For years the Phoenix Suns had been a miserable franchise riddled with dysfunction and overseen by an owner best known for filling his general manager’s office with farm animals and being “so tight he squeaks when he walks”.
Now, the Suns are the talk of the town as they cruise to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were carving it up in 2010.
So, how did these Suns, who won just 19 of their 82 games two seasons ago, become so damn good? Well, there are several factors at play.
While the offensive artistry of Chris Paul and Devin Booker sells tickets, so does winning. And the biggest reason the Suns have been winning all season is not their high-powered offence, but their dogged commitment to defence.
Having made a conscious decision to tighten the screws on D from day one of training camp, Phoenix finished the regular season with a defensive rating of 110.4, which was good for sixth in the league.
Then when the playoffs arrived, they turned up the heat and went from good to great on that side of the ball. The Suns currently have the second-best defence in the playoffs behind only the Milwaukee Bucks, who engaged the Brooklyn Nets in numerous second-round rock fights.
Phoenix has allowed the lowest field-goal percentage and three-point percentage in these playoffs. Their starting lineup has been even better, with a defensive rating of 101.6, an outrageous number considering the frenetic pace and non-stop scoring of the modern game.
Of course, a significant part of the Suns’ defensive success comes back to Deandre Ayton. In the space of three seasons, Ayton has gone from spending entire stretches looking completely lost to holding Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic to 35-of-88 shooting (39.8 percent) in the biggest games of his life.
The rest of the team has been doing their part too. Phoenix’s guards have been excellent in navigating pick-and-rolls, and everyone has shown an unshakeable determination to executing double-teams to perfection while also scrambling to recover and close out on shooters.
Suns defense swarms LeBron to force the jump ball 🔒 pic.twitter.com/3tKgZLH5nl
— ESPN (@espn) May 23, 2021
As Devin Booker said after Phoenix completed its sweep of Denver, the team’s primary goal has been “cutting off the head of snake” by aggressively doubling the opponents’ best player. It’s a simple strategy, but it’s easier said than done, especially when it comes to recovering to shooters afterwards, and yet the Suns have been extremely successful in doing so.
— NBA (@NBA) June 10, 2021
Of their 10 playoff games so far, the Suns have held their opponents below 42 percent shooting in five of those games, and below 45 percent in eight of them. Putting aside Game 4’s relatively bloated score line, these are the final scores for Phoenix’s opponents since their winning streak began: 92, 85, 100, 105, 98, 102.
That comes to an average of 97 points per game. For context, the Cleveland Cavaliers scored the fewest points per game in the regular season and even they managed close to 104 points a night.
Of course, the Suns are working with a much smaller sample size, and opposing teams are always going to step up their defence the playoffs, but everything Phoenix has achieved offensively is extremely impressive nonetheless.
THE POINT GOD
Chris Paul’s season has seemed destined to become a forgettable one on multiple occasions throughout the year. First there was his lack of chemistry alongside Devin Booker, with both players naturally inclined to have the ball in their hands and operate in similar parts of the floor.
Then there was Paul’s shoulder injury, which initially rendered his right arm useless in a twist so unfortunate it could only be matched by Phoenix having to play the defending champion Lakers in the first-round.
But the thing about CP3-led teams is they always find a way. Instead of getting in each other’s way for an entire season, Paul and Booker – with the help of head coach Monty Williams – crafted a lethal pick-and-roll offence which maximised both players’ strengths while also hitting the Suns’ role players in all their sweet spots.
Even when Paul was dragged in favour of backup point guard Cameron Payne due to his ailing shoulder, he successfully pleaded with his coach to put him back in the game before gritting his teeth and continuing setting his teammates up anyway, even when he was barely able to shoot or rebound.
With his shoulder no longer showing signs of damage a little later in the playoffs, Paul went on an almighty tear against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, putting up 25.5 points, 10.3 assists and five rebounds on 63 percent shooting across the series, topping it off with an obscene assist-to-turnover ratio of 8:1.
Paul was especially potent in crunch time. Just look at his fourth quarter numbers from round two:
- 43 points
- 10 assists
- 13-16 FG (84%)
- 4-4 3PT (100%)
- 0 turnovers
Imagine barely missing a fourth quarter shot while also not committing a single fourth quarter turnover, across an entire series. It often felt as though every fourth quarter Suns possession ended with Paul making one of his patented mid-range buckets or throwing a picture-perfect assist, much like when he was at his apex in New Orleans circa 2008.
