Roll back the calendar a month or so, and you’ll find a fork-in-the-road moment for the Suns.
Fresh off their trip to the NBA Finals, the Suns were hosting a punchless Pelicans team forced to sit out its young, injured All-Stars in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Yet Phoenix looked a hot mess, putting on a clinic for how not to take care of the ball. The Suns committed three straight turnovers at one point toward the end of the first quarter, then fumbled away five more possessions during a nine-play stretch in the second quarter.
The Footprint Center crowd, as frustrated by the team’s 2–3 start as it was by the ridiculous spate of miscues, rained down boos on the Suns as they fell behind by 20 points to the 1–6 New Orleans club.
Then Phoenix found its footing. Not just in that game, which the Suns came back to win. But in each of the 15 games that have happened since then, too.
Heading into Tuesday’s massive showdown with the Warriors, who have the league’s best record at 18–2, the Suns are the NBA’s hottest team, having notched 16 straight victories to stand at 17–3.
NBA fans got their first exposure to the young Phoenix core in the Orlando bubble, where the Suns went 8–0 before falling just shy of reaching the playoffs. And most became fully acquainted this past season, after the addition of Chris Paul helped lift Devin Booker and the rest of the franchise to the Finals, only to take a 2–0 lead before falling short in six games to the Bucks.
But what about this year? What stands out about the Suns, who, team owner Robert Sarver aside, haven’t gotten all that much attention throughout the campaign? What makes them different from a year ago and perhaps even better than they were at that time?
In light of their 16 consecutive wins, we laid out 16 different observations about the red-hot Suns.
1. Almost none of their players are red-hot.
Oftentimes, when a team is playing lights out, a key player is enjoying the best season of his career to make that possible.
For the Warriors, maybe it’s a player like Andrew Wiggins, who, as a 50% shooter and an improving three-point marksman, is finally showing the efficiency and consistency fans longed for. Or perhaps it’s someone like resurgent big man Montrezl Harrell, who’s bolstered the contending Wizards in just about every conceivable way so far this season, even on defense, where Washington’s been vastly improved.
But then you look at the Suns, and just about every key player is performing about the same as last season, if not worse. In fact, take a peek at the team’s top-five minute-getters: Mikal Bridges, Booker, Paul, Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson. They each have lower effective field goal percentages from a season ago. And while that could seem worrisome on the surface, the reality is …
2. The Suns’ league-best familiarity is arguably their best weapon.
If there’s a team that knows itself by now, it’s Phoenix, which has logged more minutes with its most-used lineups than any other club since the start of last season.
In terms of on-court trios, none have played more than Booker, Bridges and Deandre Ayton’s 1,906 minutes together since the beginning of the 2020–21 campaign, according to data from Stats Perform. The Suns have three of the NBA’s four most-used quartets since the start of last year, and the one with Paul, Booker, Bridges and Ayton (1,520 minutes) has played together 300-plus minutes more than the Jazz's foursome of Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanović, Royce O’Neale and Rudy Gobert (1,197 minutes), which stands as the next closest team.
Phoenix’s starting five—which have started a league-high 66 games and played close to 1,000 minutes as a group over the past season and change—outpaces that of every other club in those regards.
Interestingly enough, that group is far from dominant. In fact, Phoenix’s first five have been outscored by two points in those 284 minutes with Paul, Booker, Bridges, Crowder and Ayton. (The five-man lineup was a plus-5.2 per 100 possessions last season.) But there’s something to be said for how prepared players are to fill their roles, given how accustomed they are to them by now.
3. The backup center minutes—an Achilles' heel in the Finals—have been better.
When Suns backup Dario Šarić went down with a torn ACL in his right knee during Game 1 of the Finals, it might not have seemed like the most costly injury at the time. But in some ways, it turned out to be massive.
Phoenix managed to take Game 2 without Šarić. But then the Suns struggled mightily to defend with Frank Kaminsky on the floor in Game 3, getting outscored by 12 points in the backup center’s 13 minutes on the court—a stretch so rough that Monty Williams opted against playing Kaminsky at all in Games 4 and 5. Ayton, pressed into longer playing time without a natural backup behind him, grew winded, struggling in the fourth quarters of each of those games, both of which were losses.
Wisely, the Suns went out and signed a better rim-protecting presence in JaVale McGee, who’s been solid this season, shooting a career-best 66.2% from the field, averaging 10.2 points, 7.3 boards and one block in just 16.4 minutes a night. Kaminsky was doing really well, too, before being diagnosed with a stress reaction in his right knee that will keep him out indefinitely. He had played some of the best ball of his career while filling in for an injured Ayton. The team thinks Kaminsky can be back before season’s end, which would help replenish the depth and variety there.
