Just a week ago, the Bright Side staff heavily used the term “rock bottom” after back-to-back home Phoenix Suns losses to the lowly Detroit Pistons and Golden State Warriors dropped the Suns to 11-22 at home this season.
Now this Monday, we are trying not to overuse “best wins of the season,” after a pair of dominating, wire-to-wire wins against good teams. The Suns are now 26-38 — still in 13th in the West, but no longer losing ground on the teams above them. They are only two games out of No. 9.
The Suns drained 19 three-pointers in back-to-back games for the first time in the team’s storied 52-year history, beating the Portland Trail Blazers, 127-117, and Milwaukee Bucks, 140-131. The team’s 140 points on Sunday against the league’s best defense is a shocker, and is the highest point total for the franchise since 2010. Their 47 first quarter points is a high this year for an opening quarter, second only to the 48-point third quarter in Dallas earlier this year, and their 77 first half points is a high for any half this season.
Yes, the Suns beat the Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo, but don’t cry for the Bucks, as your home team was missing two of its own best players and four rotation players overall.
How did the Suns go from rock bottom to sky high?
No one has a clear answer, though the players and coach were asked. It’s clear, though, that the players and team were just as devastated as we were by those losses a week ago.
“We were mentally weak,” Mikal Bridges said last Saturday in the wake of that collapse against Golden State. That loss dropped the Suns to 0-3 on the home stand and more than six games out of a playoff picture they fancied themselves in all season.
“There are expectations now, every game,” head coach Monty Williams had said Tuesday before the Raptors game.
Monty was gently trying to explain why the players might be struggling with mental and physical exhaustion in recent games, that this is the first time for some of them — Devin Booker especially — to have the expectation to win on a nightly basis for four months straight. Booker was excellent the first three months, setting unprecedented highs in true shooting and offensive output resulting in his first All-Star nod, but had struggled for the past month.
“I guess it’s weak to say it, but the players probably took the loss of Kelly too hard,” Monty Williams said of the three straight dispirited losses at home in the wake of Kelly Oubre Jr.’s knee injury.
But I guess they snapped out of it.
The resurgence began against the Toronto Raptors. They lost, but played with great energy, and nearly pulled out the win over one of the league’s best teams playing some of their best basketball.
And this time, when yet another injury threatened to kill new momentum (Ayton’s ankle), the Suns decided not to buckle.
Three days later, the Suns now have perhaps their most impressive back-to-back wins of the season, and they did it on their home court, in front of excited, win-starved fans finally given a reason to out-cheer the bandwagoners there to see the road team.
The Suns have struggled all year to win home games, with a 11-22 record as of last Friday vs. 13-16 on the road. Big road wins include the Blazers, Celtics, Mavericks and Jazz, while the only big home wins before this weekend were in opening week (Clippers, Kings) and that 36-point win over the Rockets. The Suns lead the league with eight one-possession losses, with seven of those coming at home.
My favorite explanation of what happened comes from Mikal Bridges, who shared the stage with Aron Baynes in the post-game presser.
“We got some tough road wins, because we know it’s just us against the world out there,” Bridges said. “It’s like all right the refs might get them some calls when they’re at home, the crowd getting all hype, we’re going to be that team to just go in there and just stun them and hear that drop in the crowd as they get real quiet.”
He says it’s tougher to just be “us against the world” at home, because you’ve got all the support from the crowd and things are just supposed to go your way at home. This thinking might also explain the Suns players’ extra frustration at bad calls on their home court.
Bridges says, over the last few games since the mentally weak comments, he’s now starting to see that look in each other’s eyes at home — us against the world — that they used to only see on the road.
Monty Williams said the same thing, that he’s seeing more resolve in the huddle from the players.
Bridges gives Aron Baynes a lot of credit. Not just for the scoring, but mostly for the defense and the encouragement of his teammates when he makes a good play.
“Baynes is probably the biggest person on this team,” Bridges said. “Every play, every huddle. It’s kinda cool having older guys, if you do a good play, they’re like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ Baynes does that a lot. I kinda feel like I’m back in my younger days in college, when (older guys) were gassing me up when I did something pretty good.”
Bridges helped Villanova win two championships in three years, the first as a complementary player and the second as one of the team’s best. Bridges was drafted highest of all his Villanova teammates during his time there, but he still credits those players for making him better.
Watch this great post-game tandem presser with Baynes and Bridges.
And make sure to watch all the way to the end to hear Bridges describe his excitement when Baynes made his first two threes of the game on Sunday. It’s pretty awesome!
If you want to watch more post-game pressers, here you go.
Booker on the box-and-one D he’s facing, finally breaking out of his scoring slump, and the team’s new resolve in close games at home.
“Even when we are up a lot, we are still playing the right way,” Booker said. “Even when they make a run, we are still playing the right way. We need to stick with it.”
Rubio on his triple-double, the big win, and Mikal Bridges development this season. And the fact that the Suns keep fighting despite all the injuries and things not going their way.
“On this home stand, we were six games, expecting big things, pushing for a playoff,” Rubio said. “That didn’t happen the first four, but we didn’t quit. There’s a lot of games left. You know, we screwed up a lot of games, but we are still in the race.”
And on the improved play recently being about attitude and body language.
“When you see the body language doesn’t change,” Rubio said of teammates’ reactions to bad plays or opponent runs. “It helps pick them up next time.”
Suns play at Portland on Tuesday night, looking to win the season series 3-1.
“We get to see Portland again soon,” Booker said. “I know they will be looking for revenge after last game between us. We just need to keep going.”
Rubio on next game: “Don’t put any expectations. Go game by game. Don’t look ahead. 18 games, one game at a time.”