On January 27, just 19 days ago, the feeling in Phoenix was much different than it is now. The Phoenix Suns sat at 8-8 after a home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team had mustered only 10 points in the 2nd quarter as Devin Booker was out with hamstring issues. Many of us were turning to each other with shrugged shoulders and wondered what the Suns were.
The expectations of this team were not being met. It was a team without an identity and a squad without cohesion; inconsistency being their only consistent attribute. We had seen flashes of what they could be when they spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day winning back-to-back games against the Jazz and the Nuggets on the road. We watched and were puzzled by losses to the lowly Pistons and Wizards.
After that OKC loss, we were at a loss. This wasn’t going to be another lackluster season for Phoenix, was it?
Fast forward two-and-a-half weeks later and Phoenix is hitting their stride. The team has won six consecutive games and nine of their last 10.
Since falling to the .500 mark, they have posted a 9-1 record. Only the league-best Utah Jazz have matched that record. They have defeated top-tier teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. They have dispatched the Cavaliers, Pistons and Wizards the way they should. They are leading the league as they are shooting 51% during the streak.
How have they turned the tide? What has happened in their last 6 games, outside of sleeping in their own beds, that has changed the course of this team? Seeing as it is now 6 in a row, here are 6 reasons for you to contemplate the answers to those questions.
#1: It Starts with the Point God
How many of you know how to drive a manual transmission? It takes some getting used to, correct?
I’ll tell you from personal experience, when I chose to purchase a 1992 Eagle Talon TSi from a friend when I was 17, it was quite the journey getting that turbocharged beast home. I was stalling and sputtering down Indian School Road, my hand embarrassingly waving cars past as I labored. I just couldn’t get her into first gear.
As my first week of ownership went along, I gradually became used to the intricacies of the vehicle. Every stick is the same but everyone is different as well. It’s all about the sweet spot as you let your foot off the clutch and you press the gas pedal. The hardest thing is learning the temperament of the clutch; from there it’s smooth sailing.
For the first 16 games of the season, Chris Paul was testing the clutch. This isn’t something abnormal as he did the same thing last year with OKC. The Thunder, under the guidance of CP3, started the 2019-20 campaign with a 6-10 record. From that point on the team went 38-10 and earned a spot in the NBA playoffs.
The Point God has learned how to drive this team and the result has been victories. During the Suns win streak (in which Paul has played 5 games after he sat out against Cleveland) he has done a stellar job picking and choosing his spots to exert his offensive capabilities.
Since the winning streak began, Chris Paul is finding himself open to take the shot.
- In the first 20 games of the season, Paul was open (defender within 4 to 6 feet of him) or wide open (defender 6 feet or more away from him) on 66.7% of his field goal attempts. He shot 48.8% on those shots.
- During the streak he is open/wide open on 75.7% of his attempts and shooting 50.9%.
While he averaged 16.3 points and 8.5 assists during the first 20, he has bumped his affinity to call his own number during the streak, averaging 18.6 and 7.4. Why? Because that is what defenses are giving him.
I asked Deandre Ayton if he's still trying to find his timing on the pick and roll with Chris Paul, and instead of commenting on himself he said it's going well because the defenses are deciding to leave Chris Paul open every time on Paul's favorite shot, the middy— Dave King (@DaveKingNBA) February 15, 2021
Paul has increased his three-point attempts by 11%, from 26.1% of his shot attempts to 37.1%. Because the shot is there. Again, that is what the defense is giving him. He has learned how to create opportunity for his fellow teammates, and when he does this effectively, he is the player who is open. When the ball whips back around to him, he is standing all alone with a clear view of the basket.
While he shot 33.8% from deep in the first 20, he has shot 42.3% during the streak. When he is wide open from beyond the arc he is shooting a savage 66.7%.
#2: The Return of All-Star Booker
While Chris Paul was learning how to move the Suns’ machine into first gear, Devin Booker was busy trying to figure out how to be a good shotgun passenger. For the past 4 seasons, this has been Booker’s team. For better or worse, he was the pilot, trying to guide this franchise towards the playoffs.
