Sometimes it’s best to think of the NBA as three different sports. There’s regular season basketball, when depth is arguably more important than night-to-night strategy. There’s postseason basketball, when adjustments and individual matchups become bigger factors for success. And then there’s the last six minutes of a playoff game, when two desperate teams both play their five best players and find out if those guys can survive in the highest leverage moments. The Suns, now winners of 17 games in a row, already look ready for the decisive stretch of a Game 7.
In a matchup of the two best teams in the NBA, Phoenix came out on top against the Warriors, recording an impressive 104–96 victory Tuesday. The Suns’ defense was the star of the game, holding Golden State to under 100 points for the first time all season, and pressuring Stephen Curry to the worst shooting night of his career in a game in which he attempted at least 20 shots. There is still plenty of time between now and a hypothetical Western Conference Finals matchup, as well as a Klay Thompson-sized elephant in the room, but Phoenix has reasons to be optimistic after its defensive effort against the Dubs.
Mikal Bridges scored only two points on Tuesday, and yet he was possibly the most impactful player on the floor for either team. Bridges guarded Curry whenever the two were on the floor, and his length seemed to affect Steph’s rhythm just enough to take the greatest shooter in the history of the known universe out of his comfort zone. Bridges could pick up Steph well beyond the three-point line without getting blown by, did not give up easy switches off the ball, did not let up chasing Curry around screens, and used his length to contest without fouling. It was about as impressive as an individual defensive performance one can have against Steph, even with the Suns after the game having the humility to admit Curry still ultimately missed some shots he most often makes.
It wasn’t only Bridges however. Monty Williams started the game with Jae Crowder guarding Draymond Green. This allowed Phoenix to switch Crowder onto Curry if Draymond tried to initiate a pick-and-roll, keeping length on Steph, and avoiding the traps that allow Green to play four-on-three in the short roll. It’s not the first and it certainly won’t be the last time teams try this kind of strategy against the Warriors, but not many can replicate the discipline and execution the Suns exhibited on Tuesday. Their off-ball communication was particularly crisp, and they got better as the game went on, allowing only 42 points in the second half—including a stingy 18 in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign was the play of big man Deandre Ayton. The former No. 1 overall pick is in the midst of a fascinating season. Unlike fellow 2018 draftee Bridges, Ayton was not given a contract extension in the offseason. And while he has come on strong during Phoenix’s win streak, when he missed some time due to injury, lineups with Javale McGee or Frank Kaminsky in place of Ayton with the rest of the starters were outperforming those with Ayton on the floor. But Tuesday night showed why Ayton is so valuable, and what Phoenix could risk to lose if it ever even slightly downgrades at the center position.
The Suns had a 92.4 defensive rating on the floor during Ayton’s 34 minutes against the Warriors. When Kevon Looney was on the floor, Ayton could stay tethered to the paint and make the restricted area too crowded for drives. And more importantly, when the Warriors went small, Ayton remained effective. He held up incredibly well on switches, even blocking a Curry three late in the first half. If Phoenix wants to have success in the playoffs, and if going through Golden State is a requirement, how Ayton plays against small lineups could make or break the team.
Ayton is absolutely one of the Suns’ best five players. He’s one of the few bigs in the league who can actually punish teams offensively for going small without giving up those points on the other end of the floor. Ayton wreaked havoc in the paint against Golden State, looking like the player who was instrumental during Phoenix’s Finals run. He puts so much pressure on the defense by aggressively running to the rim, gobbling up rebounds, and hitting soft hooks over smaller defenders in the paint. None of that matters if Ayton is getting cooked for threes on the other end of the floor. Instead, on Tuesday he was adept at staying in front of guards on the perimeter and navigating screens and cuts when the Dubs played Green at center. If that genuinely translates to the postseason, the Suns become even more dangerous than they’ve looked during their win streak.
Of course, there are caveats. Williams and Chris Paul both made sure to say after the game Curry can’t be so easily schemed out of a game, essentially admitting to an element of luck when it comes to his shotmaking. Thompson would theoretically be on the floor in the playoffs. As would Devin Booker, who missed the second half of Tuesday’s game after hurting his left hamstring, and his presence does change some things defensively.
Fortunately, we won’t have to wait long to see how these teams respond to their first matchup. The Suns and Warriors play again Friday in San Francisco. It will be an especially good test for Phoenix, because part of having a great playoff defense is slowing down a motivated group coming off a loss. We already know the Suns are capable of racking up wins in the regular season. Tuesday’s win showed they look prepared for a higher form of basketball.
More NBA Coverage:
• NBA Power Rankings: Suns, Warriors Battle For No. 1
• How the Suns Are Getting It Done
• What's Next For Nuggets After Michael Porter Jr. Injury?
• Inside the Strange John Wall Situation in Houston