From two big restricted free agencies to the long-term balance of power in the West, Boardroom has everything you need to strap in for a win-or-go-home contest in the Valley.
They’re two of the most powerful and exhilarating words in sports: Game 7.
On Thursday, the Dallas Mavericks responded to a 30-point loss in Game 5 with a 113-86 home drubbing of the Phoenix Suns to force a winner-take-all matchup on Sunday. So much more is at stake than a trip to the Western Conference Finals, a playoff round Dallas hasn’t reached since its title-winning campaign of 2010-11. Of course, the Suns were there last year en route to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993, a six-game defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Will Dallas be the first team to win a road game this series and pull off the upset of the team with the NBA’s best regular season record, or will Phoenix hold serve at Footprint Center and remain on track as the team to beat out West? Here’s what else you should be looking out for as Suns vs. Mavericks arrives Sunday.
Chris Paul’s title window
Just over a week after his 37th birthday, CP3 remains in strong form, averaging just under 15 points and 11 assists per game in the regular season and 14 and six with 4.5 rebounds per game this series. He has three years and $90 million left on a contract that will take Paul past his 40th birthday, but will the Suns be this good again?
We can’t realistically expect CP3 to be this impactful over the length of this deal. Combine that fact with a big payday coming for DeAndre Ayton if they keep him— more on that in a bit— and key reserves Jae Crowder, Aaron Holiday (restricted), JaVale McGee, and Dario Saric hitting free agency and the Suns may never be this good again.
It makes this game and this postseason all the more important for Paul, a 10-time All-NBA and 12-time All-Star who’s among the greatest point guards to grace the hardwood. This is his best chance to win a championship, and a loss Sunday extinguishes the Suns and all that hope.
The Luka Dončić moment
Everyone is waiting for Luka Dončić to take over the league in full force. But what if it’s happening right now before our very eyes?
The 23-year-old Slovenian is averaging 32.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game during the series despite shooting just under 30% from three. But Luka’s turnovers could be holding him back. He’s had 26 through three games after committing just 12 in six games in a first-round series win over Utah. Dončić had 31 turnovers in six games in 2020 against the Clippers, and 32 in seven games last year in the rematch.
Luka put up an absurd 33-11-8 with four steals last Sunday, a tour de force in a must-win game. If he can do it again on the road and topple the West’s top team, he’d move up even further up the NBA hierarchy and stake a pretty strong case as the conference’s top player right now.
Jalen Brunson’s bank account
At 25 years old in his fourth NBA season out of Villanova, Mavs point guard Jalen Brunson is arriving right on time.
He’s steadily improved each year, averaging 16.3 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 37.3% from three and a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio. After putting up an absurd 27.8 points per game in round one against the Jazz, Brunson is back down to 17.8 per game against Phoenix and has emerged as the 2nd option and secondary ball-handler Dallas has yearned for alongside Dončić.
Brunson is an unrestricted free agent after the season and could get more than $20 million a year from interested point guard-starved teams like Detroit, who could pair him alongside 2021 top overall pick Cade Cunningham, or New York, which hasn’t had a strong option at the position in decades. A strong performance on Sunday and beyond would only prove his worth even further.
Deandre Ayton’s bank account
After averaging nearly 16 points and 12 rebounds per game in the Suns’ Finals run last season, Deandre Ayton was expecting to receive a max contract extension of five years and north of $170 million. Instead, Ayton and Phoenix were unable to come to terms, making the 23-year-old center a restricted free agent after the season.
Ayton was even better this season, putting up 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game on 63.4% shooting during the regular season and 19 and 9 so far in the playoffs. Phoenix will have the option to match any offer sheet for Ayton this summer, but this is his chance to prove that he deserves the full bag. The Suns can’t afford to lose him, and we’ll soon see whether they can afford to keep him.
The Porzingis trade revisited
When Dallas traded two first-round picks to the New York Knicks as part of a seven-player blockbuster deal that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavs in 2019, it was viewed as a triumph, cementing a Eurocentric star duo with Dončić for the next decade. It didn’t quite work out that way, however, and the five-year, $158 million extension the team handed KP the following offseason didn’t help matters.
Porzingis was either hurt or ineffective next to Luka, and management shockingly cut its losses at February’s trade deadline, sending him to Washington for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Dinwiddie has provided a spark off the bench while taking some of the backcourt pressure off of Brunson, averaging just under 12 points and four assists per game this postseason on 36.2% shooting from three after failing miserably with the Wizards, who previously inked him to a three-year, $62 million deal in the offseason.
Bertans didn’t live up to the five-year, $80 million contract Washington gave him in 2020, but has come back to life with the Mavs. He shot 36% from three during the regular season in Dallas and put up 12 desperately-needed points in Game 3 down 2-0 in the series. If Dinwiddie and Bertans contribute on a team making its deepest playoff run in more than a decade, maybe the Porzingis trade won’t look as bad in retrospect.
Jason Kidd as a head coach
Let’s say Jason Kidd’s reputation as a head coach hasn’t matched that of his Hall of Fame playing career.
After one season coaching Brooklyn and making the 2nd round of the playoffs, he attempted and failed a coup to take charge of all basketball operations and was traded to Milwaukee for two 2nd-round picks. If you read Mirin Fader’s amazing book, Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA Champion, you’ll hear all about Kidd’s Machiavellian tactics he employed during his three-and-a-half seasons with the Bucks, losing in the first round of the playoffs twice before being fired midseason.
Two years and one championship later as a Lakers assistant, Kidd took over for Rick Carlisle in Dallas at the start of the season and helped deliver a series win for the first time since that title run. A conference title run may convince people that Kidd may have finally figured this coaching thing out.
The future of the Western Conference
Like we said with Paul above, how long will the Suns’ window be alongside Devin Booker, Ayton, Mikael Bridges, and a talented group of role players? A loss would put that into question, while a win would keep the train running.
A Dallas win would put them ahead of schedule as a conference finalist and a signal that as long as any team has Luka Dončić, it’s a threat to contend for the title every year. But either of these teams could be fighting for Finals appearances on a yearly basis. With Utah taking a step back and the Lakers’ future currently uncertain, Phoenix, Dallas, Golden State, Memphis, a Clippers team that should get Kawhi Leonard and Paul George back next season, and a Denver team primed to reunite Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. on the floor alongside two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, the West is poised to be wide open for a years to come.
Sunday’s game could go a long way in determining which team is best positioned to take control of it.