I still am not tired of saying, “The Phoenix Suns are in the NBA Finals”. Uttering that sentence out loud is something I do not take for granted, especially given the path it took to get here and the brand of basketball we used to witness. The Suns have gone from a team that didn’t know how to win to a team that knows how to beat you in numerous ways.
Just two seasons ago the Suns were lost. Although a relatively competitive team, they lacked the ability to close out the competition and earn a win. They were 12-21 in clutch games, the second worst winning percentage in the NBA. That’s right, of their 19 total wins in the 2018-19 season, 12 came in the clutch. Nothing was easy. Nothing was given to them. Every team looked at Phoenix on their schedule and expected to depart with a victory.
Just two short years later they have home court advantage in the NBA Finals. Through keen free agent acquisitions, proper player development, and one splash trade, James Jones and Monty Williams have transformed the roster into a winner. Each lever pulled along the way — yes, even the drafting of Jalen Smith over Tyrese Haliburton — has contributed to the success of the franchise.
What separates this version of the Phoenix Suns from the teams of Suns’ past, outside of the obvious roster additions and level of talent and coaching, is the same thing that has separated them from much of the league this season: they can win in numerous ways.
I think back to the Seven Seconds or Less Era. The goal of those teams was to run you off of the floor; to move so fast that you couldn’t catch your breath, that your lungs would seize, and that your muscles would burn with lactic acid.
It was fun. It was innovative. It was high scoring with precision passing, three-pointers and slam dunks. It made stars out of Raja Bell and Quentin Richardson. That was how they would beat you. For all that it was, it was not sustainable.
We found out during their playoff runs that, if you took them out of their run-n-gun style, they were beatable. Couple that with Mike D’Antoni’s love affair with an eight man rotation, and it was the Suns who would run out of gas every postseason. Those Suns teams were too one dimensional for their own good.
Here’s some fun little stats for you: during the 7SOL Era (2004-2011), the Phoenix Suns won a total of 372 regular season games. During that time they won a total of 12 games when scoring under 100 points, posting a record of 12-39 (.235). When scoring under 90 points they were 1-14 (0.07...Bond. James Bond.).
During that same timeframe, Phoenix scored 100+ points a total of 468 times in 574 regular season games played. 81.5% of the time the Suns played, they were over 100 points. That number dropped to 73.1% in the playoffs as they scored 100+ in 49 of their 67 postseason games. Their record in those 18 under-100 point playoff games? 3-15 (.167).
Fast forward to this year’s iteration of the Phoenix Suns. The league has caught up to the style 7SOL pioneered and we are seeing more points (and less defense) than ever before.
During the 2020-21 regular season, the Suns scored under 100 points just three times (that’s 95.8% of games over 100+ for those of you keeping track at home). They lost all three.
Much akin to previous teams, when playing in the postseason where the defensive intensity is raised, they too have had more sub-100 point performances. 12 of their 16 games have resulted in 100+ (pssst...that’s an easy one...75%!). Their record in those 4 non-100 points games, however, is 2-2 (You got this! .500).
What is my point with all of these statistical comparisons from one year versus seven seasons of the 7SOL Era? I am fortifying one simple train of thought: These Suns can beat you in numerous ways, including when they aren’t firing on all offensive cylinders.
Look at the previous series against the Los Angeles Clippers as a point of reference. Phoenix wins the series 4-2, yet each one of those victories had its own distinct personality to achieve the desired result. It wasn’t a plug-and-play style that won it; it wasn’t let’s run them off of the court for 48 minutes, rinse, and repeat.
Game One was a game filled with star power as Devin Booker and Paul George went blow for blow in the second half. While George tried to will his team to victory, Booker would not be denied. He played all 24 minutes in the second half, scored 29 points, and ended with a 40-point triple-double in his first Western Conference Finals appearance.
Game Two, the ‘Valley Oop’ game, Phoenix showcased the value of Monty Williams coupled with the execution of offense to get the victory. It wasn’t a pretty game. But it left us with one of the most memorable moments in Phoenix Suns history.
After losing Game Three, Game Four was the type of playoff game Phoenix typically loses. It was a cauldron filled with good defense and bad offense, as both ingredients came together to give us an inedible bowl of crap to consume. The teams were historically bad on offense, with the 84-80 point total being the lowest in any game this season.
But Phoenix navigated the final five minutes well enough to come out on top. Although they only shot 20% from the field in the final five (1-of-5), they shot 7-of-8 from the line to secure the victory.
Game Six was the exclamation point, penned by Chris Paul. His 41-point performance broke the will of the Clippers and sent Phoenix to the NBA Finals. It was a relentless onslaught of productivity on offense. The Clippers tried to slow the game down by getting to the line? Who cares...Phoenix scores. They make a shot, Phoenix responds. No matter what they tried, Phoenix had an answer for it.
The Suns displayed their versatility in the Western Conference Finals. They can win with offense, they can win with defense, they can win big, they can win small. They can win. What factors contribute to this adaptability?
The addition of Chris Paul assisted in fortifying the Suns’ ability to navigate clutch minutes, thus making the team incredibly hard to defeat in close games late. During the regular season the Suns were 25-12, second best in the NBA, in clutch-time games. This postseason they are 4-1.
The Point God has, as pure usual, had a stellar season relative to clutch moments. He averaged 3.4 points, 12th best from any guard in the NBA who played in over 10 clutch games. Having his maturity in those moments is the ingredient that was missing from the Suns’ teams of years passed. I loved Ricky Rubio, but he put up 1.6 points last season in the clutch and was 15-19.
