What happened to Phoenix Suns? TNT's Reggie Miller, Stan Van Gundy provide answers

Reggie Miller should have great insight into what happened to the Phoenix Suns against the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals series.

He saw their playoff run from start to finish working as TNT’s NBA analyst.

When the Hall of Famer ponders why the top overall seed lost to the Mavs in seven, Miller began his breakdown with how the Suns finished the regular season, continued with their play in the first round versus the Pelicans and capped it with what happened between Monty Williams and Deandre Ayton in Game 7 against the Mavs.

“All questions got answered after Game 7 with the Deandre Ayton play and only playing 17 minutes and Monty Williams getting on the podium and saying it was an 'internal' decision,” Miller said during Thursday’s Zoom media availability with fellow TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy.

Ayton and Williams exchanged words when the 2021-22 NBA Coach of Year took his starting center out with 8:26 left in the third quarter with the Suns trailing by 38 points to fourth-seeded Dallas.

"It’s one of those things where you’re playing an emotional game and at an emotional point,” Suns General Manager James Jones said during Wednesday's Zoom media availability.

May 15, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams pulls center Deandre Ayton (22) from the game against the Dallas Mavericks during game seven of the second round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at Footprint Center.
May 15, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams pulls center Deandre Ayton (22) from the game against the Dallas Mavericks during game seven of the second round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at Footprint Center.

“It’s a game of emotions and feelings and sometimes your feelings get hurt and you process it and you move on, but we’re adults. We’re teammates. We’re grown men. Those things you handle and you move on and improve from.”

Never returning to action, Ayton finished with a playoff career-low five points on 2-of-5 shooting.

“It opens up a lot of where there were things that were missed with the Phoenix Suns along the way heading towards the playoffs that we may have kind of overlooked or missed because they were so much further ahead of everyone at that time,” Miller said. “We just assumed they were going to pick up their play like they did in the regular season and it’s just not that easy.”

The Suns clinched the No. 1 overall seed with a 140-130 win in Denver that gave them 60 victories. They won a franchise-record 64 games in the regular season, but split their last eight games.

“If you date back to mid-March, once the Suns clinched homecourt throughout the playoffs, it was almost like the took their foot off the gas,” Miller said.

The Suns won their 62nd game to tie the single-season franchise record for victories on a nine-game winning streak. With six games remaining after that, Williams sat Jae Crowder, Devin Booker and Ayton three games and Chris Paul two.

Apr 10, 2022; Phoenix, Ariz. U.S.; Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (left) and guard Devin Booker watch their team play against the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter at Footprint Center. They were held out of the game.
Apr 10, 2022; Phoenix, Ariz. U.S.; Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (left) and guard Devin Booker watch their team play against the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter at Footprint Center. They were held out of the game.

Phoenix only won two of its last six games of the regular season.

“They were basically on cruise control and in today’s game, going into the playoffs, you want to be playing your best,” Miller said. “They had the overall wrapped up mid to late March so there really wasn’t a lot for them to play for, but I thought they lost a little bit of rhythm going into the playoffs versus New Orleans.”

Without their best player, All-Star forward Zion Williamson, the Pelicans won Game 2 to even the series as Booker strained his right hamstring in that home loss.

The Suns three-time All-Star missed the next three games. Phoenix won two to take a 3-2 lead into Game 6 in New Orleans, but Miller’s take on the series isn’t as cut and dry.

“There were a few cracks that may have been unnoticed in that New Orleans series,” Miller said.

Now, Paul had the perfect performance in scoring 33 points on 14-of-14 shooting in Game 6’s closeout victory to set an NBA playoff record for most made field goals without a miss.

Suns' Chris Paul (3) makes a jumper against the Pelicans during Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs.
Suns' Chris Paul (3) makes a jumper against the Pelicans during Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs.

As great as Paul played, Miller recalls how the young and athletic eighth-seeded Pelicans coached by former Suns lead assistant Willie Green were making the 17-year veteran work in that series.

“Defensively, they had the right mindset of trying to wear down Chris Paul and in a couple of those games, you saw the cracks starting to happen,” Miller said. “Again, the talent level and the experience level for Phoenix took over and they ended up closing them out, but I’m not sure if you’re Jason Kidd and Dallas and they saw the blueprint that was kind of laid by New Orleans.”

Paul scored 14 of his 28 points in Game 2’s 20-point win that gave the Suns a 2-0 series lead over Dallas, but the Mavericks were clearly looking to wearing down Paul, who turned 37 the same day as Game 3 May 6.

“It doesn’t happen in a game,” Kidd said before Friday’s Game 3 about wearing Paul down. “It’s a series where you have to take the bigger approach. He understands the game at a very, very high level. Understands how to get off the ball, understands how to rest in the game. So it’s hard. So when you see him in the fourth quarter, he’s at a different level and we have to match that energy that he has. He’s the best at dictating the game.”

May 12, 2022; Dallas, Texas; USA; Suns guard Chris Paul (3) dives for a loose ball against Mavericks Frank Ntilikina (21) during game 6 of the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs.
May 12, 2022; Dallas, Texas; USA; Suns guard Chris Paul (3) dives for a loose ball against Mavericks Frank Ntilikina (21) during game 6 of the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs.

In the end, Dallas' plan worked.

Paul averaged just 9.4 points in the final five games of the series and had just as many turnovers (18) as field goals (18-of-33). The Suns lost four of those games.

While rookies Herbert Jones and Jose Alvarado tried to follow Green’s defensive strategy, Paul, a 12-time All-Star, had his way with those two when it mattered.

Kidd had more experienced players in Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith and Frank Ntilikina defending Paul and Booker. They effectively switched onto Paul as Kidd made the call to play Ntilikina off the bench instead of Josh Green in Game 3.

On the other end of the floor, the Mavs made a point to get Paul matched up on Luka Doncic on switches.

That left the 6-foot, 175-pound Paul having to defend the 6-7, 230-pound Doncic, who posted him up, backed him down and got the better of that matchup.

May 15, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) pressures Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) during game seven of the second round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at Footprint Center.
May 15, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) pressures Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) during game seven of the second round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at Footprint Center.

“It’s not just attacking a favorable matchup, but it’s also, we want to make the other guy work to hopefully take away some of his effectiveness on the other end,” Van Gundy said. “So it’s not all just looking and saying, oh, Chris Paul can’t defend. It’s saying, Chris Paul is 37 years old, they depend on him heavily to make plays. We’re going to wear on this guy every way we can possibly can.”

Suns wing Mikal Bridges drew the initial matchup in guarding Doncic, but he too struggled to stop him to the point that Williams had Paul open Game 7 checking Doncic instead of his best perimeter defender who finished runner up for the league’s defensive player of the year award.

The schedule worked in Dallas’ favor, too, in Paul wearing down.

The Suns and Mavs played every other day from Game 1 to Game 6.

After Dallas won Game 6 at home to force a Game 7, Paul was adamant about how Golden State and Memphis had three days between Game 2 and Game 3 of their conference semifinals series.

“We’ll take the extra day, trust me,” Paul said. “The other series got three days. Trust me, we’ll take the extra day.”

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Reggie Miller saw cracks in Suns before losing series to Mavericks

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