Winning in the playoffs is hard. We all know this. It’s even harder when you aren’t playing good defense.
Since April 1, the Phoenix Suns have the best record in the NBA at 15-5 and they have the best offense in that time span as well, with a 118.5 offensive rating.
All is good, right? As Mike D’Antoni always said, the best defense is a better offense than the other guys. All you have to do is score more points than you give up.
But if the Suns want to go further than any Mike D team ever did, they will need to rediscover that defense they had earlier in the year. You simply don’t win championships with a bad defense.
Since April 1, the Suns defense ranks a woeful 21st in the league (113.2), worst by far among West contenders.
In that same span, the Jazz are 2nd on defense (107.4), Warriors 3rd (107.6), Lakers 6th (109.1), Clippers 9th (110.4), Mavericks 11th (110.8), Nuggets 13th (110.9) and even Portland is better than the Suns at 15th (112.1).
With just five games to go and a 3-game lead on the 3rd seed, it’s almost certain the Suns will start letting off the pressure even further to conserve energy for a playoff run. The problem with that is you continue bad habits, and the more you do those bad things the more ingrained the bad habit becomes.
You have seen the Suns win a couple of games this past week with high-pressure defense at key times — a 15-0 run to start the overtime against the Cavaliers and a 40-16 run to come back on the Knicks, but around those bursts the defensive effort has been lacking.
The biggest worry, of course, is how the Suns have defended the West playoff contenders since April 1 and/or their lack of exposure to West playoff contenders at all.
Let’s look their defensive numbers by game, since April 1:
- 4/2 vs. Thunder: 99.0 (W)
- 4/5 vs. Rockets: 123.8 (W)
- 4/7 vs. Jazz: 103.7 (W)
- 4/8 vs. Clippers: 125.6 (L)
- 4/10 vs. Wizards: 100.0 (W)
- 4/12 vs. Rockets: 115.4 (W)
- 4/13 vs. Heat: 86.9 (W)
- 4/15 vs. Kings: 120.0 (W)
- 4/17 vs. Spurs: 114.4 (L)
- 4/19 vs. Bucks: 112.4 (W)
- 4/21 vs. Sixers: 125.6 (W)
- 4/22 vs. Celtics: 101.1 (L)
- 4/25 vs. Nets: 125.6 (L)
- 4/26 vs. Knicks: 117.0 (W)
- 4/28 vs. Clippers: 111.0 (W)
- 4/30 vs. Jazz: 104.2 (W)
- 5/2 vs. Thunder: 120.0 (W)
- 5/4 vs. Cavaliers: 113.5 (W)
- 5/5 vs. Hawks: 143.6 (L)
- 5/7 vs. Knicks: 102.9 (W)
These last 20 games have been Eastern Conference and lottery-heavy to the extreme. They have only matched up against a West playoff team five times, and that’s only if you include the Spurs who are currently barely in the play-in picture at 10th.
The Suns are 3-2 in those games — not bad, but not great. Their defense in those five games has been pedestrian, only twice logging a defensive rating below their season average of 109.8 which is 6th best in the league.
What does this tell us about the Suns?
Again, I caveat ALL of this with the fact that the Suns have posted the league’s best record in these 20 games and have the league’s best offense by a full point and a half.
The worry is that they will assume too much with their offense, and not pay enough attention to defense in their preparation for the playoffs.
Watch how they play the Lakers (without LeBron James) tonight, Warriors on Tuesday and the Blazers on Thursday. Two of these teams are trying desperately to grab the 6th seed (Lakers at 37-28, Blazers at 37-29) to avoid the play-in or the 8th seed spot (Warriors at 33-33) to avoid having to win twice to make the playoffs.
Ironically, or is it interestingly?, the 2nd-seeded Suns will likely play one of these three teams in the first round of the playoffs, whoever gets the 7th seed after the play-in pitting 7 vs. 8.
Sure the Suns have two games next weekend against the Sours, but those will likely be meaningless. The Suns will likely have secured the 2nd seed by the weekend, while the Spurs likely will have cemented the 10th seed for the play-in. Both teams might rest players in the weekend back to back, and will be especially disinterested since there’s also zero chance they would see each other this postseason. The best the Spurs can do grab the 8th seed, which would not match up with the 2nd seed any sooner than the Conference Finals.
The simulators assume the Suns will play the winner of Lakers (7th, they think) vs. Warriors (8th, they think) play-in game for the right to face the Suns in round one.
That would leave the Blazers (6th, they think) to face the 3rd seed Clippers in round one for the right to face the Suns in round two.
The Lakers are reeling lately, but as long as LeBron James (still out with a sore ankle, but very close to returning) and Anthony Davis (36 points last game) are healthy, they are still the team to beat in the West with 2 of the best 5 players in the game at their best.
The Warriors are barely average as a team, but Stephen Curry — another one of the top five players in the game — is on an absolute rampage and could potentially win a playoff series all by himself. Imagine having to hope Kelly Oubre Jr. doesn’t go all “revenge series” on us to win a few playoff games? Imagine having to hope Draymond Green doesn’t use this series to prove the Warriors organization really IS so much better than the Suns’?
Gonna be a bumpy ride, Suns fans!
We just have to hope the Suns bring their really good defense to the playoffs with them.