DALLAS — Anger is swirling on Planet Orange. So are heavy, sobering questions.
How can a team look so vulnerable?
How can Chris Paul turn 37 and suddenly play the worst two playoff games in his Phoenix career?
And chances are, you’re going to need a roadmap and a flashlight to find the depth and the defense that made the Suns the best regular-season team in the NBA.
“Everybody’s got to take ownership and it starts with me,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “I made some decisions tonight that put us in a tough spot.”
Once again, the Suns were completely out of spells in Game 4. They committed 17 turnovers for the second consecutive game. They allowed the Mavericks to make 20-of-44 three-point shots. They have become so obsessed with Luka Doncic that they’ve become strangely vulnerable to the corner trey.
Before this dreadful weekend in Dallas, the Suns held a 2-0 series advantage, had beaten the Mavericks 11 consecutive times and were the NBA’s best road team by a mile. Now, they are fighting for their playoff lives, just like they did in a first-round series against the Pelicans.
It shouldn’t be this difficult. Not for a team that won 64 games in the regular season. They have a better team but are struggling more than they did in their playoff run in 2021.
“For whatever reason, we haven’t played a complete game here,” Williams said. “I thought our first-half defense was about as bad as it’s been all year as far as recognizing the shooters.”
Start with Paul’s disastrous weekend. After two games of the series, he was MVP of the postseason. On Sunday, he played only 23 minutes before fouling out. His sixth and final foul was a very picky call from a nearby official. But his fourth was an egregious tactical blunder from Williams, who put Paul back into the game with 45.7 seconds remaining in the first half. His fifth foul was an attempt to draw contact from behind, when Paul needlessly put himself in a perilous position.
Namely, in the hands of the referee.
The officials made it clear from the outset that very little contact or excessive whining was going to be tolerated. It created a basketball game that was hard to watch. The kind of game where extremists in both fan bases believe the league is rigged.
Bottom line: In the playoffs, you must read and adjust to every set of officials. The Suns struggled mightily with their emotions over the weekend.
“I can’t put myself in those positions to give them the ability to do that,” Paul said.
While a clearly agitated Paul took the high road before quickly ejecting himself from the post-game press conference, Devin Booker ignored his coach’s plea of taking personal ownership and took a series of guarded shots at the officiating. He said he’s never seen a game quite like Game 4 on Sunday. He advised everyone to go and re-watch the past two games.
No thanks, Devin.
Playing against Doncic and his incessant whining can be aggravating, just the way it was against Tim Duncan and the Spurs. But the Suns badly need to get the officiating out of their collective psyche and rediscover the brand of dominant basketball that makes officiating largely irrelevant.
“I don’t think we were as organized tonight,” Williams said. “A bit rushed. But it’s about personal ownership right now.”
There were other issues. Williams over-adjusted to Doncic’s punishing performance in the post in Game 3, saying his team was too spaced out defensively and too concerned about three-point shooters. The Mavericks countered with a blazing performance from the perimeter that took advantage of the strange tactics.
Deandre Ayton played soft. The bench no longer feels like a tremendous advantage. It often feels like the worst bench left in the postseason. Allowing offensive rebounds has resurfaced as a serious liability.
“We understand that it is a series,” Booker said. “It’s the playoffs for a reason. The best teams in the NBA are here and nobody wants to lose.”
Even so, this was not the expected response after the Suns lost Game 3 on Friday, a team with a self-appointed reputation as sore losers. They raved about their practice focus and intensity on Saturday. They vowed to look like a different team in Game 4 and they failed. And after falling to 2-3 on the road this postseason, they are bringing unwanted drama back home to Phoenix yet again.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 am – 10 am on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.