When Devin Booker is your primary — and many times only — scoring option, defenses can key into him and take him out of the play. With Chris Paul, however, given the way he impacts a game with his passing, his ability to draw fouls, and the artistic way he runs the pick-and-roll, the opposition is on their heels more than they are ready to pounce.
James Jones’ addition of Paul is the primary narrative for the national media, as well it should be. His impact on this team can be felt up and down the entire roster. Unlike the Clippers (that was Blake’s team) or the Rockets (Harden’s team), the Phoenix Suns have mirrored the personality and gameplay of their All-Star. Like Venom consuming Eddie Brock, Paul has consumed the Suns and made them a force to be reckoned with.
Free Throw Shooting
It might not be sexy but it is unbelievably valuable. Getting to the line is one thing. Knocking down free shots, especially at the end of the game, is paramount to postseason success. If you want to put teams away, you have to hit your free throws.
While the 2019-20 Suns set the regular season NBA record for free-throw percentage (83.4%), they didn't get their chance in the postseason. That percentage was trumped by the two teams that met in the Western Conference Finals this season: our Suns (83.4%) and the Los Angeles Clippers (83.9%).
Free throws would play a part in determining the series. Had the Clippers been better at the line, they could’ve taken the series.
Los Angeles had 52 more free throw attempts than Phoenix in the WCF. You didn’t read that wrong. Twasn’t a typo. The Suns took 92 shots from the charity stripe as compared to the Clippers’ 144. Phoenix made 79 (85.9%) whereas the Clippers made 112 (77.8%). No misses were bigger than the two missed by Paul George late in Game 2.
The Suns can beat you when you give them the free throws. Period. 4 out the last 5 NBA Champions have won the battle at the line.
It is strange to utter the word “defense” when you talk about Phoenix basketball. Again, this is the 7SOL town. It’s been a long time since any semblance of defense has occurred in this city.
When you have Deandre Ayton anchoring the middle and a plethora of wings to pester the perimeter, you have a team that can not only play defense, but is versatile as well.
Playoff basketball is a different beast. It’s one thing to fly into New Orleans for one night, play against Zion, attempt to execute a game plan, only to leave after the game and head to the next city. It’s another to play a series in which the opposition learns your plays and you learn theirs, to have everything come down to execution, and to adjust as you try to stop their rhythm.
Behind the coaching adjustments and execution of the players, Phoenix currently has given up the lowest FG% thus far in the playoffs at 43%. They have the second lowest defensive rating (behind the Bucks) at 106.7.
The effort Deandre Ayton has provided on the defensive side of the ball isn’t just amazing, it’s damn near unbelievable. Wasn’t it just three months ago in which Suns Twitter was packing him in trade deals for Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley? Now he is holding opponents to 37.5% shooting, the best out of any player who has at least 125 FGA defended (h/t Xinpoint1 on Reddit).
Due to Deandre’s lateral quickness, he can stay with guards on the perimeter. He deters shots at the rim. He is essentially a 6’11” wing.
Add the length and switchability of Mikal Bridges, the toughness and switchability of Jae Crowder, the physicality and switchability of Torrey Craig, and the quickness and...you guessed it...switchability of Cameron Johnson, and this team makes it hard for the opposition to switch into a favorable matchup.
Even on nights in which their offense is rolling, their defense keeps them in games. Which allows them to have an opportunity every night to beat you.
Sure, you can make the “other teams are injured” argument. I’ll allow you to make your points, I’ll counter with Booker’s broken nose, Pauls’ COVID ordeal AND bum shoulder in the first round AND Paul’s torn ligaments in his shooting hand, and we’ll both walk away from the conversation thinking we are right.
The manner in which James Jones constructed this roster has allowed them to absorb injuries where other teams could not. The addition of Cameron Payne pre-Bubble, signing Dario Saric, E’Twaun Moore, and Jae Crowder this past offseason, and bringing in Torrey Craig mid-season for cash; all of these moves have assisted the team during this playoff run. All of those players have contributed. Much akin to Liam Neeson in Taken, all possess a specific set of skills that have been useful this postseason.
Yes, even Dario!
The Suns were without Chris Paul for the first two games of the Western Conference. Due to the depth of the team, Cameron Payne and E’Twaun Moore stepped up in their roles and provided enough support to get two victories. Payne had a career-high 29 points in Game 2. This is the importance of roster construction.
Anthony Davis went down in the first round and GM Rob Pelinka didn’t build a roster that could absorb that, even for a game or two. Jamal Murray wasn’t present in the semifinals and Denver Nuggets GM Calvin Booth could only trot out Austin Rivers. Kawhi Leonard wasn’t present for the conference finals and Clippers GM Michael Winger didn’t have anyone on the roster who could step up. You’re going to say two of those three are All-NBA players and potential MVPs, but so is Chris Paul.
The severity of the injuries for Phoenix might not be as impactful as the three mentioned above — obviously — but they have been present. And due to the depth of this team that James Jones has built, coupled with the attitude and effort of the players who have had to increase their workload, Phoenix has won.
You can penalize the Suns for other teams’ injuries this postseason, or you can praise James Jones for constructing a team deep enough to survive theirs.— John Voita (@DarthVoita) July 3, 2021
The Suns are 4 wins away from winning their first ever NBA title. It isn’t a fluke. This team has been doing it all season long.
Many have turned their eyes away from the 51-21 regular season the Suns posted. They had the second best record in the NBA folks! They are doing what they are supposed to be doing. They are winning because, as they have displayed all season long, they can do so in so many ways.
And now they are in the NBA Finals. Not because anything was given to them. Because they have taken it.