into an upper echelon of greats, and instead he looked like food to Doncic and Jalen Brunson on defense. At the start of the series, Brunson was getting trash talked by Booker following blocked shots — 11 days later felt like 11 years later for the likes of Paul.
“I do think when you see the lead building, your guys can’t hit shots, it is deflating,” Dinwiddie told Yahoo Sports. “If that’s what y’all mean by choking, sure.
“We put CP into actions, we had a stifling defense. When somebody says choking, it’s like they froze. I’m never gonna say that about a team that’s competing. But it’s inevitable. I think they started getting out of character. They thought they’d try to shoot threes and get back. Remember, we’d been up in this building and then we folded.”
The Mavericks kept going all-in with their hands, with Doncic hitting step-back threes that you’d prefer he take, and Dinwiddie being the player he’s long told everyone who would listen that he could be.
“Those are daggers,” he said. “You’re up 12, 15 and then it turns to 24 … we weren’t gonna let up.”
It feels like an easy strategy when the opposing team’s point guard is closer in age to the Hall of Fame point guard coaching Dallas than the future Hall of Famer (Doncic) he’s facing. It didn’t seem like it or look like it when Paul was motioning for Kidd to call timeout in Game 2, putting the finishing touches on a sterling playoff performance, but Kidd was playing the long game the whole way. He just had to make sure his team hung around long enough to take advantage.
It’s a tightrope to walk when turning over a team to Paul, especially one that didn’t have a footprint in the NBA’s landscape before a trade for him fell into their lap. He’ll elevate your program, streamline your processes and his control over a game is peerless at times.
But the back end can be predictably painful, especially when it matters most. Either his play will crater, or his body will, or both. Andscape reported he was dealing with a left quad injury, which would be part of the explanation for his play.
He didn’t look like himself the last five games of the series, and cruelly, the downturn began on the day he turned 37 years old. Putting up 9.4 points and 5.8 assists with 16 turnovers since going up 2-0 can be a main culprit for Phoenix’s collapse.
The last time Paul had this level of playoff impotency, it was last year’s first round when an injured shoulder prevented him from fully participating in the upset of the the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1.
A week later, he was carving up the Denver Nuggets, piece by piece.
A week from now, he’ll still be processing this loss while Golden State and Dallas engage in an unexpected tussle for a spot in June.
How far can a team go when it’s heavily dependent on an aging point guard who gets hurt? Paul's value isn’t as a decoy, so even bringing in another shot creator alongside Booker would minimize the things he does best.
With three more years on his contract at around $30 million each, it’s a tough spot for the Suns to be in. He still voiced resilience, and doesn’t want to wear the label of being the next great loser.
“You play long enough and don’t win, every time you lose they’ll say it was your best chance,” Paul said. “I’ll tell you this, I’ll be back next year. I’m not retiring tomorrow.”
Tomorrows comes for everyone and eventually, you run out. If today belongs to Doncic, tomorrow seems like it will, too.