This game with two of the league’s best defenses was ugly, with a capital U, G, L, and Y, but the Phoenix Suns (62-14) prevailed over the Golden State Warriors (48-29) thanks to their sheer will to execute in the clutch on both ends of the court.
For the 38th time in 76 games this year, the Suns faced a clutch situation — game within five points in the final five minutes — and for the league-leading-by-a-mile 32nd time they prevailed.
On Wednesday night, the Suns were down one point, 91-90, when the clock struck five. They traded buckets for the next few minutes and were still down 101-100 with 39 seconds left after Devin Booker strangely committed his third foul in under a minute, giving up five points on six free throws to Jordan Poole.
But then the Suns finally made the game-deciding plays, outscoring the Warriors 7-2 in those last 39 seconds with maestro Chris Paul finding cracks in the Warriors staunch pick-and-roll defense.
The win puts the Suns at 62 — tying a franchise record — against only 14 losses, and extends their winning streak to 9 games. No other Suns team in history has had four 8+ game winning streaks in a single season. Every win the Suns get in their last six games sets a new franchise record.
“This team wants to be the new standard, as it relates to Suns basketball,” head coach Monty Williams said this week.
Just to set the stage: the Suns are by far the best team in basketball. They have a 9-game lead over the next-best team in either conference. They have the best road record, the best home record, the best clutch record, the best point differential, and are the only team ranked top-3 in both offense and defense. And they’ve done all this with a plethora of in-season injuries — none of the Suns previous 60+ game winners had to deal with so many players missing time.
But they’re not perfect. Nobody is. So you always have to wonder if their tiny little achilles heels could be their downfall at some point in the playoffs.
Earlier this season, I pointed out their personnel-based preference for ‘drop’ coverage leaving them vulnerable to a small-ball five-out offense where Ayton/McGee/Biyombo are pulled out of the paint to defend a ‘big’ who’s setting picks and shooting outside the three-point line. The Hawks made the Suns pay with a historic shooting night.
The other problem with pulling the Suns center out of the paint is giving up open layups with backdoor cuts to the rim, and that’s exactly how the Warriors almost beat the Suns. Time after time, the Warriors ‘big’ — usually Draymond Green, sometimes Andre Iguodala — would run the offense from the top of the key and just wait for a guy to spring free in a complicated action to get a cut to the rim.
Again, though, this is a tiny achilles heel. The Warriors mucked up the game, really really wanted the win, had their home crowd propping them up, had Draymond Green chirping constantly and playing his best game since Christmas (Steve Kerr’s words), got 38 points from Jordan Poole playing Steph’s role on offense, got Devin Booker’s worst game in a long long time, and the Suns still won anyway.
“Those types of games where I think there’s a lot of missed layups, a lot of fouls today,” Booker said afterward. “A lot of missed open shots and still finding a way to come out with a win on the road is always important.”
Booker has not played well against the Warriors this year. In three games, he’s shooting only 28% from the field, and last night made just 5 of 21 shots (23%). The Suns are still 2-1 in those three games because of the other threats in their lineup when Book and Chris Paul are getting all the defensive attention. Mikal Bridges sprung free for 22 points (17 in the first half), Deandre Ayton had 16 points and 16 rebounds, and Jae Crowder had 10 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and a pair of assists. The bench showed up well, too, despite missing two of the better rotation players in Cameron Johnson and JaVale McGee.
After the game, Monty Williams relayed a story about Ayton, who was down on himself for his five turnovers and 10 missed shots. On every catch in the paint, Ayton was immediately hounded with hard swipes at the ball and never found him rhythm on offense. Williams says he took a moment with Ayton to acknowledge his frustration, but then pointed out how his 16 rebounds and defense at the rim helped the Suns win the game anyway.
Chris Paul had a tough night too, with ‘only’ 9 shot attempts and 8 assists — both low by his standards. The Warriors had the lengthy and mobile Andrew Wiggins or Andre Iguodala on Paul most of the night, leaving Paul little room to operate. In the late stages of the game, he and Ayton adjusted the pick-and-roll timing and angles just enough to get Paul moving downhill and he made those winning plays when it mattered most.
“When you’re out here playing basketball, especially against elite teams like that, you ain’t playing checkers. You’re playing chess,” Paul said in the postgame media session. “It’s a thinking game. You can’t be running around out there. It’s not a pickup game. It’s just all strategy. That’s all it is.”
The Suns three best players struggled — partially of their own doing but mostly because of the Warriors scrambling, stifling defense — yet they found a way to win anyway.
“I told our guys we win pretty, we can win ugly, the bottom line is that we win,” head coach Monty Williams said after the game.
Suns go to Memphis to play the streaking Grizzlies on Friday night. The Grizz are without Ja Morant right now (knee soreness), but like the Suns are winning anyway because of their depth. They are a mind-blowing 19-2 without Morant this year, including this 6-game winning streak.
The Grizzlies now have a stranglehold on the 2nd seed in the West and will likely finish with the league’s second-best record, much like the Phoenix Suns of a year ago.