The Phoenix Suns got back right Sunday against the New York Knicks, winning in dominant fashion at home, 116-95.
Yes, it was a team they should have beaten. Yes, it was at home. In fact, it was against a team they have beaten eight straight times since the 2018-19 season.
But the Suns focused where they needed to most after their last five games: defensively.
Phoenix was not the team it has been on that end since its starting point guard, Chris Paul, went out with heel soreness.
"Probably taken a bit longer than what people thought it would because we just haven't shared what it is. It's just how we operate. It's his foot so you've got to be careful with that. We certainly don't want it to creep back up."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) November 19, 2022
Monty Williams on Chris Paul (heel) status #Suns pic.twitter.com/eSpEnes6IW
Over the Suns’ five games before they faced New York, they allowed teams to average 119.4 points. They lost three of those games and only one opponent (the Utah Jazz) had a record better than .500.
Their opponents also shot 48.0 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from 3-point range in those games. In the time since Paul had gone down before Sunday’s game, the Suns had the 29th-ranked defense in the NBA, giving up 120 points per 100 possessions. They also had the second-worst defensive efficiency (120.4) in that span.
It was far below the effort the Suns have shown since their coach, Monty Williams, started with the team during the 2019-20 season and especially over the last two seasons, when they reached the NBA Finals and then posted a franchise-best 64 wins in a season.
Williams spoke about the issues Saturday.
“It (the defense) has waned the past six games,” Williams said. “We haven’t played the kind of defense that we’re accustomed to consistently.”
Added starting power forward Torrey Craig: “When you know what you need to do and you still continue to have the breakdowns that you’re having, it’s at least a little frustration. It’s kind of good to have games like that, you learn from it, take it on the chin and move on to the next.”
"When you know what you need to do and you continue to have the breakdowns that we're having," Torrey Craig on #Suns defense. pic.twitter.com/WfC4Ovjhpl— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) November 19, 2022
The Suns started 7-2 and ranked second in the NBA in opponent points per game (103.9) and fifth in opponent field-goal percentage (50.9), a good start. Since, Phoenix has gone 3-4 and even struggled in clutch time, something it was historically great with in 2021-22.
Still, the Suns rank No. 5 in the NBA in opponent points per game (107.9). They are also ninth in opponent shooting percentage (45.7 percent), so their five-game woes could be an outlier, especially with Paul and typical starting forward Cameron Johnson (meniscus tear) out.
Their performance Sunday against New York was more indicative of who they have been. The Knicks shot 34-of-85 (40 percent) from the field and 7-of-25 (28.0 percent) from 3-point range. Granted, New York went to the free-throw line 25 times, but the Suns were especially effective against power forward Julius Randle, who had just nine points on 4-of-11 shooting.
PHOENIX SUNS DEFENSE!— Coast to Coast Brasil | NBA (@brasilcoast2) November 20, 2022
The Suns held the Knicks to 22 points in the first and third quarters and then 20 points in the fourth quarter.
“I am well aware that our group is always intentional about the things that we bring to their attention and when we talked about it yesterday, to a man, they were all like ‘Those numbers don’t look like Sun’s defense numbers,’” Williams said. “(Suns associate coach) Kevin (Young) made a great point about we should never be in the last place of any category when it comes to NBA defense and offense. Our guys just took the challenge, probably wanted to shut me up about it and that’s who we can be on a night in night out basis. You may not hold a team to 22 points, but you can play the way that we played to start the game and it’s the one thing that we feel like no matter who you have on your roster, you can play that kind of defense with the energy, effort and game-plan discipline.”
Phoenix’s defense should improve when Paul returns. He is a seven-time first-team All-Defensive member and still is an important presence on both ends of the floor.
They just need to get back to who they are. Their game Tuesday against the Los Angeles Lakers will be another chance to do so.