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Since the Suns blew out the Spurs, they’ve played like a borderline playoff team

For a 4-15 squad, being average is really saying something, and shows Phoenix’s record could improve in a hurry.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While the Suns have managed just a 2-4 record over their last six games, they were outscored by just 12 points total over that stretch and there are several signs of progress the team can rest on heading back toward a home-heavy portion of their schedule in the first couple weeks of December.

A more balanced, efficient rotation

It seems that Igor Kokoskov has landed on a rotation that works for the most part, trimming his group down to nine guys who play on a nightly basis. The results have been stark.

Jamal Crawford learned quickly on the job in Phoenix and, despite his limitations, became the Suns’ clear-cut best backup playmaker over the past month. Cutting Ryan Anderson completely out of the lineup helped tremendously, as his rebounding and shot-making ability deteriorated to the point he was unplayable. Finally, the biggest and most-anticipated move came when, facing full health, Kokoskov opted toward the “Point Book” lineups that lit the world on fire in limited samples throughout early November as his starting unit.

We wrote at length last week about the impact of unleashing Devin Booker as the primary playmaker as well as putting Mikal Bridges into more impactful situations. It was extremely successful on the Suns’ Thanksgiving road trip, as Bridges was a plus-6 overall during the four-game East Coast swing.

Altogether, dating back to the Suns’ 20-point win over the Spurs at home Nov. 14, the team is 14th in the NBA in offensive rating over its past six contests. At 109.3, that number is 6.1 points better per 100 possessions than their season-long mark and would rank 12th in the league over a full season.

Kokoskov’s principles of playing quickly and moving the ball have come to fruition, as the Suns are third in effective field goal percentage over the last six games and 10th in pace. They continue to put up lots of threes and — especially when Deandre Ayton is fighting inside — get to the rim.

Ayton is shooting 66.3 percent from the field over this stretch on 13.3 field goal attempts per game, benefitting from the better floor-spacing in Point Book lineups and less floor time for the likes of Anderson and Elie Okobo.

Another huge cog in the Suns’ recent improvement has been Trevor Ariza, regressing hard back toward his usual great volume shooting numbers. Ariza made 40.8 percent of his 5.5 three-point attempts per game over this stretch. The current starting unit gives defenses no one to ignore, especially when Ariza spaces out the Booker-Ayton two-man game.

Cutting back on mistakes

The other noticeable difference over the past couple weeks (if not longer) is the flip of the Suns’ fortunes in the turnover battle. Over the past six games, Phoenix is 14th in assist-to-turnover ratio, a ranking which would have been unthinkable when they could not make even the simplest passes early in the year.

The Suns have actually slid down a few spots in terms of teams’ total passes per game, 31 a night below the league-leading Grizzlies. Shockingly, during this stretch of rejuvenation, Phoenix is 25th in passes per game. The ball is moving less, but the decision-making has been better, and more possessions are ending in makes. Kokoskov might have planned on this game plan winning out, but no one can argue with the results.

On defense, the Suns have shot up to 17th the past six games allowing 110.7 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank 23rd over the full season. Teams are shooting slightly worse overall during this stretch, but nothing else jumps out as to why the Suns have been a more effective defense recently. Most likely, their ability to control pace by making shots and taking care of the ball has forced defenses into tougher shots than they got early in the season.

Devin Booker is back

Besides his 25 points, 8.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds per 36 minutes over the past six, Booker is also shooting 46 percent from the field and launching more threes. That triple-threat ability (shooting, driving, passing) has helped unlock the Suns’ offense, as has Booker’s progressing chemistry with Ayton in the pick-and-roll. That element has been the Suns’ best long-term point of growth lately, as the scoring from the two stars returned to the level it looked capable of reaching after a blowout win over the Mavericks to start the season.

For perhaps the first time in his career, Booker is also lifting the Suns with his play to an extent that advanced stats reward him for. The Suns for the season have a negative-15.2 net rating when Booker sits, compared with a negative-4.3 net rating when he is on the court. That 10.9-point difference represents the biggest impact on the team outside of Bridges.

Scale those numbers back to the just the six most recent contests, and the Suns see a 20.8-point rollercoaster fall per 100 possessions when Booker sits.

All this shows why Booker, after finishing the 2017-18 season at No. 237 in the ESPN Real Plus-Minus leaderboards with a negative impact, is all the way up to a 1.13 net points added per 100 possessions rating, good for 66th in the league and tops on the Suns.

While it would have been nice to watch the Suns steal winnable games in Chicago and Detroit, they face beatable teams in the Pacers, Magic, Lakers, Kings and Heat over the next two weeks. Continuing to work hard for good shots, taking care of the ball and being more disciplined on defense will spell great things for this Suns team, especially as the schedule truly evens out when the calendar flips to 2019.

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