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NBA: Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns

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Suns setting franchise record pace thanks to the Point God

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul leading the way for the best team in basketball.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Your Phoenix Suns are on a 7-game winning streak and, at 37-9, have matched the best start in the Suns 54-year franchise history.

At this pace, they would win a franchise record 66 games this season. But keeping up this pace, no matter how talented and locked-in your team, is harder than you might think.

A handful of Suns teams in the past have been right around this win rate after 46 games. A pair of the Barkley teams were one game off the pace at 36-10 after 46 games. Barkley’s MVP season in 1992-93 started 36-10 on the way to 62 wins, the top seed in the conference and a trip to the NBA Finals. Two years later, fueled by the Danny Manning addition, they started 36-10 and still finished 59-23 despite losing Manning in the spring to that knee injury.

A pair of the SSOL teams were right there too, including MVSteve’s debut season when the Suns rocked the NBA to a 31-4 start. They stumbled to 36-10 after 46 games while enduring a minor Nash injury, and rebounded to a 62-20 finish on their way to the Western Conference Finals. Two years later, fueled by the beefier front line of Amare/Boris/KT, the Suns started 36-8 before stumbling a bit midseason, once again with a minor Nash injury, and rebounded to finish 61-21.

A few things in common with those teams, across both the Nash and Sir Charles years:

  • midseason slumps after scorching starts, due to minor injuries
  • slightly lower winning percentage the rest of the way

This is the way. Teams just simply cannot stay hot all season long. 82 games is a serious grind. Think about it — are you, in your day job, performing at top notch levels every single day in a 10-month period?

“To play to your standards is really hard,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said after the Suns squeaked by a severely depleted Jazz team on Monday night for their 7th straight victory. “And to do it every day is really hard and that’s something that I’m aware of.”

The Suns are winning right now, but in the last couple of games they’re doing it through sheer will and determination.

When you’re down half-dozen rotation players of your own (Ayton, Crowder, Payne, Frank, Nader, Saric) and you’re facing teams without any of their top six players, your focus and execution level is bound to drop. Just like on Saturday against the Pacers, all of the Jazz starters and one of their top reserves sat out the game for various day-to-day maladies.

These should have been easy wins where your aging point guard could catch a breather with light minutes.

But instead the Suns needed 40 minutes a night from 36-year old Chris Paul playing like his All-Star, All-NBA, future Hall of Fame self. On Monday, he nearly posted a triple double and carried the Suns on a fourth-quarter comeback in a game they were down five points early in the fourth quarter.

“Playing in a game like that can be tough, especially against a team like that, that shoots that many threes and the floor is spaced,” Williams said. “But I thought in the fourth quarter, the defense stepped up.”

After the Suns found themselves down by their widest margin, 91-86, Chris Paul turned on the jets. He led the Suns on a 25-9 run over the next seven minutes where he either scored or assisted on 22 of the 25 points, all while inspiring the Suns defense to stifle a Jazz team that was rolling. When he was done, the Jazz upset hopes were dashed as the Suns were up 111-100 with just three minutes to play.

Chris Paul nearly posted a triple-double, with 27 points, 14 assists and 9 rebounds. He and Devin Booker combined for 60 points, 17 assists, 16 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks to help hold off a spirited Jazz team playing free with nothing to lose.

“It is a luxury to have the ball in [Paul’s] hands,” Williams said. “He makes the right plays and he’s not afraid to take those shots.”

After starting the season 8-8 last year, they were an NBA-best 43-13 to finish the season. This year’s 37-9 start is even a little better.

The Suns lead the league in point differential this year (+7.9 points per game), but it’s their incredible execution in the clutch that has them with three more wins and four fewer losses than the next best team in the league.

Thanks to Paul’s supreme level of execution and Booker’s flamethrowing down the stretch, the Suns are the best clutch team in the NBA. They have won 36 of their last 44 clutch chances (a game within 5 points at any point in the last 5 minutes of regulation) — an 82% win rate in games that are historically a 50/50 proposition.

It’s not all about offense, either. The Suns simply ‘turn the water off’ when it matters most, as Chris Vernon said on The Ringer’s Mismatch podcast this week while gushing over the Suns.

Monty Williams recognizes his All-Stars’ defense as well.

“Both he and Book (Devin Booker) down the stretch made two big defensive plays,” Williams said. “Book took (Jordan) Clarkson on that last one and fought like heck to force a miss and then deflections everywhere, he’s diving on the floor. That’s a ‘we defend’, ‘we’ mentality, and those are things that probably don’t get talked about enough. Everybody just talks about his offense.”

It just seems impossible how the Suns are continuing to grind out win after win. Unlike Suns teams of the past, this team appears able to keep playing well despite mounting player losses.

As of last week, the Suns had been impacted 5th-most in the entire NBA by impactful player games lost, and now they played 6-down on Monday night after Jae Crowder and Cameron Payne both got hurt on Saturday.

They have kept the train rolling.

The two constants are Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges, who are the only two Suns to appear in all 46 games this season. Mikal hasn’t missed a game since high school, but Paul has somehow completely turned around a career that was once riddled by injuries.

He played 70 of 72 games for the Thunder two years ago, then 70 of 72 games last year, and now all 46 of this year so far.

“Vegan,” interjected Devin Booker, sitting next to Paul when a reporter asked the point god how finds the energy at his age to play 40 minutes in consecutive games.

“I feel great,” Paul answered. “I could play tomorrow.”

Paul converted to a plant-based diet the summer after being traded from the Rockets to the Thunder in a salary-dumping move by the Rockets, whose owner called Paul’s contract “the worst he’s ever seen” in pro sports. Paul has experienced several ill-timed injuries in his two years as a Rocket, scuttling grand plans to upset the Warriors’ dynastic run.

Since then, CP3 is a bargain. He led the Thunder to an unexpected playoff appearance in 2020, led the Suns to the NBA Finals in 2021 and is now leading the best team in basketball (and best team in Phoenix Suns history) to another playoff run. Along the way, he’s reclaimed his seat as a perennial All-Star and All-NBA guard.

Chris Paul is under contract for the next four years (two fully guaranteed, two partially) to play out the rest of his career in purple and orange.

Hopefully, he will cap off his Hall of Fame career with an NBA championship.

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