It wasn't supposed to happen this way.
The team with the best record in the regular season not just losing well short of its goal of a return to the NBA Finals, but being blown out in an elimination game, at home, and not even looking remotely competitive in the process.
The Phoenix Suns did all that and more on Sunday, and with all due respect to the Dallas Mavericks, who now face the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals, it's unfathomable how it could have gone off the rails so quickly.
It's not just that the Suns lost on Sunday, falling behind by as many as 46 points at one point. It's that after taking a 2-0 lead and looking good doing it, they proceeded to lose four of the last five games, two at home. This is eerily similar to what happened last year in the finals, when after winning Games 1 and 2 the Suns lost four straight to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The other, inescapable comparison is that in both series, the Suns had no answer for the opponent's indomitable physical presence. Just like Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021 had his way with the Suns as the series progressed — he tied an NBA Finals record by scoring 50 points in the clinching game — this year it was Luka Doncic who will haunt the Suns' dreams for months and years to come.
How did it all unravel? Let's take a look back at how the Suns were eclipsed in the second round by Dallas:
Game 1: 'Break the damn gas pedal'
The Suns led the series opener by 21 points with under nine minutes remaining in the game before going cold. The fourth-seeded Mavericks rallied to make the final score closer than it should've been. Said Deandre Ayton: "A little eye opener to where these dudes don't give up. Basically just, break the damn gas pedal. That's it. Break it. Don't take your foot off it because they're not letting up."
Game 2: 'Accept the challenge'
The Suns accepted the challenge that Dallas threw down late in Game 1. They shook off a foul-plagued, chippy first half and wound up shooting a franchise playoff-record 64.5% from the field, and through their first eight games of this postseason made 50% or better every time. That also is a playoff record for consecutive playoff games. Devin Booker reached 30 points for the first time in the series.
Game 3: 'We're going to play some more basketball'
Paul turned 37 on this Friday in Dallas and, unfortunately, played like it, committing a season-high seven turnovers among 17 total by the Suns. Phoenix also took 14 fewer shots than the Mavs, and had no answer for Jalen Brunson, who finally broke out with a game-high 28 points. This game also showed the coaching chops of Dallas' Jason Kidd, who challenged Doncic to "participate" on defense, which he did, as the Mavericks held Phoenix under 50% shooting for the first time this postseason.
Game 4: 'Something I have to fix'
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The most telling stat of Game 4 was this one: Chris Paul fouled out in just 23 minutes of play. He picked up his fourth with 1.1 seconds left in the first half, after coach Monty Williams surprisingly re-inserted the all-star guard back into the game. There were other head-scratching moments, too, such as how the Suns could let Doncic have his way below the free-throw line when he was unable to score from 3-point range. And the Mavericks continued getting offensive support for Doncic, something that was missing in the first two games. This time it was Dorian Finney-Smith, making a playoff career-high eight three-pointers on 12 attempts. All told, the trip to Dallas turned out to be a disaster for the Suns.
Game 5: 'We just have to be better'
After falling behind by eight points in the first half, the Suns closed strong to take a three-point lead at the break. Then in the decisive third quarter, the Suns dominated, with a 19-4 run to start the period and a 14-6 run to close it. The performance — the Suns playing with aggression, especially on defense; Booker scoring efficiently; Ayton scoring in the paint; Paul doing his thing — could have been a sign that Phoenix had returned to form. That conclusion could not have been more off base.
Game 6: 'No room for mistakes'
In a closeout game, the Suns needed Booker or Paul to have a big night. Didn't happen. Booker scored 19 points and tied a playoff career high in turnovers with eight while Paul managed 13 points and committed five turnovers. Phoenix scored just 14 points in the fourth quarter after limiting the fourth-seeded Mavs to 14 in the third quarter of the 30-point drumming in Game 6.
Game 7: 'Tonight you got to take it'
The Suns, most of whom like Booker had never played in a Game 7, were excited for this opportunity. By all appearances, it could be said the moment was too big for them. They fell behind early, and the deficit just kept growing and growing. And one of the worst parts of the thrashing is that it only tarnishes the successes of the 2021-22 season and the legacies of the Suns' big three.
It's going to be a long offseason.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How Phoenix Suns came up embarrassingly short vs. Dallas Mavericks