4. The Suns are hitting the offensive glass even less often than last year.
Legendary coach Pat Riley once said, “No rebounds, no rings.” But it’s become clear the Suns have no real worries about the boards—at least not when they’re on the offensive end.
Phoenix, 25th in offensive rebound percentage last season, enters Tuesday’s matchup with Golden State currently ranked 29th in the category. Only the Nets, who often play lineups without a traditional big man, boast a lower rate.
And while that might seem like a flaw, there are a couple of caveats at play. ...
5. Behind Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, Phoenix rarely misses from in close.
It helps that the Suns don’t leave many messes behind that require cleaning. Ayton, out to prove he deserves a max deal, has been laser-like from in close, shooting a blistering 79.8% from inside the restricted area, and a career-best 50% on 10- to 15-foot jumpers at this point in the year.
Perhaps even more impressive than Ayton: Bridges, the 6' 6" small forward, leads the entire NBA in field goal percentage at the rim among those who’ve taken at least 50 tries. Somehow, the slight, Gumby-like wing has cashed in on 53 of his 65 attempts inside the restricted circle, or a cool 81.5%.
As a team, Phoenix ranks fourth, shooting just more than 69% from inside of three feet. Very nice indeed. Also ...
6. Because the Suns don’t crash the offensive glass, they become more stout in other ways.
We’ve put a lot of thought into the question of how much, exactly, rebounding means in a modern-day NBA, with more and more clubs seemingly comfortable with abandoning the offensive glass.
One of the biggest benefits from that strategy is to merely hustle back on defense to prevent potential fast breaks, something Phoenix does better than anyone. The Suns surrender 102 points per 100 transition possessions, second-best in the NBA, according to Synergy Sports—a relative reversal from last season, when the team let up 114 points per 100 transition possessions, the ninth-worst mark in The Association.
That full-court weakness was apparent when it mattered most, against two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who Eurostepped his way to a massive 50-point showing in the Finals clincher.
7. The Phoenix defense stifles 1-on-1 plays better than anyone.
No team has had as much success with individual defensive matchups as the Suns, who’ve allowed just 76 points per 100 isolation possessions, according to Synergy—a mark that's the best the NBA has seen in four seasons.
The long-limbed Bridges and hard-nosed Crowder have been solid again in that regard, as have players like McGee and Kaminsky, who’ve moved their feet well when put on an island.
8. The Suns stifle post-ups better than anyone.
The same story has been true with defending post-ups. In particular, Paul—a player who’s long been tested in this space—has more than held his own when challenged on the block.
So far, Paul ranks in the league’s 96th percentile in defending post-ups, not only succeeding in 80% of those scenarios but he’s also forced turnovers on six of the 10 post-ups he’s defended this season, including two on Knicks All-Star Julius Randle, who has eight inches and 75 pounds on Paul.
In all, the Suns have forced turnovers on 25% of the post-ups they defend, the highest rate in the NBA.
9. Phoenix appears to be dictating where opposing offenses go with the ball.
Aside from inducing players into trying to post up Paul, the Suns have found success in goading opponents into tougher shots than they did last season.
Nearly 17% of their opponents’ shots are from midrange this season, according to Stats Perform; up from 14.6% last year. And with another year of experience together, and with a swat artist like McGee serving as a backstop, Phoenix has been far stingier at the rim defensively than a year ago. The Suns are limiting teams to just 56.9% shooting from the restricted area (eighth-best in the NBA), a vast improvement from the 62.1% they allowed (seventh-worst) during the 2020–21 campaign.
Another area of marked improvement defensively: Phoenix is surrendering fewer opponent looks from the corner than before. And just as noteworthy, the attempts they have allowed have rarely resulted in makes. In fact, a league-low 28.1% of corner three-point attempts have gone down against the Suns. (That number will almost certainly go up. The league-wide average from the corner is 37.5%.)
Taken together, Phoenix’s defensive squeezes have seen the Suns jump from sixth in defensive efficiency last season to third so far this year.
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10. The Suns haven’t been overly concerned with shooting triples.
In a league that’s becoming increasingly three-point-heavy, Phoenix has gone against the grain some.
The Suns—already a team that took fewer shots from the arc last season—have taken even fewer this season. Just 35.5% of their attempts come from downtown, the NBA’s third-lowest rate, and one that’s down from 39.2% last season.
