The Phoenix Suns (6-3) absolutely whooped the Brooklyn Nets (4-5) on Sunday night, 138-112, an important bounce back game after losing handily last Thursday to the Miami Heat. The Suns had two off days between the Miami loss and Sunday’s game against the Nets, and they used those days well.
“Yes, it’s a test,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “But we have so many more to pass before we can call ourselves a solid team. We’re getting there, but we got a ways to go.”
The Suns led 10-1 after a couple of minutes, by 20 late in the first quarter, then as many as 30 in the third quarter before garbage time ensued for the last half of the fourth.
Kelly Oubre Jr. capped off the incredible first half with a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Suns an 18-point halftime lead. Oubre is whirling dervish on the court, generating the most crowd noise per touch of any Suns player. He gets the crowd going on his defensive efforts, going hard to the basket and making big threes.
The fact that his incredibly fun game is overshadowed by bigger, over-arching storylines tells you how great this start has been for the Suns and their long-suffering fanbase.
“If we are sub-par and they are an elite level, that is what happens in this league,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said of the blow out loss. “You are going to lose by 30, especially on the road, so we will take the responsibility, but I give them credit first.”
Atkinson was talking about the Suns executing their offense at an elite level on Sunday. The Suns had 37 assists against only 7 turnovers, upping their assist-total mark to the most by a Suns team since Steve Nash’s SSOL burst onto the scene in 2004-05. They lead the league by a wide margin in assist percent (67.1% of all shots were assisted), are 2nd in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.81 to 1), 3rd in effective field goal percentage (55% eFG), 3rd in true shooting percentage (59% TS) and have the league’s 3rd best offensive rating (110.9 points per 100 possessions).
“We moved the ball,” point guard Ricky Rubio said. “When we were making shots, of course, that helps. We kept moving the ball even when we weren’t making our shots. We played super unselfish. That is super fun to play.”
“You’ve got to credit and respect when it’s due,” All Star Nets guard Kyrie Irving said. “You know they came out, really attacking our defense and our switching.”
The Suns starting back court of Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker had incredible games.
Rubio had 22 points (10-16 shooting), 12 assists (0 turnovers) and a pair of steals. He now has season averages on points, rebounds and assists (13.6 points, 8.6 assists, 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals per game) not approximated in Phoenix since the days of young Jason Kidd.
Booker had 29 points (10-14 shooting, 4-5 threes) and 9 assists (2 turnovers) and now averages 25.8 points and 5.4 assists per game with 54/53/93 shooting splits which make him by far the most efficient 25-point scorer in the league.
“Ricky is a great facilitator. He made a couple of his first shots early and got into a rhythm and Devin is Devin,” Nets center DeAndre Jordan said after the game. “He can score the basketball pretty much at all three levels of the court. When he’s aggressive, they’re a great team.”
But the Suns would not be 6-3 against one of the league’s toughest schedules if not for their 11th-ranked defense, which by design ranks highly in both defending the paint and defending the three-point line despite having what many considered below average athletes at most positions.
At the center of that defense is Aron Baynes, whose only downfall is nightly foul trouble (he had three by the end of the half and five overall).
“He’s the anchor,” Williams said of Baynes. “Even the fouls he got, he was trying to take a charge. Our guys know when Aron is in the game, they’re going to know the coverages on defense, he’s going to be vertical at the rim if he’s not blocking a shot, he’s going to board, and it’s good to have that kind of security blanket down there.”
On the wing, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mikal Bridges are locking down opponents, while point guards are being stifled by Ricky Rubio and backup Jevon Carter. But the Suns defense is not all about individual defenders, just like their offense isn’t just about individual scorers.
The whole team plays disciplined on both ends of the court, rotating well and helping each other from the outside in on defense and cutting and moving the ball constantly on offense. The offense gets a lot of credit but it’s the defensive schemes and concepts that hold those leads against really tough NBA competition.
“It is business,” star guard Devin Booker said. “We are all locked in – we are all tuned in. That is from top to bottom from everybody on the coaching staff, from every player, to the video coordinator. We are tuned in right now.”
Of the nine games on the Suns schedule so far, they have thoroughly beaten three bad teams (Warriors, Grizzlies, Kings) while winning two of three against playoff-level East teams (76ers, Heat, Nets) and one of three against some of the very best Western teams (Clippers, Nuggets and Jazz). And those two losses to top West teams were by one point each.
The Suns have the league’s 4th-highest point differential (7.8 per game) in the entire league after nine games.
Coming up this week are two more tough tests at home against the West-leading Lakers and East-leading Celtics.
Watch the highlights here, in case you missed the game.