For the past two years, including the 2021 Playoffs, the Phoenix Suns have been relentless. They won more games than anyone else by a wide margin because they work harder than the opponent in every game.
So it surprises you when the 2022 playoffs start and we see a lack of energy and focus as the Suns stumble to a 1-1 First Round tie with the 8th-seed New Orleans Pelicans.
“Yeah, it does,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said after game two. “Just because, one, we’re at home, two, all of these games are so important.”
Suns All-Star point guard Chris Paul was asked how it could happen, to lack energy in a playoff game.
“It shouldn’t. It shouldn’t,” Paul said. “Unfortunately we can’t go back and do nothing about it now.”
“That’s a good question,” Cameron Johnson said, to a similar question. “I don’t think there’s any answer I can give you to answer that.”
The thing is, these Suns have never lacked energy until lately, when they clinched the league’s best record almost a month ago and have been biding their time for the playoffs since.
All the way through win number 60 to guarantee the top seed, the Suns were known for their ‘wear down effect’. They didn’t blow you out the first three quarters. They simply just made sure they won comfortably by the final buzzer.
They had the league’s best net rating this year (overall plus/minus across all minutes, all 82 games) and set a league record for most wins without a loss when leading after three quarters (47-0).
Yet, those 47 leads after three quarters was rather low, historically. This year alone, 10 of the 29 other teams led more often at the end of three quarters than the Suns.
Let me put that another way. If the league decided to retroactively forfeit all fourth quarters, and only honor records at the 36-minute mark, the Suns would have been the 8th seed in the West this year and would have just the 11th best record across the two conferences.
But that’s a fantasy, and this is a four-quarter game.
The Suns were a +2.7 points in 4th quarters this year, more than twice as good as the next best team (Warriors, +1.3). Their total +/- in the fourth was +221 points. They led the league with 17 come-from-behind fourth quarter wins to amass their league-leading 64 wins on the year that was 8 games better than anyone else.
What does that tell you?
The Suns don’t have to win the game in the first three quarters to win the game overall
They outlast you, out-work you no matter how hard you try. They are a relentless machine that eventually comes out ahead. In child’s story terms, they are the tortoise who crosses the finish line ahead of the hare.
“Teams don’t want to play us the whole 48 minutes,” Cam Payne told me a year ago about how the Suns eventually wear you down.
They’ve embodied that phrase this year, calling it the ‘wear down effect’.
Start the 4th with a lead? Game over. Start the 4th with a deficit? Suns are probably winning anyway. Their 17 come-from-behind wins were 6 more than any other team (11 such wins, by Cleveland and LA Clippers), and the only team with a .500 or better record. They were 16-13 in such situations before entering the ‘rest’ stretch of playing out the string after clinching the top seed. They finished 17-17 when starting at a deficit in the 4th quarter.
You get this good with relentlessness. Constant energy. Eventually the other team folds just enough to win the game.
No smoke and mirrors here. Chris Paul knows that most teams struggle in the 4th quarter to close out games. As I mentioned above, the next-best fourth quarter team was the Warriors, with a +1.3 net per game this year.
The Suns know exactly how they want to play offense and defense, and their focus intensifies just as the opponent starts questioning every move.
But that wear-down effect falls short if you’ve stopped, you know, wearing them down.
Rediscovering the wear-down effect
What happened in game two was a lack of energy all game long, allowing the Pelicans to remain fresh and confident all the way to the end.
The Suns actually re-took the lead early in the 4th, 96-95 with 8:22 left in the game and many folks in the building felt like the Suns were finally finding themselves.
The Pelicans kept scoring, re-took the lead 99-98 with 7:22 left and never fell behind again, outscoring the Suns 26-16 the rest of the way.
In this game, it was the Pelicans who looked fresh enough to make the big plays in the face of suddenly-intense defensive effort. CJ McCollum made a contested three from 25 feet out to give them a 102-98 lead. Brandon Ingram made play after play. The ball swung, found the open man, and ‘bam’ the game was over.
This time, it was the Suns who wore down, not the Pelicans.
If the Suns are going to win game three, especially without the services of leading scorer Devin Booker, they will need to rediscover that ‘wear down’ effect that only happens when they spend the first three quarters absolutely wearing out the opponent with relentless effort on both the offensive and defensive ends.
Not counting the ‘rest’ games when four-fifths of the starting lineup sat out, the Suns were 8-3 without Booker this season. Six of those 11 games were missing either Chris Paul or Deandre Ayton too. They were 4-1 without Booker when both Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton played, though the only playoff team they faced in that stretch was the streaking Warriors, the game they lost.
It won’t be easy to beat a rolling Pelicans team without Booker, but a boatload of energy up and down the lineup can make a big difference in their chances.
Booker has been diagnosed with a mild hamstring strain — not the same hammy he hurt in December — and will most likely miss both weekend games in New Orleans, if not more games than that.
Latest news suggests the Suns will be without Booker for 2-3 weeks as he deals with the hamstring issue.
Maybe the need to embrace the loss of Booker can galvanize the team’s energy and effort.
“We get to go to their place and do what we do,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve been really good on the road, historically good on the road. We’ve played without Chris and Book before. If we have to play without Book, next man up and we’ve done that all year long.”
“It is what it is,” Chris Paul said of losing Book. “It’s part of the game, you know what I mean. We got guys that are more than capable of stepping up. I mean, Book (Devin Booker) was killing it. He was having a big time game, but it is what it is.”
Booker had 31 at halftime of Game 2, looking willing to carry the Suns all by himself to the win for a 2-0 series lead, before coming up lame in the third quarter.
“We going to be ready, man,” Mikal Bridges said of Game 3. “That’s our brother, so obviously hoping everything goes right, but I know everybody is ready to step up, so we’ll be ready. We went through regular season games without him and C (Chris Paul) and DA (Deandre Ayton), so we’ll be ready for sure.”
The Suns play the Pelicans for game 3 on Friday night in New Orleans, at 6:30 PM on ESPN and Bally Sports Arizona.
Want more on Suns-Pelicans adjustments without Booker? Listen to today’s Suns Solar Panel, with me, Zona and Pelicans media Mason Ginsberg.