This Phoenix Suns team, despite winning at a 72% clip, is not objectively exciting. You don’t see highlight plays all over the wire. No windmill dunks, no logo threes, no megawatt smiles or shimmy shakes.
What you get is quiet and steady. Chris Paul is famous for getting angry after bad plays but nary a smile cracks after good ones. Devin Booker has always been stoic after good plays. Center Deandre Ayton would rather ‘wall up’ an MVP candidate than swing wildly for the block. Mikal Bridges in-game expression is best described as bemused. Cameron Johnson’s is an introspective frown. Deandre Ayton. Dario Saric. The list goes on.
What you get is toughness. The Suns use similar words, like resilience and treadmill mentality.
“We have a saying: Everything counts,” head coach Monty Williams said after the win over the Bucks on Monday, adding one more cliché to the growing list of clichés that all track back to the first one: Everything you want is on the other side of hard.
‘Everything counts’ was referring to Langston Galloway — who’s completely lost his rotation spot — jumping up from the bench and helping Mikal Bridges back to his feet after a driving layup and subsequent hit from the Bucks’ Donte De’Vincenzo. As the ball was still live, and the Bucks were heading back down on offense. Thanks to Galloway, Bridges was able to get back on defense early in the shot clock with the rest of his team.
The catch phrases are adding up for the best Suns team in a very long time, now 41-16 with a strong hold on the No. 2 spot in the West as they approach the playoffs. Even if the Suns lose out, they have already guaranteed a spot in the play-in tournament because they cannot finish any worse than 10th seed even if they lose all 15 remaining games.
Do the next right thing mentality.
These mantras have helped the Suns rack up the league’s 3rd best net rating (points scored/allowed per 100 possessions) and they are one of only three teams (Bucks, Jazz) with offense and defense both ranked in the top 10. The Suns are 4-0 against the Bucks and Jazz this year, including three clutch wins and a blowout.
“It’s our culture, we don’t give up,” 22-year old center Deandre Ayton said of the Suns coming back from deficits multiple times against the Bucks. “We have a lot of relentlessness on this team...It’s just part of our culture, fighting through adversity. We always say anything you want is on the other side of hard so that’s what we did.“
The Suns have played the second-most clutch minutes (136 minutes) in the league this year, defined as a game within 5 points either way with 5 or fewer minutes left in regulation. Their record in the clutch is now 18-11. For those keeping track, that’s an 8-game winning streak in clutch situations after starting 10-11 in such games. What that tells us is the the team is gelling, and that they know who can do what in tight situations a lot better than they did earlier this year.
“It’s really a team,” Chris Paul said. “Big shots. I think everybody expects me or Book… but Jae [Crowder] hit the big three. Mikal [Bridges] hit a big three. DA, his fight. Everybody plays a part when we win a game.”
“It was everything that the playoffs are,” an exhilarated Monty Williams said. “Emotional, physical, players making plays, late game situations. It was all of that. And the resiliency and relentless attitude that we showed down the stretch, on the road, in overtime, says a lot about the character of the guys in our locker room. Not just winning the game, but just kind of staying with it when the whistle didn’t go our way.”
Over the past month, the Suns offense has been much better in the clutch. Whereas earlier in the year, the most common play was ‘give the ball to Book or CP and get out of the way’ in the last four minutes, on Monday night we only saw that once — at the end of overtime, in a tie game, with the ball in Devin Booker’s hands.
“We tried to get the matchup that we wanted,” Williams said. “But Jrue — I coached him in New Orleans — he’s one of the best on ball defenders I’ve ever seen. He knew what we were trying to do but he wasn’t going to give in to it. We tried to get the matchup that we wanted, and it just didn’t work out. Thankfully the result was better than expected.”
The Suns tried at least three screens to switch a more questionable defender onto Book for the play, but all-league defender Jrue Holiday worked hard to reject the switches. Booker poked and prodded and finally drew a shooting foul with 0.3 seconds left to win the game on a free throw.
“You hate that for a guy, but I heard the slap,” Monty said of the foul, that occurred right in front of the Suns bench. “I heard contact right there in front of me, I just didn’t know what time it happened.”
Here’s a few stats that are supposed to tell you if a team is a real or fake.
- Can they win on the road? 18-7 record, best in the NBA
- Can they beat good teams? 21-7 record against teams currently with winning record, best in the NBA
- Can they win tight games? 18-11 clutch record, fifth-best in the NBA, and have an 8-game winning streak in such games
I could go on, but those results already tell you what you need to know: these Suns are very very good.
But can they win in the playoffs?
We don’t know yet, until they actually do. While I don’t
ever often always agree with Shaq in his TNT analysis, the whole panel is right when they say the Suns have to prove it.
They are absolutely right. The lower seeds are salivating at the chance to play the Suns in the first round. The middle and upper seeds are making assumptions about their ability to beat the Suns.
Why? Because the league has never seen this core even play a playoff game together let alone win one.
Chris Paul is still seen as a playoffs loser. Devin Booker as a one-dimensional scorer. Deandre Ayton as a failure best known as the guy not named Luka. All the rest are viewed as role players. Only Paul and Crowder have even SEEN the Conference Finals.
They have to prove it. To everyone.