The Dallas Mavericks are heading to the Western Conference Finals and there was no doubt they would get there after their Game 7 start. The Mavericks took a 57-27 lead over the Phoenix Suns, leading series Sunday night and have never looked back on their way to a 123-90 victory. Luka Doncic was spectacular for Dallas in the first 24 minutes as he led all scorers with 27 points. While that nearly topped the Mavericks’ points tally for the first half alone, Doncic had plenty of help as Spencer Dinwiddie picked up 21 points off the bench.
In the end, Doncic finished the win with 35 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in just 30 minutes of action. Dinwiddie provided plenty of help off the bench finishing with 30 points while Jalen Brunson also had 24 points to help Dallas earn a lopsided victory on the road. On the other side, Phoenix struggled all night on the offensive end as Cam Johnson led all Suns scorers with 12 points off the bench.
With the win, the Mavericks take on the Golden State Warriors to determine which team will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Here are three key takeaways from the Mavericks’ Game 7 win.
1. Legend of Luka
LeBron James never liked a player like Luka Doncic. “The way he plays the game reminds me of the way I play the game,” James said on All-Star Weekend. infamous jamesto launch a LeBron brand built around Doncic as the first signing athlete. NBA history is filled with stars of a generation publicly blessing their successors. Michael Jordan did it with Kobe Bryant. James did it with Doncic. It’s appropriate because Doncic is doing his best impression of James right now.
In 2007, a fourth-year LeBron James surprised a No. 1-ranked opponent with Finals experience to make it to the NBA’s biggest stage himself. Doncic’s fight with the 64-win Suns came a round earlier, but felt the same. The NBA’s best regular season team had no answers for Luka. He scored as many points as his entire team did in the first half of Game 7 (27).
It’s more important than Dallas to have a legitimate shot at winning the championship. It’s even bigger than Doncic potentially becoming the NBA’s best player on a day when Giannis Antetokounmpo’s season ended. It’s about reaching a point that we only see once or twice in a generation. It’s where Michael Jordan was in 1986 when he scored 63 against the Celtics and where James was in 2007 when he killed the Pistons. It is this pivotal moment in a young career where anything and everything is possible.
Doncic has a long, long way to go before he can be compared to Jordan and James. He will probably never be the defender they were. Without a superstar teammate, he will struggle to pursue them in terms of championships. But here, right now, he’s hitting the same checkpoints they passed all those years ago. If his career continues on the current trajectory, Luka Doncic will be one of the greatest players in NBA history. And we, as a collective fanbase, are spending the next decade of our lives watching him try to do just that. There’s nothing better in all of basketball than that. So hang in there, people. The Luka Dancic era is upon us.
Chris Paul turned 37 the night of Game 3 of this series. Prior to his birthday, he was averaging 22.6 points, 9.9 assists and 1.6 turnovers per playoff game. Since? He fell to 9.4 points, 5.8 assists and 3.6 turnovers. Now, players don’t usually turn into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight, but it was a stark reminder that the version of Paul we’ve seen in recent seasons was something of an anomaly. Little guards aren’t supposed to age that well. Paul came two wins short of a championship last season. He looked completely helpless against Dallas.
At this point, it’s too early to tell what might be behind it. Maybe Paul really aged overnight. Andscape’s Marc Spears reported that Paul suffered a left quad injury. It’s unclear how bad it was, but in her late thirties, such injuries are likely to become the norm in the future. We should also give the Dallas defense proper credit. The combination of Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith did a masterful job on Paul and Devin Booker.
But the whole vision for Phoenix hinges on having two star guards. The fact that they win a championship means Paul has to look like the version of himself he did during the regular season. If he can’t be that player, this version of the Suns is effectively out of contention for the championship. Speaking of which, they have another major issue to deal with now.
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3. What’s next for Deandre Ayton?
Before the season, Deandre Ayton asked the Suns for a max contract. They said no. Ayton ran his business professionally throughout the year. But he only played 17 minutes in Game 7. When asked why Suns coach Monty Williams said ‘it’s internal’. What exactly is going on between Ayton and the Suns isn’t entirely clear. Here’s what it is: Ayton will be a restricted free agent this offseason.
This gives the Suns the right to match any offer made to Ayton. The question here is whether they will or not. Re-signing Ayton at the salary he is likely to command would push the Suns into the tax. Owner Robert Sarver is notoriously cheap. Sarver is also under investigation by the league over allegations that he created a hostile work environment, and if that leads to a change in ownership, we really don’t know what to expect. The five teams with significant cap space right now are the Pacers, Blazers, Magic, Pistons and Spurs. One of them is probably going to sense enough weakness in Phoenix to throw a max offer sheet at Ayton in hopes of stealing him.
If Phoenix isn’t willing to pay him what the market suggests he’s worth, a sign-and-trade deal might make sense. After all, the Suns took Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick they could have used on Doncic. The prospect of losing him for nothing would be terrible, and frankly, such a talent drain would likely end any hope the Suns have of returning to competition next season. But Phoenix went 16-6 without Ayton this season. If something happens between him and the team, there is a valid argument for his transfer. Centers, with a few major exceptions, tend to lose value in the playoffs.
Devin Booker is an All-NBA player who should only get better. Mikal Bridges is not very good, but he should also improve. But after that? The Suns have as many question marks as any NBA team. It’s going to be a messy offseason for James Jones.