It hasn’t resulted in any problems, though. They’ve more or less replaced those tries with more attempts from the restricted area, where, as previously mentioned, they’ve been dangerously efficient.
There’s also one other reason the reduced number of threes hasn’t been a problem. ...
11. Devin Booker is hitting his shots from deep at a career-best rate.
The Phoenix All-Star, who launches a team-high six triples per contest, is drilling them at a 41% clip this season.
Asked about the initial struggles many NBA stars were having with the new Wilson basketball this season, Booker joked Monday, saying, “Yeah, the ball is fine now.” It was a nod to the fact that he’s caught fire lately, knocking down at least 40% of his tries from outside in seven of the last eight games.
He earned Western Conference Player of the Week honors after averaging 30 points while hitting 56% of his triples over that span.
12. Defenses have no clue how to stop the Suns’ offense, which looks immune to zone.
Between Booker lighting teams up, the added lob threat McGee brings, and the team’s extreme comfort level with operating in the difficult midrange portion of the floor—a staple of any team led by Paul—there really hasn’t been much of an answer for the Phoenix offense so far this year.
At 110.8 points per 100 possessions, the Suns rank seventh on that side of the ball, despite Crowder and backup guard Cameron Payne—one of the better comeback stories in the league last year—shooting poorly to begin the season.
Teams have tried occasional zone looks defensively against Phoenix. It hasn’t worked. Of the 19 zone possessions the Suns have faced, they’ve scored on 12 of those occasions—63.2% of the time, the highest rate in the NBA, per Synergy.
13. Traps haven’t exactly worked against them, either.
Opponents have tripped Phoenix into coughing the ball up almost twice as often—20% of its offensive possessions—when trapping the Suns’ pick-and-roll sets to force the ball out of Paul’s hands.
Still, the club manages to score on those traps 50% of the time, according to Synergy, making it one of the league’s most efficient units against such looks. It leaves opposing defenses with a very “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of feeling: Yes, you might force an error; but if Paul or Booker makes the proper read—and the Suns have been on the money for the most part so far—you’re more likely to get burned for yet another basket, essentially defeating the purpose of the entire exercise.
14. The Suns are confusing defenses by making better use of tempo.
Part of what makes the idea of trapping so tough, aside from Paul being a wizard, is Phoenix’s concerted effort to play faster now that everyone knows one another, per my SI colleague Michael Pina.
One of the slowest teams in the NBA last year, the Suns now play at one of the five fastest paces in the sport—an unusually massive year-to-year shift for a club that has virtually the same roster from before.
Hit-ahead passes are commonplace. So are quick-hitting pick-and-rolls, like this one with Paul and Ayton. The plays feel like the equivalent of a quick snap in football, designed to keep the defense on its toes, particularly as it sets up against an aging point guard they might expect to play more slowly.
15. Phoenix has been unstoppable in the clutch, particularly from a passing standpoint.
If the mettle of a great team is tested most thoroughly when a game is on the line, the Suns look to be in great shape for the moment.
In clutch minutes—defined as any scenario within two possessions with five minutes or less to go in the fourth quarter or overtime—Phoenix ranks best in the league in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, effective field goal percentage and free-throw attempt rate, according to Stats Perform.
But perhaps the wildest statistic, if you sift carefully enough, is the fact that the Suns own a ridiculous 5.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio when games are tight in the closing minutes. To put that in context, it would not only be the best clutch mark since the statistic was first tracked in 2002–03; it would more than double the next-best mark of 2.7 to 1, which was accomplished by last season’s Blazers.
Suns, Stats in Clutch With NBA Ranks: 2021–22
(last 5 minutes of Q4/OT, score within 6 points)
1st (next closest is Magic at .600)
.978 (44 FTA, 45 FGA)
16. The Suns don’t seem shaken by distraction.
Coach Monty Williams, who’s done a tremendous job with this team for three seasons now, said Monday no one with the team really cares or talks about the 16-game winning streak.
And whether that’s true, Sarver—and arguably the league as a whole—should feel grateful that we’re able to talk about this for now as opposed to the bombshell report that put the Suns' owner under scrutiny for a long list of racist and misogynistic comments he’d allegedly made over the years.
It’s unclear to what extent Williams and his team focused on the report. It’s hard enough to win 16 in a row under any circumstances, let alone ones as jarring as these with the Sarver allegations lingering and the club just months removed from a Finals loss they held a two-game series lead in.
Those things alone don’t make this a championship team. But it sure does make the Suns even more impressive than the stats and the eye test already say they are.
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