The Phoenix Suns began the season with two noted “closers” in their starting backcourt, but stumbled out of the gates with a series of terrible fourth quarter performances and a disappointing 8-8 record.
Since then, the Suns have won six of their last seven games and now sit at 14-9, good for 4th overall in the rugged Western Conference — off to a faster start than any Suns team in a decade.
But between the 8-8 start and the 6-1 current run, they haven’t made any noticeable leaps in total ratings on offense, defense or net total.
1. 4th Quarter Improvement
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The Suns performance closing out games has dramatically improved.
Over the first 16 games, the Suns had a very poor minus-8 rating in the 4th period which put them down all the way at 6th-worst in the whole league. They failed to overcome any deficits entering the 4th (0-5), and even failed to hold onto a third of their leads (8-3).
Since then, the Suns have reversed course with a plus-12 net rating, which ranks 9th in the league over that span. They overcame three deficits entering the 4th (3-1) and closed out all three games when entering the 4th with the lead (3-0).
But again, as I mentioned above, there’s been hardly a blip in their overall net rating. It’s not like they’ve suddenly begun to hit on all cylinders. During their 6-1 run, the Suns rank just 13th in ‘net rating’ (point differential per 100 possessions, roughly a full game balanced for pace).
You could just chalk it up to making the right shots at crucial times, or regression to the mean. For the season, the Suns are now 3-6 when entering the 4th with a deficit, and 11-3 when they have the lead to start the quarter. That’s a good team. Not a great team, but definitely a good team.
Have the last 7 games just been easy? Not exactly. They have beaten the Mavericks twice (admittedly scuffling, but a pair of wins in Dallas in one weekend is impressive), the surging Warriors and a quality Celtics and (yes) Cavaliers. No world beating teams, to be sure, but all are playoff contenders.
2. Surviving Injuries
There’s more to the story than Booker and Paul suddenly becoming good closers again.
Somehow, the Suns are winning while absorbing a growing number of injuries. In the weekend three-game winning streak, the Suns were without 3-5 rotation players each time. On Monday, their starting lineup included Frank Kaminsky, who was a street free agent days before the season opener, and E’Twaun Moore, who had barely seen the court all year until last week. That they are giving real minutes to the 11th-14th guys on the roster and still winning says a lot about their moxie as the season progresses.
A year ago, when injuries hit the team, they lost 16 of 20 games right after a 7-4 start. This year, they are getting back up after that hit and punching right back.
The signings of E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway, plus the trade acquisition of Chris Paul and Abdel Nader has solidified the depth of the team to withstand a half dozen injuries at once.
3. Balancing the attack
Now the payoff, in the form of a colorful picture.
After getting three-happy for a while, the Suns have decidedly begun to balance their offensive attack in this last seven games.
They have dramatically improved their points in the paint (26th to 14th), on fast breaks (26th to 12th) and at the free throw (27th to 18th) line during this good run of wins, while reducing their dependency on making threes as most of their offense (from 5th all the way down to 26th).
Part of that is missing one of Chris Paul or Devin Booker in half those games, reducing the Suns playmaking abilities to set up open threes. And part of that is the Suns concerted efforts as a team get to the rim as often as possible.
They are focusing on becoming less predictable all game, which has allowed them to stay alive even as their three-point proficiency has plummeted. And when you’re less predictable, getting scores in different places from different players, the opponent defense can’t lock you down in the fourth quarter as easily.
All this could be luck, or simply the ups and downs of a season that naturally happen. A 7-3 start, followed by 1-5 stretch, followed by the 6-1 current run.
Which Suns team is the real Suns team?
I don’t think we know. Are they the team whose second unit can be relied upon to win games for them when the starters are barely holding their own? Or are they the team that responded to missing threes by jacking up even more of them in vain?
Or, are they just still figuring things out?
Stay tuned in to find out.
Milwaukee Bucks (16-8) head to town for a prime time Wednesday night matchup.