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How the Phoenix Suns have topped the Western Conference

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The Phoenix Suns have used defense, clutch shotmaking and balanced scoring to win 5 of 6 games.

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There aren’t your old Phoenix Suns, that’s for sure.

After winning a ‘schedule loss’ game in Denver at altitude, their fifth game in seven days, on a back-to-back, your Phoenix Suns stand at the top of the Western Conference with a 5-1 record.

Yes, it’s early but when was the last time the Phoenix Suns had the best record in the Western Conference after 5+ games? Try 11 years, when they were 8-1 on November 11, 2009. You can enjoy this moment Suns fans.

The Suns are winning these games with a focus on defense, clutch shot-making, and egalitarian scoring.

Swarming defense

  • fewest points per game allowed (98.7)
  • 2nd fewest three-point attempts allowed per game (28.3)
  • fewest made three-pointers allowed per game (8.5)
  • fewest assists per game allowed (20)
  • 4th fewest opponents offensive rebounds per game (8.2)

This is against five opponents who are no offensive slouches: Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings (2), New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets. The Mavericks had the best offense in league history last year, the Kings are off to a great start, the Jazz were the league’s best three point shooting team last year and the Nuggets were 6th on offense coming into Friday’s game.

According to ESPN’s complicated strength of schedule calculation, the Suns have played the toughest schedule to date.

These guys like to play defense, They’re taking a cue from 9-time All-NBA Defensive guard Chris Paul to step up even harder than their 4th-ranked defense in the Bubble in July and August. Paul gets the headlines, but Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter are all lock-down defenders while the rest of the rotation are average to above average.

Even Devin Booker, long derided for his defensive effort, is cooking on that end this year. He is sixth in the entire league in total defensive win shares this season (Mikal is first)!

I know, I know, advanced stats are boring and sometimes misleading. I myself have peshawed defensive win shares because it’s presented as an individual stat but heavily dependent on the team’s overall defense. For example, Mikal is #1 this year so far but was #43 a year ago and he was just as excellent a year ago on defense.

Will these gaudy team defense numbers hold up all year long? Most likely not. But I do think the Suns can maintain a top-10 defense all year simply because of their will and resolve to make that a staple in their game plan.

Clutch shot making

The Suns have played three games in the clutch so far this season among their six games, and won two of those three.

In the wins, both Chris Paul and Devin Booker have come up big, making important one on one shots against the defense’s best efforts. They’ve also gotten important steals or stops.

The one loss, to the Sacramento Kings (3-2), was punctuated by big man Richaun Holmes getting to the offensive glass and finishing a couple of times in the final two minutes.

When asked about the Suns great start, Chris Paul’s immediate answer was “We shoulda beat Sac.”

Paul is one of the best clutch players in the NBA and led a worse Thunder team to the best clutch rating a year ago, while Booker has a half-dozen game winners under his belt.

The Suns are in good hands in close games.

Balanced scoring

Devin Booker’s offensive numbers are down a bit. So are Chris Paul’s and Deandre Ayton’s. Yet the Suns are 12th in the league on offense thanks to contributions — by design — from other parts of the rotation.

The Suns have six different players averaging double figures in scoring, with Cameron Payne just behind them at 8.5.

Mikal Bridges is averaging a career high in points (15.3, 2nd highest on the team), shots (10.0) and three-point shooting (50%). Cameron Johnson is 3rd in scoring with a career-high 13.5 points per game (43% 3P shooting). CamWOW’s 43% shooting on 3s is only fourth on the team so far, behind Cam Payne (46%), Langston Galloway (50%) and Bridges (50%). And we haven’t even seen E’Twaun Moore yet, a career 40% three point shooter.

Can these supporting players sustain their big shooting? Maybe not. Probably not. But then the stars will step up their games and carry the load. Booker is objectively off to a slow offensive start, averaging only 20.5 points (34% on threes) and 3.8 assists per game against almost 6 turnovers. Chris Paul is putting up only 13.2 points (33% on threes) and 8.7 assists. Deandre Ayton is scoring just 12 points per game. All those will rise over the course of the season to make up for any falloff from the supporting cast.

Bottom line

Enjoy these moments, Suns fans. They don’t come often enough, so make sure you don’t spend all your time worried about what’s not going quite right yet. And enjoy what IS going right.

After six games, the Suns are best in the West!