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After the Dallas Mavericks finished off the Utah Jazz on Thursday night in six games – coupled with the Phoenix Suns eliminating the New Orleans Pelicans — the TNT Inside The NBA crew of Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson had a spirited debate on who will win the Western Conference semifinals series between the Mavs and Suns.

And that quartet was all over the map with their opinions about the best-of-seven series that starts Monday at 9 p.m. in Phoenix, with Barkley pointing out that the Suns were 3-0 against the Mavs this season.

“I think it’s going to be a very difficult series for the Mavs,” Barkley said. “There’s a reason (the Suns) beat them every time, because they’ve got two guys who can guard Luka (Doncic).

“They’re not going to stop (Doncic) because he’s a great player. But (Mikal) Bridges and Jae Crowder are going to give Luka all he can handle. They can guard him.”

Johnson acknowledged that the Suns won a pair of games at home against the Mavs when Dallas was short-handed.

“A couple of notes on this 3-0 (Suns’ record against the Mavs),” Johnson said. “Luka didn’t play in two of the games.

“In all three of the games, the Suns trailed going into the fourth quarter, but then they had (fourth-quarter) runs of 37-25, 33-20 and 35-19 to win all of those games.”

MaxiMaxi Kleber (left oblique strain) and Doncic (left knee and left ankle sprains) sat out the Suns’ 105-98 win over the Mavs on Nov. 17, and the Suns’ 112-104 victory over the Mavs on Nov. 19. And when Phoenix defeated the Mavs in Dallas, 109-101, on Jan. 20, the Mavs were up by eight points late in the third quarter when Doncic suffered a neck injury when he fell hard on the floor.

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Plus, the Suns have yet to play Dallas with Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, who joined the Mavs in a Feb. 10 trade with the Washington Wizards.

Smith, meanwhile, pointed to the return of Suns guard Devin Booker possibly being a huge factor for the Suns. Booker missed three games in the series against the Pelicans with a strained hamstring, but returned Thursday and scored 13 points in 32 minutes.

But Smith also pointed out that Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie are not the same players that fans saw in the final stages of the regular season.

“Obviously, Booker will be the difference when he becomes healthy,” Smith said. “I don’t think this is the same Dinwiddie and Brunson.

“These two guys are on a different level from the last 15 games of the season and into the playoffs, and (are) more implemented into the offense.”

Smith noted that because Doncic sat out the first three games of the series against Utah with a strained left calf, that enabled the Mavs to get a hard and productive glimpse of Brunson and Dinwiddie. Brunson averaged 32 points and 5.3 assists in the three playoff games against Utah which Doncic didn’t play, and Dinwiddie averaged 19.7 points and 6.7 assists.

“I think the injury to Luka actually helped (Brunson and Dinwiddie), and now they actually run a different offense,” Smith said. “So this isn’t the same team that the Suns have seen.

“I think it’s going to be difficult for Phoenix.”

For his part, O’Neal doesn’t believe the Mavs can do to Suns center Deandre Ayton what they did to Jazz center Rudy Gobert, mainly becauseDinwiddie Ayton is a more gifted offensive player than Gobert.

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“(The Mavs) can definitely stretch Ayton out and shoot a three,” O’Neal said. “But Ayton — the Bahamian beast — will run back to the middle of the floor and get a jump hook or a little David Robinson turnaround free throw line jumper. Tit for tat.

“If (the Mavs) score a three, (Ayton) has to score a two. You can’t just let them keep shooting threes and you do nothing on the offensive end. So both teams are going to have to make adjustments. But this is a different beast.”

Barkley indicated that “Ayton can guard Kleber,” and then use his quickness to get back in the paint and protect the rim

“(Ayton is) one of the more athletic big guys,” Barkley said. “And because Rudy just couldn’t get out to the corner, that was his mistake. He was always cheating, because it was such a bad habit.

“The way Utah plays defense, they funnel everything to him normally. That’s why he’s a great defender most of the time blocking shots and things like that. But (Mavs coach) Jason (Kidd) didn’t give them that opportunity.”

And how does that square with the Suns?

“Ayton is not a great shot blocker, so he won’t be cheating in there,” Barkley said. “He’s going to be able to stand there and get to those shooters. But on the other end he’s going to be killing those little dudes.

Jalen“Man, he has really polished himself offensively, and (Suns coach) Monty Williams is a terrific coach. He’s not going to let them little guys guard Ayton. They’re going to go to him a lot and I think it’s going to be a very difficult series for the Mavs.”

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O’Neal somewhat agreed with Barkley’s assessment.

“Again, Rudy is a great defensive player, but does nothing on offense,” O’Neal said. “Ayton can post you up, he can hit the little turnaround, he can run the floor and he’s a little bit more mobile and can get a little bit lower (on the defensive end) than Rudy Gobert.

“I’m not saying he can guard the guards. But he can at least stay in front of them.”

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Johnson reminded the crew that the Suns have won nine straight games against the Mavs, including the past four in Dallas. He also noted that two of those nine wins came when the NBA was playing games inside the bubble in suburban Orlando.

Johnson asked: “So, what Dallas did in this series against Utah, will they be able to do that same thing – or try to do that same thing – against Phoenix?”

That question wasn’t directed directly at Smith. But Smith did chime in as if to indicate the Mavs are a strong threat in the Suns’ quest to reach the NBA Finals for the second straight season.

“I think this is going to be the test (for the Suns),” Smith said. “Like, this is the test.

“Are we getting back to the Finals, because Luka Doncic is a bad, bad man.”

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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