PHOENIX — The Dallas Mavericks went down 0-2 in the Western Conference semifinals to the Phoenix Suns. As “Suns in 4” fan chants drowned Phoenix’s Footprint Center following Game 2 earlier this month, Luka Doncic never panicked. It motivated him.
"It’s the same like trash talking. It gets me going. It’s another motivation," Doncic said following Dallas' stunning Game 7 victory. "Everyone had the Suns to win this one, but the whole locker room believed. That’s what won us the game."
The Mavericks pushed the Suns to a decisive Game 7 in a series where the home team had won every game, until Sunday. Doncic led the Mavericks to a dominant 123-90 win over the Suns to advance to Dallas' fifth Western Conference Final in franchise history, the first since Dallas won it all in 2011.
This is Doncic’s first time not only advancing to the second round, but the first conference final in his career. The 23-year-old Doncic finished with 35 points and 10 rebounds, becoming the second-youngest player in NBA postseason history to have 35 points and 10 rebounds in a Game 7 after Tom Heinsohn (22 years, 230 days).
"He’s Luka. He loves the stage. As it gets bigger, he gets better," said Jason Kidd, who is in first season as Dallas' coach. "I thought he set the tone of getting everyone involved."
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Doncic, the Slovenian-born prodigy who became the youngest player in Real Madrid history at age 16 before being drafted by Dallas as the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, never shied away from the moment. "It’s Game 7. I like these games. It’s pressure," he said.
He opened the game by knocking down three shots, including two three-pointers, to put the Mavericks up 8-3. In the first half alone, Doncic scored 27 points, the total score of the Suns' entire team. When asked if he was aware that he alone totaled the Suns' first-half score, he replied with a smile: "Yes, of course."
His response is another example of his calm confidence that set the tone for the Mavericks. A blowout in which Dallas led the league-best Suns by as many as 46 points followed. "A lot of people said it would be a blowout. They were right," Kidd said with a smile. But no one expected the Suns to be on the receiving end.
"Anytime your leader goes into battle and is on point, he's the type of guy that wants to throw the knockout punch," said Spencer Dinwiddie, who finished the night with 30 points off the bench. "He's never scared of the moment. He wants to go toe-to-toe with the best and he wants to throw that knockout punch. It was great for him to come out and calm the storm quick and then the defense kicked in."
The Mavericks crush the top seed Suns with a stunning 123-90 rout to win Game 7 and advance to the Western Conference finals! #NBAPlayoffs
Luka Doncic 35 points
Spencer Dinwiddie 30 points
Jalen Brunson 24 points
Cam Johnson 12 points
Devin Booker 11 points
Chris Paul 10 points pic.twitter.com/evHR8BcVWg
— USA TODAY NBA (@usatodaynba) May 16, 2022
Dallas held the Suns to 90 points on their home floor, the fewest points the Suns have scored at Footprint Center this season. The Mavericks held All-Stars Devin Booker and Chris Paul to a combined 21 points on Sunday, shooting a combined 7-for-22 from the field.
Kidd challenged Doncic to participate on the defensive end after the Suns hunted Doncic defensively on the pick-and-roll following the Game 2 loss in Phoenix.
"He’s got to participate and play defense. There’s no secret," Kidd said ahead of Game 3. "They are going to put him in every pick and roll. They did the same thing to Dirk (Nowitzki) until Dirk participated and stuck up for himself… (Luka's) going to have to defend."
Doncic and the Mavericks accepted the defensive challenge, which ultimately put too much pressure on the Suns in Game 7. Fans started to boo the home team as they were never able to make a run to cut down the lead.
"I always say this team is special. The way we bond together and the way we play," Doncic said. "When we play hard and defensively, it’s hard to stop us. After our first two games here our defense improved really well and that’s what won the game."
Following the Game 7 victory, Doncic shared an embrace with Nowitzki as the remaining Suns fans in Phoenix's Footprint Center booed them.
"(Nowitzki) was just happy. I think it gives everyone on this team a lot of confidence when you see Dirk sitting courtside (even) on away games," Doncic said. "I think everyone appreciates him because Dirk is Dirk. He's been through everything. He's been a champion, so he knows it. I think every player and every coach is appreciative."
Doncic said he's "really happy," adding that he "cant get this smile off my face."
"Honestly I think we deserve this. We played hard the whole series. Maybe a couple games here we weren’t ourselves but we came here with a statement," Doncic said. "The whole team was just incredible. I’ve never seen a Game 7 performance like this… I’m really proud of what we did today."
The Mavericks will take on the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday.
Follow Cydney Henderson on Twitter @CydHenderson.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Luka Doncic delivers for Mavericks in NBA playoffs Game 7 win vs. Suns