Chris Paul had already began the fourth quarter by draining an extended 3-pointer and passing to Cameron Johnson, his Phoenix Suns teammate, for one more. It was a nasty sign for the visiting Dallas Mavericks, because Paul hadn’t even called for the defensive matchup he really wanted.
His next time up the court, Paul was dribbling against Reggie Bullock when Johnson set a high screen on Bullock, dragging his defender with him. That defender was Luka Doncic, who found himself guarding Paul after the switch — and even managed to poke the ball away. But after Paul regained possession, he needed about 3 nanoseconds to blow past Doncic for a layup.
It was the kind of scene that kept repeating itself within the closing stages of the Suns’ 129-109 victory in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal series on Wednesday. The Suns were determined to force Doncic onto the ball, after which they were wanting to capitalize. Doncic, who has the meaty construct of a good end at 6-foot-7 and 230 kilos, is an all-world offensive player. But his defense? For one game, a minimum of, he went from hunter to hunted against shifty guards like Paul and Devin Booker.
“Just need to play higher defense,” Doncic said, “that’s it.”
Nobody has been surprised to see two point guards take center stage on this series, which the Suns lead, 2-0, because it heads to Dallas for Game 3 on Friday. But in the method, Paul and Doncic have offered contrasting approaches. Paul has picked his moments to take charge, a luxury given the talent that surrounds him, while Doncic has tried to do all of it, largely because he has no alternative.
“We imagine, man,” Doncic said, adding: “We’re going to imagine until the top.”
Doncic has been putting up preposterous numbers, even by his gaudy standards. In Game 1, he finished with 45 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. In Game 2, he had 35 points, 5 rebounds and seven assists. Mavericks Coach Jason Kidd put the pressure on Doncic’s supporting solid to claim itself in Game 3.
“He had an excellent game,” Kidd said of Doncic, “but nobody else showed. So we’ve got to get the opposite guys shooting the ball higher. We are able to’t win with just him on the market scoring 30 an evening, not right now of yr.”
For Paul, the playoffs are one other opportunity — arguably his best one yet — to win his first championship, one season after the Suns fell to the Milwaukee Bucks within the N.B.A. finals. Phoenix, Booker said, is on a “revenge tour,” which Paul appears to be steering from his personal time machine. Paul finished with 28 points and eight assists on Wednesday, a tour de force two days before his thirty seventh birthday.
“He can let you know higher than I can,” Booker said, “but he’s feeling younger by the day.”
In his own way, given his size and approach, Paul is unapologetically old-fashioned. Growing up in North Carolina, he was the prototypical point guard: a stunning scorer, to ensure, but someone who was responsible, in the beginning, for involving teammates. Now, he has the institutional knowledge of 17 N.B.A. seasons informing each of his decisions.
Doncic, however, is one in every of the league’s new-age players, a 23-year-old prodigy with a multidimensional game that was informed by his childhood in Slovenia, where children, regardless of how big or how small, learned the basics of shooting and passing.
On this playoff series, the throwback has the sting. It helps, after all, that the Suns are a deeper team and that Paul plays alongside Booker, a three-time All-Star and one in every of the league’s most gifted scorers.
For 3 quarters of Wednesday’s game, Paul largely created for his teammates, attempting just nine shots. He exploded within the fourth quarter, scoring 14 points while shooting 6 of seven from the sphere.
“It’s amazing,” the Suns’ Jae Crowder said. “For the primary two quarters, he’s relaxed, chilling. He’s not too aggressive, just reading the sport. After which he has a switch where he just turns it on.”
Booker, 25, thought back to his childhood when he would watch games together with his father, Melvin Booker, a former N.B.A. guard who shaped his son through each day workouts. In front of the TV, they’d study Paul together. Devin was 5 years old, he said, exaggerating modestly.
“See how he makes sure everyone’s involved?” Booker recalled his father asking him. “After which he picks his times when he’s going to take over the sport?”
Booker added: “I’ve at all times admired the best way he does that. He’s just on top of things in any respect times. He’s two, three steps ahead of what the opposite team is doing.”
As Paul surged within the fourth quarter, Doncic, having already carried such an infinite load for his team, appeared to tire — especially on defense. Kidd said he would want to concoct a plan to be certain that Doncic’s teammates “do a greater job of helping him.” Perhaps the Mavericks must avoid switching on screens so continuously, or perhaps they should send more double-teams at Booker and Paul. Easier said than done.
Paul joined Booker at his postgame news conference in time to reply a matter in regards to the importance of constructing Doncic work at each ends. Booker glanced at Paul and appeared to smirk, as if to say that they had done their job picking him apart. Paul, ceaselessly the cagey veteran, selected the diplomatic route.
“We just attempt to play,” he said. “Take what the defense gives us.”
It was an exhausting night for Doncic. As he made his way off the court at halftime, he wheeled around to bark at a heckler.
“He was just saying something reckless,” Doncic said. “If it’s something normal, I’d not even look because I don’t care. But sometimes you’re in a nasty mood and so they say some bad stuff. It’s normal. We’re people, man. It’s normal to show around.”
Ahead of Game 3, Doncic had a likelihood to plot some revenge of his own.