The script had flipped in Phoenix, at least for a moment in time over the last few weeks.
After snapping their franchise-record 17-game losing streak against the Miami Heat on Feb. 25, the Phoenix Suns continued to ride the momentum instead of letting it slip through their fingertips again.
Phoenix then rattled off wins soon thereafter against dominant teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors while also being the team to officially put the nail in the coffin of the Los Angeles Lakers’ playoff hopes after LeBron James turned on “Playoff Mode” early.
How did the Suns get into this position after bungling game after game due to their incapabilities of finishing? Well, the main step taken was identifying the problem and admitting the issues.
Tyler Johnson, their newest addition to the team, openly told his new teammates that people around the Association viewed the Suns as a laughingstock. If you play hard for 48 minutes, they will ultimately fold in on themselves. That seemed to wake these young Suns up, and it also helps that Johnson was a solid NBA player instead of below-average.
What happened next was awesome to see, because Phoenix won five of their next eight games. Even once Johnson was sidelined with his knee injury, the Suns pulled off a crazy overtime win in New Orleans. The two main catalysts during this stretch, outside of their two main building blocks in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, were actually Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr.
Instead of being near the bottom of all advanced team metrics, Phoenix rose to 16th in overall net rating outscoring teams by 0.2 points per 100 possessions. The Suns were playing like a top-notch offense while also holding their end at adeuquent levels defensively (OffRtg = 12th, DefRtg = 19th).
However, as you all know, the injury bug derailed this train before it could set its sights on finishing the final month out strong.
First up was the aforementioned Johnson injury, which popped up out of nowhere. Following the trek to Utah on Mar. 13, Johnson hasn’t suited up since. Then, less than a week later, Oubre Jr. hurts his thumb and is required to have season-ending surgery to fix it. Without Johnson, the Suns have won one game. With Oubre Jr. also in street clothes alongside the former Heat combo guard, they’ve haven’t won the past three outings versus Chicago, Detroit and Sacramento.
Just like that, the momentum was zapped away from this squad before they could really spread their wings. Josh Jackson also recently fell victim to an injury (ankle sprain), while T.J. Warren has remained sidelined since January (sore right ankle).
Missing this many pieces to their roster has forced the Suns’ coaching staff to began using a skeleton crew of sorts for depth. Ray Spalding is now playing as a stretch four, even though he’s a center, while Dragan Bender’s minutes have substantially increased in the absence of Oubre Jr. and Jackson.
Even Jimmer Fredette — yes the college basketball legend who’s already 30 years old — is playing for the Suns now due to how little options are left. Outside of Booker and Ayton, no currently healthy player is willing to chuck up double-digit shot attempts per game.
With little help, Phoenix might fall back into the cycle of losing to finish out the season, but I know what happened earlier this month definitely wasn’t any sort of mirage. The Suns had turned the corner beating the NBA’s two biggest juggernauts from each conference in impressive fashion.
Did you know that the Suns’ 5-man lineup of Johnson, Booker, Mikal Bridges, Oubre Jr. and Ayton was one of the most potent units over their last eight games together before it was suddenly taken away? These five players were wreaking havoc on opposing teams to the tune of carrying a plus-26.6 net rating in 48 minutes, which features unreal offensive (133.0 OffRtg) and defensive (101.3 DefRtg) production that might make you do a double-take.
In the end, Phoenix’s closing combination ranked No. 2 from Feb. 25 - Mar. 13 in terms of net rating (minimum 45 minutes). The only team that finished ahead of them was Toronto at plus-27.2, whose lineup featured Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka. However, there is one big difference that separates those two units: efficiency. The Raptors’ lineup carried a true shooting percentage of 57.0 while the Suns’ registered way ahead of them at 67.7 percent.
Down the final month of the schedule for the Suns, before the never-ending list of injuries, they were set up to finish over .500 since the All-Star break. Plenty of tanking teams were on tap, but that’s all for not after losing two vital cogs in Johnson and Oubre Jr. while overall depth also continues to be depleted elsewhere.
Trust me, even though we’re located in the desert, you weren’t hallucinating when you saw the Suns turning the corner. It was actually happening, but luck just wasn’t on their side when it came to health.
Now, with another likely top-3 pick incoming while also having the flexibility to open up more cap space to make win-now moves, this offseason is setting up for one that absolutely needs to work from all avenues.
If anybody wants to look back on the Suns’ most successful portion of the season, and how that could be the springboard to flipping that switch in 2019-20, refer to the two-week campaign stretching from the end of February to the middle of March.