For years the Phoenix Suns have 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 up in 2010.
So, how did these Suns, who won 19 of their 82 games just two seasons ago, become so damn good? Let’s investigate.
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 the 22-year-old big man would have been no knock on the budding young center. That is simply what one would expect from a third-year player competing in his first ever postseason, and yet Ayton has blown all expectations out of the water.
A lot of the talk surrounding his playoff run has been about his offensive efficiency, and with good reason. Just take a look at this list of the postseason’s top-10 shot makers within five feet of the basket:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: 62-88 FG (70.5%)
- DeAndre Ayton: 59-74 (79.7%)
- Nikola Jokic: 58-80 FG (72.5%)
- Kawhi Leonard: 47-65 (72.3%)
- Ben Simmons: 44-60 FG (73.3%)
- Rudy Gobert: 44-60 (73.3%)
- Tobias Harris: 34-44 FG (79.5%)
- Clint Capela: 34-53 FG ( 64.3)
- LeBron James: 31-46 FG (67.4%)
- Paul George: 31-46 FG (67.4%)
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 previous two MVPs. He has also made more shots within that five-foot range than everyone except Giannis.
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) June 14, 2021
This success stems from Ayton playing his role of rim-running big man to perfection, while the Suns offence and Chris Paul in particular have put him in the perfect position to be the very best version of himself.
THE POINT GOD
Healthy, ageless, and utterly dominant. Chris Paul is all of these things and more, and it’s been an absolute joy to watch.
It’s almost hard to believe now, but Paul’s season appeared 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 areas of the floor.
Then there was Paul’s shoulder injury, which initially rendered his right arm largely useless – and was later reaggravated by an unwelcome collision with Wesley Matthews – 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, 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.
And when Paul’s shoulder injury arose, he was initially dragged in favour of backup point guard Cameron Payne, but later pleaded with his coach to put him back in games (a classic Paul move), gritted his teeth, and continued set his teammates up anyway, even when he was barely able to shoot or rebound.
With his shoulder no longer showing signs of damage as the second round progressed, Paul went on an absolute tear against the Denver Nuggets, putting up 25.5 points, 10.3 assists and five rebounds on 63% shooting with an obscene assist to turnover ratio of 8:1 in Round 2.
To top it off, Paul was especially potent in the fourth quarter across the series. Just take a look at this:
CHRIS PAUL 4TH QUARTER STATS (ROUND 2)
- 43 PTS
- 10 AST
- 13-16 FG (84%)
- 4-4 3P (100%)
- 0 TOV
Imagine barely missing a fourth quarter shot while also not turning the ball over once in the final period, across an entire series.
It often felt as though every fourth quarter Suns possession ended with Paul making one his patented mid-range bucks or throwing a picture-perfect assist, much like when he was at his absolute 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 set his teammates up early in the game before eventually shifting gears and taking over in the final period. This is nothing new. But what we’ve witnessing in recent days has been the kind of late-game wizardry that’s reserved for the all-time greats.
While Paul and Booker’s offensive artistry sells tickets, so does winning. And the biggest reason the Suns have been winning all season is not their high-powered offence, it’s 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 have now engaged the Brooklyn Nets in numerous second-round rock fights.
Phoenix has always allowed the second-lowest field-goal percentage and the second-lowest 3-point percentage. Their defence has been even stingier over their seven-game winning streak, with a103.1 defensive rating. Their starting lineup has been better still, with a defensive rating of 101.6, an outrageous number considering the frenetic 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 looking completely lost at times to holding Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic to 35-of-88 shooting (39.8 percent).
Everyone else has been doing their part too. Phoenix’s guards have been excellent in navigating pick and rolls, while 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 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 before recovering to shooters from there. It’s easier said than done, and yet the Suns have been extremely successful in doing so.
— NBA (@NBA) June 10, 2021
In their 10 playoff games so far, Phoenix has held their opponents below 42 percent shooting in five of those games, and below 45 percent in eight of them.
Game 4’s relatively bloated score line aside, 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 a shade under 104 points per game.
Of course, the Suns are working with a much smaller sample size, and teams are much more likely to give their best defensive efforts in the playoffs, but everything Phoenix has achieved offensively is extremely impressive nonetheless.
DEVIN BOOKER REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
Devin Booker’s exceptional play has been slightly overshadowed by Chris Paul’s excellence in recent days, but the man they call Book is in some incredible form of his own.
Booker is averaging 27.9 points per game, 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the in a blistering postseason run highlighted by his 47-point eruption against the Lakers.
Booker is more than happy to facilitate when needed, as he did in Game 1 against Denver with eight assists to accompany a relatively modest but extremely efficient 21 points on 8-12 shooting.
And he’s also more than capable of taking over and dominating on cue, as he did when smelt blood and slit the Lakers’ throat with 22 points on 8-9 shooting in the first quarter of a Game 6 bloodbath which was over before it started.
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 the stuff of nightmares for the rest of the league.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT?
There’s no denying how impressive the Suns have been, but so far they’ve beaten an exhausted Lakers team coming off a miniscule 71-day offseason with Anthony Davis going 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, 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 fully healthy playoff team?
Perhaps. But then again, the Suns had to fight through a potentially debilitating injury of their own when Chris Paul’s shoulder refused to cooperate with the rest of his body.
Plus, any concerns that Phoenix’s playoff wins so far haven’t been entirely legitimate would carry more weight if the Suns had been narrowly by their injured foes. Instead, they have been pummelling them into a fine pulp, winning games by their last seven games by an average margin of 14 points.
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.