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Suns Playoff Primer: The Suns are better, but to what end?

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Can the Suns possibly beat LeBron or Steph in round one?

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers

As another regular season ends for the Phoenix Suns, I woke up this morning ready to fire off some Bright Side analysis.

For the past ten years, I’ve managed this day the same: head down to the arena (or, log on to Zoom) and listen to a couple of hours of coach and player exit interviews.

These exit interviews always occur the morning after the season’s final regular season game, as the players head off like Santa Claus with a trash bag full of clothing and shoes to begin their summer off. They’ve already made their summer plans by now. Some are even literally heading straight to the airport from here.

Impending free agents give the right speech about how they’d love to come back next year, but they’ll let their agent deal with all the financial stuff. Returning players talk about how they’re going to work on every aspect of their game, get better at everything, and come back ready for a playoff run.

BUT THAT’S NOT HAPPENING TODAY AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MYSELF.

This time, the Phoenix Suns finished with the second-best record in the entire league, and will spend the next five days preparing for the first playoff appearance in eleven years.

Looking for reasons to be excited?

I’ve got them.

Home court advantage

They have home court advantage against every NBA team in the league except the Utah Jazz, who they would only play in the Conference Finals if both teams are still alive. Home court advantage means you start the series with two home games, and are scheduled to host up to four of the seven games.

Starting every series on your home court is a HUGE advantage. The Suns will have 10,000 screaming fans in the arena (still limited due to COVID protocols) and I’ve got to tell you that they sound louder than any full arena since I’ve been going to games. Fans are THIRSTY for big-time basketball!

The Suns have the second-best home record in the West (27-9), including winning 15 of their last 16 home games in front of a growing number of allowed attendance. Their last four home wins are over playoff-bound Blazers, Knicks, Jazz and Clippers.

They’ve also finished the year with the league’s best record (27-11) against teams with a winning record.

Great O and great D

The Suns are one of only four teams, along with the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks, with an offense and defense both ranked among the top 10 of the league.

The Suns have had good defenses before, like the Jason Kidd-Clifford Robinson years (1997-2001) and the Larry Nance years (early 80s) but those teams had middling offenses. They’ve had great offenses before, like the Nash-Marion-Stat years, but those defenses were merely average.

Do you know when’s the last time the Suns went into a playoffs with a top-10 offense AND top-10 defense?

If you guessed the Kevin Johnson — Tom Chambers — Jeff Hornacek — Dan Majerle years, you’re right!

  • 1988-89 — Offense: 2nd, Defense: 5th — Lost in the WCF
  • 1989-90 — Offense: 3rd, Defense: 6th — Lost in WCF
  • 1990-91 — Offense: 3rd, Defense: 8th — Lost in First Round
  • 1991-92 — Offense: 5th, Defense: 8th — Lost in Second Round

—traded Jeff Hornacek and others for Charles Barkley—

  • 1992-93 — Offense: 1st, Defense: 9th — Lost in NBA Finals

...

  • 2020-21 — Offense: 7th, Defense: 7th — tbd

The Suns have been good on both ends before, but as you can see it doesn’t guarantee playoff success. In three out of five years, they went at least as far as the Conference Finals, but twice they fell short including one loss in the first round.

Those two early playoff exits had a common theme: they could be bullied. Jeff Hornacek, a fixture on those early teams, has joked about being the one in the locker room in May 1992 saying they needed to get tougher, only to be the one traded for Barkley a few weeks later.

MVP-level leadership

Looking for a difference between the late-80s Suns and this team today? That late-80s fun and gun team had some All-Stars but did not have a true MVP candidate until they acquired Chuck in 1992. Your current Suns team has Chris Paul right here, coming off one of the best seasons of his long and storied career. Paul has been top-7 in MVP votes eight times already, and will likely make top-5 this year as well. Neither KJ nor Chambers finished higher than 7th in any year.

Worried that Chris Paul hasn’t carried anyone to a Finals? Well, neither did Chuck until he got to the Valley. Didn’t make him any less valuable.


Looking for reasons to worry?

If you’re one of those who can’t stop worrying, I’ll give you some things to worry about.

Slipping D

While the defense finished 7th-best in the league over the full season, they rank only 17th in the second half of the year (36 games) as their offense exploded to 2nd-best in that same span and, well, the wins just kept piling up anyway with the league’s best record at 26-10.

Even more worrisome is the trend:

  • First 36 games: 4th on defense
  • Second 36 games: 17th
  • Since April 1: 23rd
  • Since May 1: 26th

Did they just get lazy on defense because they were winning so easily (still had the league’s best record in that span)? Or did other teams figure them out? More likely the former. It’s easy to let your foot off the gas when you’re constantly leading on the scoreboard. The Suns have gone through some injuries to really good team defense players (Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson) that have impacted continuity a bit, but those guys should be healthy when the playoffs start.

I’m guessing a week of drills with Monty Williams and the coaching staff will help shore up any recent holes in that defense. But we won’t know until we see it.

Finals-level Opponent in the first round

Yeah, then there’s this.

The last six NBA Finals teams from the West are Stephen Curry’s Warriors (5) and LeBron James’ Lakers (1).

There hasn’t been a Finals without one or both of LeBron James and Stephen Curry in TEN YEARS.

LeBron has made 9 of the last 10 NBA Finals with three different teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers.

LeBron has a 9-year streak of making the Finals when his team has qualified for the playoffs. He has never lost in the first round.

Steph has a 5-year streak of making the Finals when his team has qualified for the playoffs. He has lost in the first round only once (2013-14).

LeBron (4) and Steph (2) have won 6 of the last 12 league MVP awards and will both be in the top 5 again this year, among those receiving votes.

The Suns will face one of those guys on Saturday for a seven-game series, to be determined by a play-in tilt on Wednesday night.

On a positive note, neither player has ever had such a low seed coming into the playoffs. Their teams are in disarray (Lakers) or just not good enough (Warriors) or they’d have never gotten this low. The Suns will be favored in either matchup.

Will these MVP candidates strap on their capes and carry their teams to victory again? Or will they lose to a better Suns team?

Stay tuned. Gonna be a wild ride!