On Sunday night, the Phoenix Suns came out the gate dictating, via physicality and multiple efforts, setting a tone in the opening minutes. A telling race to the first time out saw them build, then sustain some momentum that compiled a 29-point lead at one point.
Memphis would incrementally chip away, as the Suns began to resemble a team on a second night of a back to back that was a very close game, but they were able to hold on to a game-long lead over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Let’s five into how they did that.
1.) Dictating with Defense Early
Early on, the Suns were locked in on their game plan of making sure for Ja to see extra bodies as early and often as effectively possible. They’d do so via more switching than any other coverage and did a great job flattening out his attack, making life tough on him in the first half (9 points on 8 shots).
Add to that seven Grizzlies first-quarter turnovers, half of their game average, and you see just what level of general activity was put forth from the Suns.
That, in turn, resulted in a defensive rating of 67.3 through 24 minutes for the Suns.
They’d need every bit of those efforts as the second half was a completely different story, but it was refreshing to see the Suns, again, come out and dictate terms early on, getting out on the break for finishes in the transition advantage playing off of extra efforts, and establish a great flow as well in playing off of stops.
A good mix of Bridges/Craig/Johnson taking turns at the point of attack on Morant, containing the ball, and constantly sending him or any other Grizzlies handler into Biyombo’s help was extremely effective.
Biyombo (7.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and +3.4 as a starter in 2022-23, with a now 7-1 record) was up to the task again as a starter, bringing a physical dynamic that is requisite against Memphis’s group of rough riders in the frontcourt.
He battled and got the best of Adams/Jackson Jr. early on, and was at the root of the tone set by the Suns. Which occurred while Johnson and Craig matched energy off-ball to aid the more obvious activity of their defense. Unfortunately, Bismack was in foul trouble early and often, as much of the Grizzlies second half comeback was without Bis in the middle as he got his fourth foul early in the 3rd quarter, and played only 16 all night.
Sidenote: With Bismack starting, the Suns have compiled wins against the Grizzlies, Pelicans, Warriors, Clippers, and Timberwolves.
The efforts early parlayed into just enough to get the job done in the end.
2.) Return of the Point God
Chris Paul returned and brought a lot of what this team was missing in the process.
He allowed for Bridges (24 points) and Johnson to operate both in a manner they’re better suited for, and in the evolved version of it, where Paul doesn’t have to do all of the string pulling himself.
“Mikal (Bridges) been amazing,” said Paul.
“Y’all already know, Mikal laces them up every night, ready to go. The way he has played with all of us guys out, I think is going to help us in the long run because he is so much more comfortable handling the ball and making plays. I just told him in the locker room it was fun, getting off the ball and watching him create. It is only going to get better, he ain’t been like that the whole time I been here. It is something I know he put a lot of work on in the summer. Cam Johnson too, Cam got a rebound today and waved me off. I love it, I have been waiting for him to tell me that. I think all the confidence the guys are getting will only help us in the long run.”
Getting this genuine buy-in (to a lesser role) and excitement from a leader and one of the best to ever grace the hardwood from a point of initiation says a ton about the frequency this team is at in terms of trust in one another.
For Paul (20 points, 6 assists, 2 stocks in the first half), he was able to find that perfect blend in harmony with the “Twins,” to where he was able to do his Point God thing, in a tapered back manner that also enabled for the young guns to initiate and flow into the half-court. It’s the meshing that they’ve been ironing out all season, in undoing habits for the evolution of their attack, and the first half was as great of an example of that as any stretch this season.
Paul also looked equally fresh and spry, on both ends, especially off the bounce in this one.
Chris Paul is quietly (& quickly) up to 39.3% from 3 on the season— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) January 23, 2023
In his 8 games (since Christmas):
· 16.8 PPG - 47.1/47.4/74.1
---> 70% on c&s 3's
· 7.8 APG
---> 3rd in potential ast, at 17.4
---> 8th in ast pts created, at 21.0
3+ makes from deep in 5 of these 8 games too pic.twitter.com/LtoUpUaB8N
He operated in a very sustainable manner and has clearly turned a corner in play over his last eight games.
He’d finish with 22 points (on 8-for-18 shooting), 11 assists, six rebounds, and three steals.
3.) Clutch Woes Massaging Themselves Out
Once - and certainly could still be - a strength of this rendition of the Suns (with Paul at the controls to assist Booker) was a machine, a juggernaut, in the most pivotal minutes of games and down the stretch.
They would shift from free-flowing to manipulativeness, in dictating terms both defensively and offensively, and compile stops with scores to stamp an end on games in a dominant fashion.
They didn’t do quite that last night, as the Grizzlies forced this one into the clutch via an impressive fight to the end.
Nonetheless, the reps were important, regardless of how they came, for a Suns group that is looking to re-establish its identity as they grow back whole.
“When you are in those situations everyone gets a little more comfortable,” said Paul.
“You sort of know where people are going to be. When Book (Devin Booker) gets back I think that is something we get used to. Probably not going to be perfect from the get-go but having that many guys handle the ball and making plays can really help us.”
They presently reside 22nd in the NBA for clutch winning percentage (40%), with an 8-12 record. Among a few other entities expected to see positive regression as they grow back whole, performance in the clutch and even avoiding clutch moments, both via putting teams away, will be under a spotlight of sorts.
Tip of the cap:
· Dario Saric (14 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists) was the time-on-task player of the game. He was active defensively (3 steals), did a solid job aiding Biyumbo’s tone in physicality upon checking in, showed his ability to connect, and was able to hold it down after Landale and Biyumbo fouled out in the clutch. Ever-steady.
· Torrey Craig (20 points, 4 stocks, 4 rebounds) defended quite literally everybody over the course of the game, and was ever-active offensively, while also knocking down four triples. He brought an element of physicality to this match-up that was true to his brand and was excellent yet again in the starting lineup.
· Mikal Bridges (24 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 stocks) displayed many of his growths that he honed in on sans Paul, with his point guard back in the lineup. The blend of having Mikal’s evolved operating in tandem with Paul and his savant-like play, made for the Suns attack to grow unstoppable early. He’s now up to five-straight at 20+ PPG and is averaging 20.2 points over his last nine games, on 47.4/40.0/90.0 shooting
Up Next: The Charlotte Hornets will stumble into The Footprint Center on Tuesday, with a 2-4 record over the last two weeks.
In this window, they’ve had the league’s worst defensive efficiency of 125.9 (average in this window is 117.3), and combine that with the 12th-ranked offensive efficiency, of 119.6.