I’m not the best passenger. I like to be in control. I’m the guy who is checking the mirrors every time you change lanes, tenses up every time you merge, and complains when you don’t use your blinker (PSA: use your blinker. It takes no effort).
Booker welcomed Chris Paul when he joined the team in November. In order for this team to be successful, Devin would have to relinquish some control. It is something he surely welcomed. Carrying the world on your shoulders is a tiring task.
Yet as this transfer of ball dominant power occurred, Booker was trying to find himself. He didn’t know if he show be playmaking Book or scoring Book. There are games he was caught in between.
In recent games, that has changed. Booker has found his groove and he and CP3 are playing together at an elite level. His statistics and shot confidence proves this:
- Suns first 20: 23.1 points, 3.8 assists, 34.0% from three, 3.9 turnovers
- Suns last 6: 28.3 points, 5.7 assists, 43.8% from three, 2.7 turnovers
The Suns played a total 692 minutes in which both Booker and Paul were available in the first 20, and the duo shared the court for 382 of those minutes (55.2%). The two were a -46 together. In the last 6, knowing that the two have played 5 of those games together, there were 240 minutes available. They’ve shared the court for 125 minutes and are a +45.
The Monsters of the Mid-range will only get better, but it is clear that the corner has been turned, and Booker is enjoying the fruits of riding shotgun.
#3: Monty’s Navigation of the Power Forward Position
It’s hard to believe that inserting Frank Kaminsky into the starting lineup, despite games in which the matchup would lead you to believe otherwise, has worked out as well as it has. The decision Monty Williams made has brought balance to The Force. The Suns are 6-0 in games in which he starts.
Something I noticed in yesterday’s Magic game - the Suns were very good at switching Kaminsky onto Vucevic after Ayton got switched off him, and Vucevic briefly had a mismatch with Paul guarding him. Good communication.— Xin Varlock (@XinNBA) February 15, 2021
His metrics don’t jump off the page at you: 8.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists. The intangible contribution he has produced is egoless basketball. That is not to say that Jae Crowder or Cameron Johnson have ego issues. The decision to start Frank further amplifies the fact that they don’t.
During the streak, Kaminsky has averaged 22.5 minutes played. Johnson has averaged 23.1 and Crowder has averaged 27.9. Monty Williams has taken the power forward position, a roster spot that some believe is a weakness, and created a continual balanced attack. He has done so via managing their minutes in a harmonious manner.
Combined, the trio produces 27.5 points, 18.5 rebounds and 6 assists. They are collectively shooting 40% from beyond the arc and have a 58.0 true shooting percentage. That sustained offense throughout the game creates trouble for the opposition. You can focus on Booker and Paul all you want, but when the fourth or fifth scoring option on the team is producing points at such an efficient rate, it’s hard to beat.
#4: How They Start
How you start a game is vitally important. Like the games early in the season, it is the foundation. When the Suns are playing an undermanned Orlando team, you can give them no hope. Early in the season Phoenix did just that: allowed lesser competition to gain confidence.
A byproduct of Kaminsky’s insertion into the starting lineup is the way Phoenix has started games. The Suns were a team that had a hard time finding their footing early on. Their 27.2 points in the first quarter through the first 20 games was 22nd in the league and netted a +0.7 (14th).
The overall scoring hasn't changed drastically in the first; they at 28.5 points during the streak (good for 14th in the league). Their +/-, however, is 5th at +4.0. What is more impressive is the advanced metrics in the first quarter as of late:
- First 20: 107.1 OFFRTG (21st), 105.4 DEFRTG (7th), NETRTG +1.7 (14th)
- Last 6: 117.5 OFFRTG (10th), 101.4 DEFRTG (5th), NETRTG: +16.6 (5th)
A weakness of the Suns has become a strength. The lever that Monty pulled has created a selfless starting lineup that effectively scores, plays team defense, and builds a foundation for the remainder of the game. Suns starters are +2.5 (5th in the league) in the first quarter during the streak compared to the +0.1 (15th in the league) they posted in the first 20 first quarters.
