A Game 7 in the N.B.A. playoffs is supposed to be the most thrilling, intense type of game, where the high stakes bring out the best in both teams.
It doesn’t always work out that way, but rarely does a team crumble as thoroughly as the Phoenix Suns did on Sunday night.
By halftime, Suns fans sat slumped in their seats, Phoenix’s players wore blank looks as they sat on the bench and the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic could not stop laughing.
Phoenix’s catastrophe was well underway.
The top-seeded Suns lost to the No. 4-seeded Dallas Mavericks, 123-90, in Game 7 of the teams’ Western Conference semifinals series on Sunday in Phoenix. Dallas, which led by 46 points in the second half and never trailed on Sunday, will face Golden State on Wednesday in San Francisco in Game 1 of the conference finals.
The Suns dominated the regular season and set a franchise record for wins with one goal in mind: return to the N.B.A. finals for a second straight year — and win the championship this time.
Now they won’t even get a chance to try.
“I know they didn’t want to play that way,” Suns Coach Monty Williams said. “We basically played the worst game of the season tonight. That group has a lot of character and integrity. I know how bad they wanted it. We just could not execute tonight. Couldn’t make a shot early, and that messed with us a little bit. Dallas played their tails off from start to finish.”
Doncic scored 35 points with 10 rebounds and 4 assists, without playing at all in the fourth quarter. Spencer Dinwiddie added 30 points off the bench for Dallas, and Jalen Brunson scored 24.
“I can’t get this smile off my face right now,” Doncic said after the game. “I’m just really happy.”
Dallas Coach Jason Kidd said: “He’s Luka. He loves the stage. As it gets bigger, he gets better.”
For Phoenix, the loss ended a season that began ominously when the N.B.A. started investigating Robert Sarver, the owner of the Suns and the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury. Current and former employees had accused Sarver of racist, sexist and otherwise inappropriate behavior. The results of the investigation have not yet been announced.
On the court, it was the Suns’ most promising season in 12 years. They were nearly unbeatable, going 64-18 during the regular season.
They lost three out of their first four games, but then went on an 18-game winning streak that included two wins over the Mavericks and one over Golden State. The Suns set the franchise single-season wins record with their 63rd victory, which came against the Los Angeles Lakers in a game that knocked the Lakers out of playoff contention.
The Suns were led by two All-Star guards: the 25-year-old Devin Booker, and the 37-year-old Chris Paul, in his 17th N.B.A. season. Last season marked the first time Paul had been to the N.B.A. finals.
Suns wing Mikal Bridges finished second in voting for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award, and Williams was named coach of the year.
As the playoffs approached, Williams worked to balance his desire to rest players, heading into what they expected to be a long playoff run, with a need to keep them playing for momentum heading into the postseason.
They lost four of their last six games, but still entered the playoffs as heavy favorites to advance easily through their side of the bracket as the No. 1 seed.
Right from the start their path was rockier than expected. The Suns took six games to beat the New Orleans Pelicans, who had sneaked into the playoffs through the play-in tournament after having the ninth-best record in the Western Conference.
The Suns have the most wins and finals appearances of any N.B.A. team that has not won a championship.
Last season, Phoenix made its third trip to the finals and fell to the Milwaukee Bucks, losing four consecutive times after winning the first two games.
When asked to compare how he felt Sunday night to how he felt after losing in the finals last season, Booker said: “Kind of the same, you know, short of our goal. Even though last year we were a little bit closer, it hurts.”
Sunday’s game between the Suns and Mavericks was the first time the road team had won. The Suns had beaten the Mavericks by an average of 19 points per game in the previous three games in Phoenix.
This time, being at home offered no boost for Phoenix.
By halftime, the Suns had eight assists and seven turnovers. Their entire team had scored 27 points — just as many as Doncic had during the first half. Booker and Paul, their offensive leaders, had made none of the 11 field goals they attempted.
“Some of the pressure was probably on them early because they missed some shots that they normally make,” Kidd said.
Dallas led by 30 points at halftime but wasn’t finished.
“Even at halftime we talked about it, what they did to us last time here,” Kidd said.
In Game 5 in Phoenix, the Suns outscored the Mavericks, 33-14, in the third quarter. On Sunday, Dallas outscored Phoenix by 12 points in the third quarter, turning a big lead into an insurmountable one.
“We never made the game competitive,” Paul said.
Booker finished with 11 points; Paul, with 10. Center Deandre Ayton, whom the Suns selected first overall in the 2018 draft when Doncic was available, played only 17 minutes 27 seconds, and scored just 5 points. He will be a restricted free agent this off-season.
“It’s still kind of shocking right?” Dinwiddie said. “The best team in basketball all season. Gotta give them credit for the season they had.
“We were confident coming into the game. We definitely believed we could win the game. I don’t think anybody was calling a 40-point Game 7 victory, though.”