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Suns are playing their best defensive basketball when it matters most

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Phoenix has the best defensive rating in the playoffs thus far.

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Inexperienced. Too young. Not ready.

You aren’t hearing the national media use these lazy excuses to describe the play of the Phoenix Suns anymore, are you? Many dismissed the Suns and their regular season record of 51-21, the second best in the league, as the postseason began. Sure, they were a number two seed, but they would be their first ever non-favored two seed entering a first round series.

Phoenix is 5-0 in their last 5 games and 6-2 thus far in the playoffs. They have held the opposing team to under 100 points on four different occasions (50% of their games). They did that a total of 15 times during the regular season (21%).

The Suns have responded with their best stretch of defensive basketball this season. The run that they are putting together not only is impressive, it is exciting and fun. The fanbase is alive and growing. It’s attracting people to the team and to the organization. It is creating an entire new generation of Suns fans.

You can’t tell me this kid isn’t now a Suns lifer:

Welcome to the fan base, kid.

What excites me the most about this season is that defense. I don’t know if I have ever witnessed a Suns team that has the ability to play team D in the manner that the 2020-21 squad does. It’s been a work in progress all season, but it also has been the identity of the Suns.

The Suns have grown this season as they have learned how to play effective basketball together on both ends of the floor. Remember the team that began 8-8? This was the “feel out” period as Chris Paul was integrated into the lineup and learning how to space the floor. Devin Booker wasn’t comfortable in his role as of yet, made apparent by his 22.7 points and 4.1 turnovers in his 14 games (he did not dress for games 15 and 16 ).

Zach Lowe, who wrote a fantastic piece on ESPN.com about the effectiveness of the Suns and their deadly pick-and-roll, noted the following:

The Suns’ offense took on a your turn, my turn vibe. Through 20 games, opponents outscored the Suns by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with Paul and Booker on the floor, per NBA.com. The Suns were bad on both ends. They thrived when each star went solo.

The team really began to gel in February. Devin Booker found his place, the team discovered their potential, and Phoenix started winning ball games. After starting the season 8-8, Phoenix won 39-10 in their next 49 games.

Four times they put together winning streaks of at least five games. Two times they won six straight. The longest winning streak of the season was seven in a row.

None compare to the stretch of basketball they have put together over the past week.

Playing the regular season in the NBA is tough. Lord knows I don’t have the capability to play in the NBA, by my assumption is it mirrors what Jackson Browne described in his 1977 song ‘The Load Out’ about being a musician on the road:

“And do the show in Chicago...or Detroit, I don’t know. We do so many shows in a row and these towns all look the same. We just pass the time in the hotel rooms and wander ‘round backstage. ‘Til those lights come up, and we hear that crowd and we remember why we came.”

Winning in the NBA is hard. Putting together winning streaks is harder. I am not discounting any of the exciting stretches Phoenix put together this season as they hopped from town to town under strict COVID regulations. Seeing this team stay focused on winning basketball games was unbelievably impressive. Now the work they put in, the habits they developed, and their dedication to playing as a team is paying off just when it matters the most.

“We’ve been preaching that all season,” said Devin Booker after Game 2. “I think our versatility, and our passion and holding each other accountable — we just want to defend. We know that if we defend, we can get out in transition and everything will happen how it’s supposed to on the offensive end.”

Phoenix has fortified their defensive mentality as the playoffs have commenced. They ended the 2020-21 regular season 7th in opposing-points-per-game (109.5) and 9th in defensive rating (111.3). During their last five games they have a defensive rating of 100.6.

The Suns have allowed 96.0 points per game over their last five. That is their best stretch relative to that statistic all season. Only games 2 through 6, in which the Suns’ opponents averaged 98.0 points, comes close. That section of the season saw Phoenix go 4-1, losing the Kings, but beating the Kings the next night, winning against the Pelicans, in Utah, and then in Denver.

Nine times during the regular season did the Suns force opponents to shoot lower than 41% from the field. They’ve held the Lakers and the Nuggets to 40.6 FG% over the last five. The Suns defense on the interior has been stellar, led by the efforts of Deandre Ayton, which has forced the opposition to settle for outside shooting. The team’s dedication to doubling and swarming, yet still having the capability to close out on defense, is damn near artistic.

During the playoffs the Suns ranks are:

  • Points Allowed: 98.6 - 1st
  • Opp FGM/GM: 35.6 - 1st
  • Opp 3PT%: 31%: 1st
  • Opp FG%: 42%: 1st

They’ve won their last five by an average of 18.6 points. Put down your coffee, Red Bull, or beer (#ChuggingWithTheFellas) and read that again.

The only period of the season in which the Suns averaged more separation were games 26 through 30. Phoenix won by an average of 19.2 points. That included a 31-pint blowout of the Grizzlies followed by the 32-point demolition of Portland.

This is the playoffs. And Phoenix is demolishing their opponents. Are they doing it against a Lakers team without Anthony Davis and a Nuggets team without Jamal Murray? Yes. But that is what you are supposed to do if those two stars are out. Dominate. And dominate they have.

“We just were relentless with our effort, our coverages, communication. It was pretty good,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said after Wednesday night’s 25-point victory over the Nuggets in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals. “There were a few breakdowns but the guys knew what the breakdowns were right when they happened. Just thought our defense carried us the whole night.”

The team feeds off of the crowd, which has appreciated the defense and how it has lead to quality offense. When your second team guys are getting blocks on one end and hitting three-pointers on the other end, great things will happen.

“I mean we feel ‘em,” said Suns forward Jae Crowder. “We appreciate those guys, and they’re doing a hell of a job making it tough to come in a get a win off of us. We’re going to need them the rest of the way. It’s definitely rocking inside of our building each and every game.”

It’s like the Phoenix Suns are continuing Jackson Browne’s tribute:

“People, you’ve got the power over what we do. You can sit there and wait or you can pull us through. Come along, sing the song. You know that you can’t go wrong!”

Phoenix will change venues on Friday as they head to Denver’s higher elevation. The crown at the Pepsi Center, which will be at full capacity, won’t be singing their praises. For the first time in their history, Denver Nuggets fans will be celebrating their MVP, as Nikola Jokić will be presented with is trophy. It will be a scene.

The way to quiet that crowd is to do what they have been doing throughout the playoffs: shutting down the opposing offense. Defense travels.

“It was just the effort and will that I saw out there on the floor tonight, and that travels,” stated Monty Williams. “And we’re going to need that when we go to play against these guys in a couple of days.”

“When the morning light, comes streaming in, I’ll get up and do it again.”

Yeah, I know. Different Jackson Browne song. Different album. It still applies. Get up and do it again Suns!