Good morning.— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) February 15, 2021
The only two NBA teams to rank top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating, as of today:
#5: Owning the Paint
Early in the season I found myself too often yelling at the TV, “get the board!” Rebounds produce possessions, and possessions are needed to win. I’m not stating anything we don’t know. When you are focused on rebounding and scoring in the paint, you generate high-percentage points.
Through the peaks and valleys of the first 20 games, Phoenix was in love with the three-ball. They were 8th in the NBA with the frequency in which they shot the super shot (42.6% of all shots came from deep) but 22nd in percentage made (35.1%).
In recent games the Suns have changed the focus from the outside to the inside. Over the past 6 games the team in 24th in frequency (34.6%). Their 38.2% from three is 16th in the league. They have improved in this metric, but seeing as they shoot less, it allows for an increase in efficient shots.
They have raised their 2PT% from 53.5% (14th) to 58.2% (2nd) in the same timeframe. A primary reason for this increase is their offensive rebounding. When you hit the glass, you create second chance opportunities, most of them in the paint.
Phoenix was in the middle of the pack relative to total rebounding (44.1/18th) and defensive rebounding (35.6/9th) through the first 20 games. They were near the bottom of league in offensive rebounding (8.5/26th). While the team avoided falling in love with the deep ball, their presence in the paint increased. Since the winning streak began, Phoenix is 7th in total rebounding (46.5), 8th in defensive rebounding (36.5), and 14th in offensive rebounding (10.0).
A team that scored 36.3% of their points in the paint (27th) through the first 20 has scored 45.2% of their points (6th) in the area since.
#6: Confidence and Depth
I’ve been throwing analogies and advanced stats at you for the better part of 1,800 words. Thank you for making it this far.
That last reason Phoenix has won 6 straight? This team in confident. There is no metric I can give you that forties this observation. But when you watch them play, you see it. They past the eye test. They went from a team that didn’t know how to put the car in first gear to a team that is challenging other drivers to drag race down Camelback Road, from Arcadia Drive through 56th Street and on to the Phoenician. Oops. Another analogy.
The way Monty has this team playing, focusing on high percentage shot selection, not allowing themselves to hang their heads when they are down, avoiding their love affair with the three-ball; it is empowering the players to play within the confines of the offense. They are executing his vision.
The depth of this team is an extension of it's confidence. Every player who enters the game has something to contribute, something unique to add. They are relentless due to the maturity that that likes of E’Twaun Moore, Dario Saric, Langston Galloway, and Jae Crowder bring. They are professional basketball players looking to contribute versus rookies looking to develop like in years past.
From a statistical standpoint, the Suns bench has not been as effective as they were earlier in the season. They were 23rd in the league with 33.6 points and 42.4 FG%. Since the win streak began they have fallen to 26th with 30.8 points and 24th with 41.9 FG%. Note that their +/- is 2.6, 5th in the league. Oops. More stats.
Phoenix can beat you in numerous ways. Of that I am confident.
This team is firing on all cylinders.
We posed the question on the last Suns JAM Session Podcast whether or not this team is better than the legendary Bubble Suns and their 8-0 run. The conclusion? Yes. They are taking the best punches from teams like the Boston Celtics, the Bucks, and the Sixers. They’re absorbing those blows and countering with deadly efficiency. They are putting their foot on the throat of weaker teams, daring them to counter. They are winning and it’s fun to watch.
We’ll see what happens on Tuesday night vs. the Nets, but regardless of the outcomes, this team is humming.
Hop in your car, release the clutch, pop that baby into first and enjoy the ride.
Which of the 6 reasons above do you think is the primary cause of the Suns’ recent success?
This poll is closed
It Starts with the Point God
The Return of All-Star Booker
Monty’s Navigation of the Power Forward Position
How They Start
Owning the Paint
Confidence and Depth