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Continuity paying off: Suns’ starting five explodes for second straight game

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Each of Phoenix’s starters eclipsed double figures in scoring (again!) versus the Nuggets

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

When the Phoenix Suns traded for Chris Paul in the offseason, they added a player with a laundry list of experience. But just how much team value were they including?

Let’s take a closer look.

  • 1,020 games played
  • 109 postseason games played
  • A member of eight 50-win teams
  • 52 playoff victories
  • Seven postseason series victories

Paul has keyed the success of several teams throughout his career. And he’s had a good supporting cast, too. Four teammates — David West, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and James Harden — were named All-Stars when he was on the roster.

But on paper, this year’s Phoenix Suns team was not expected by many to be of that caliber. Last season, they missed the playoffs for the 10th straight season and finished with a record below .500 for the sixth consecutive year. Starting shooting guard Devin Booker was named a first-time All-Star and the Suns took the league by storm with an 8-0 record in the Bubble, though there were clearly more hills to climb.

Paul pushed Phoenix past peaks and valleys during his first season with the team, leading it to the second-best record in the Western Conference. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable hurdle against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, Paul’s experience — albeit limited physically by a right shoulder contusion — got the Suns over the top, silencing several critics in the process.

And with Wednesday night’s 123-98 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals — Phoenix’s fifth straight of the postseason — there is a possibility that Paul, who is yet to win a championship, is now in his best position to do so. He indicated as such after the game, with how effective the Suns’ starting five has been.

“I’m telling you man, really haven’t been on a team quite like this where everybody shoots it the way that they do,” Paul said. “So you don’t have to try to find a certain guy.”

For the second straight game, the Suns had each of their starters score in double figures. Paul, who labored through a shoulder injury for most of his first-round series against the Lakers, looked as good as ever, recording a 15-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover game for the third time in his postseason career.

But let’s zoom away from that for a second. Collectively, there was incredible balance from the Suns’ lineup, as no player took more than 14 shots. Each player shot at least 41.6 percent from the field, and all outside of starting center Deandre Ayton contributed two 3-pointers.

Phoenix Suns’ stats from their Game 2 victory over the Nuggets.
Phoenix Suns PR

That is a luxury that Paul made sure to outline.

“Book scores in his sleep, he defends,” Paul said. “He’s one of the best two-way players in the league, and we feed off that. And then we got so many weapons — (starting forward) Jae (Crowder) isn’t fazed by anything. Take a big shot, he’s going to defend whoever you ask him to.

“(Starting forward) Mikal (Bridges) is like our unsung hero, guards everybody, shotmaking, drive, everything. And then (starting center) [Deandre Ayton]. DA, can’t ask for more from somebody like him. He guards, he runs, he rebounds, he does everything. He’s literally been our MVP in the postseason so far.”

The Suns’ starting five has played together more than any unit in the playoffs, according to NBA Advanced Stats, which was also the case during the regular season. That continuity has paid dividends.

Of the five groups that have exceeded 100 minutes played together in the postseason, Phoenix has the top defensive rating (98.9). That has allowed it to push in transition, where it ranks first among remaining playoff teams in points-per-possession in (1.32).

Paul, a point guard tasked with understanding his teammates’ tendencies, was asked if he has to consciously think about who he’s passing to through the course of the game. He said it’s a natural feeling.

“If a guy helps in, and I see Mikal over there or (backup wing) Cam Johnson or (backup point guard) Cam Payne or whoever it is, everybody are knockdown shooters,” Paul said. “So you’re just literally making reads.”

That feel has picked up in the Suns’ last four games. They have ranked above the 72nd percentile in points-per-possession in each of those contests, according to Cleaning the Glass, and above the 65th percentile in effective field-goal percentage.

And their balance mentioned previously? Each Suns starter — outside of Crowder — finished with a usage percentage within 4.4 points of each other. Collectively, Phoenix is averaging the most assists (28.5) of any team in the second round and the second-best field goal percentage (50.8) and 3-point percentage (43.1).

Beyond his group’s connection, Suns coach Monty Williams has made sure that distributing the basketball has been ingrained in its identity.

“I think it’s an unselfish group, they’re willing to make plays for each other,” Williams said. “We share the ball, that’s one of our DNA. And it helps to play together for a long period of time. I mean, we don’t have a lot of the experience that a lot of the playoff teams have but we had this year to gel, and we’ve had a lot of close games at home and on the road, so that helps.”

After the game, Paul made sure to mention the Suns aren’t satisfied with leading their series two games to none. He mentioned how his New Orleans Hornets in 2007-08 went up on the San Antonio Spurs 2-0 with a pair of blowout wins but eventually lost the series in seven games. With the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014-15, Paul’s team took a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets in the semifinal round and then lost its next three contests.

Postseason experience — and that of Paul’s and even Crowder’s — is something that the Suns’ supporting cast cannot make up. But they’ve made it clear throughout the season, and especially their last two games, that their time together has made them dangerous.

Betting-wise, the Suns are now one of the favorites to Western Conference. Their top guns are showing why.

“I feel like we’ve just gotten better in every category to be honest,” Booker said. “I think that just came with time, and getting put in the fire. We were a brand new team to begin the season, and we had some hiccups, some learning lessons that we came in and stressed to not let happen again. That’s been the name of the game for us the whole season.”