— The Basketball Jones Podcast (@bballjonespod_) June 10, 2021
Paul often saves his very best for the fourth quarter, opting to get his teammates going early in the game before eventually shifting gears and taking over in the final period. This is nothing new. But what we’ve witnessed in recent days has been the kind of late-game wizardry that’s reserved for the all-time greats.
Of course, things are never easy when it comes to Paul’s ongoing quest to make The Finals, and his latest hurdle involves being sidelined due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Let’s hope he can suit up sooner rather than later, because it’s hard to think of someone more deserving of a chance to compete for this year’s championship.
DEVIN BOOKER REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
Devin Booker was slightly overshadowed by Chris Paul’s excellence when the Suns closed out the Nuggets, but the man they call Book is in some incredible form of his own. He’s averaging 27.9 points per game, 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists in a blistering postseason run highlighted by his cold-blooded 47-point night against the Lakers in a Game 6 bloodbath that was over before it started.
And while Booker will not hesitate to slit a team’s throat when he senses weakness, he’s more than happy to facilitate when needed, as he did in Game 1 against Denver with eight assists to accompany his modest but efficient 21 points on 8-12 shooting.
Booker’s tendency to score from all over the floor and assert his dominance has been game-changing, as has his ability to not only co-exist with another ball-dominant guard in Paul, but thrive alongside him.
We’ve seen Devin Booker have big nights before, but we’ve never seen this Devin Booker night-in, night-out, and it’s nightmare fuel for the rest of the league.
DEANDRE AYTON PLAYING HIS ROLE TO PERFECTION
When Deandre Ayton played a near-perfect Game 1 against the Lakers in the first round, it’s possible the only people who truly believed the young center would continue to play at that level on a nightly basis were members of either the Phoenix Suns or Ayton’s immediate family.
To expect at least some level of inconsistency from Ayton would have been no knock on the budding young center. That’s simply what anyone would naturally expect from a 22-year-old big man competing in his first ever postseason. And yet Ayton has blown all expectations out of the water.
On top of his excellent defence, he has been supremely efficient offensively. Just take a look at this list of the playoff’s top-10 shot makers within five feet of the basket:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: 91-124 (73.4%)
- Deandre Ayton: 59-74 (79.7)
- Rudy Gobert: 59-77 (76.6%)
- Nikola Jokic 58-80 (72.5%)
- Ben Simmons 53-80 (66.3%)
- Kawhi Leonard 50-69 (72.5)
- Clint Capela: 48-79 (60.8%)
- Paul George: 42-68 (61.8%)
- Tobias Harris: 40-59 (67.8%)
- Joel Embiid: 34-45 (75.6%)
Ayton is finishing at the rim at a higher rate than everyone on that list, including this season’s MVP, and the winner of the two MVP awards before that. And while Giannis has of course attempted more shots than Ayton due to playing in more games, Ayton still had a better percentage when their attempts were even. Ayton has also made more shots within that five-foot range than everyone on that list except Giannis and Rudy Gobert, finding himself tied with the latter.
This success stems from the big fella playing his role of rim-running big man to perfection, while the Suns offence and Chris Paul in particular have put him in all the right positions to be the very best version of himself.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT?
There’s no denying how impressive the Suns have been, but it’s true that they began the playoffs by beating an exhausted Lakers team coming off a miniscule 71-day offseason with Anthony Davis going down mid-series and LeBron James not looking like himself.
The Suns’ next opponent, the Nuggets, had no Jamal Murray, a badly hampered Michael Porter Jr, and a grossly underperforming Aaron Gordon. Nikola Jokic was effectively forced to do battle without his three best teammates.
This raises the question: should we keep a lid – or a sunroof – on the excitement building around this team until they’ve proven themselves against a healthy playoff team?
Perhaps. But then again, Phoenix had to fight through a severe injury of their own when Chris Paul’s shoulder refused to cooperate with the rest of his body.
Plus, any concerns about the legitimacy of the Suns’ playoff success so far would carry more weight if they had been merely scraping by against their injured foes. Instead, they have been pummelling them into a fine pulp.
Whether you’re going by the numbers or the eye test, there is every reason to believe this team will cause major headaches for whoever they face in the conference finals and beyond.