Until the closing minutes of the fourth quarter on Wednesday evening, it looked like the Phoenix Suns were going to drop a bad loss to a Dallas Mavericks team that was without Luka Doncic. Chris Paul was having an incredibly rough shooting night (2-for-12 from the field, 0-for-6 from deep), and through the first half, the Suns couldn’t buy a shot from 3-point territory, shooting 22.7 percent.
But Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder started connecting on their 3s, Paul racked up nine of his 14 assists in the second half, and the Suns stopped playing with their food to show that they were just too much for the Luka-less Mavericks. The win was Phoenix’s 10th-straight, and after starting the 2021-22 campaign with a 1-3 record, the Suns look like they’ve settled into the season. Ahead of their next opportunity to extend their win streak, let’s break down three observations that have stood out over the Suns’ impressive run.
What’s been one of the more surprising aspects of the Suns’ current win streak is that they’re doing it in large part without Ayton, who missed six games of the win streak with a right leg contusion. Though Ayton’s production has a tendency to run hot and cold, oscillating between a double-double machine and someone who struggles to assert himself on offense, his presence in the paint on both ends can’t be understated.
It was an issue the Suns ran into during the NBA Finals against Giannis Antetokounmpo, where Ayton proved to be the only Suns player who could play passable defense against the reigning Finals MVP. When Ayton went to the bench in the Finals, the Suns’ defensive rating jumped from 111.6 to 121.8, while their offense also took a dive, scoring 8.3 fewer points when the No. 1 overall pick was off the floor.
After the Finals, it was evident Phoenix needed frontcourt depth, especially after Dario Saric went down with an ACL tear during the postseason which meant he could potentially be out for all of the 2021-22 season. Enter 7-foot center JaVale McGee, who started in the six games Ayton was out. During that time, McGee averaged 12 points, 7.5 rebounds and just over a block a game, highlighted by a 19-point, 14-rebound three-block performance in a drubbing of the Houston Rockets, where the Suns collected their eighth-straight win.
McGee’s not going to give you the same production Ayton would, and he’s certainly got his…quirks about him when he’s on the floor, but his ridiculous length is going to produce stops like this:
Having someone of McGee’s size and athleticism on the roster gives Phoenix a backup big man who can not only fill in for Ayton when he’s injured, but also allows him to enjoy more of a break throughout the game when he’s healthy. McGee has done enough of the right things during this winning streak, like deflecting and blocking shots, getting putback opportunities on the offensive glass and being a solid rim runner, that it didn’t make Ayton’s absence in those six games as detrimental as it could’ve been against guys like Karl-Anthony Towns, Clint Capela and Richaun Holmes.
2. Grinding out victories down the stretch
Despite primarily playing against teams with losing records over this winning streak, only two of them have been won by 15 or more points, with five of them being single-digit victories. Most of the wins the Suns are collecting during this run haven’t been easy, forcing the team to stay locked in until the final buzzer. It has resulted in some truly impressive clutch wins for the Suns, like their four-point victory over the Atlanta Hawks after being down by 11 points entering the fourth quarter.
Up until that point against the Hawks, Devin Booker was the only player who had anything going on offense, and much like Phoenix’s win over the Mavericks, the Suns couldn’t hit a 3-pointer, connecting on 29.4 percent through three quarters. As a side note, the Suns’ 3-point struggles in many of these games isn’t a case of the team not getting any good looks, because over 18 percent of Phoenix’s 3-pointers come without a defender within six feet of the shooter. It’s just taken longer into the games for shots to start falling for the Suns, which is exactly what happened against the Hawks. Phoenix shot 44 percent from long range in the fourth quarter, and some lockdown defense on the other end of the floor helped slow Atlanta down, leading to another win for the Suns.
Winning tight games has been one of the biggest underlying factors to the Suns’ success through this run. So far this season, Phoenix owns the second-highest win percentage in clutch situations, with a 6-1 record, and are outscoring their opponents 64-31 in those six wins.
“After our experience and our playoff run last year, we pay attention to the details,” Booker said after the Suns’ latest clutch win against the Mavericks on Wednesday. “Every game we’re preparing for what the next level is, and that’s the postseason. Every play counts, and we always say we’re not playing against our opponent, we’re playing against ourselves and hold each other accountable. That’s been working well for us, but we still have room to grow.”
You can tell that Phoenix’s playoff experience made an impact on this team because if it weren’t for last season’s success, the Suns probably don’t win several of these games that come down to the wire. That “paying attention to details” bit that Booker’s talking about is important late in games, and after playing on the biggest stage a season ago, the Suns are proving that they carried over what they learned from that experience into this season.
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3. Relying on defense when the offense stalls
The other aspect that’s gone hand-in-hand with the clutch wins the Suns are racking up is their stingy defense. In four straight games now they’ve held their opponent to under 100 points, which even with the drop in offense across the league this season is still almost unheard of in this era of high-scoring games. During their winning streak, Phoenix has the second-best defensive rating (98.8) behind the Golden State Warriors.
After blowing out the Rockets, where the Suns held Houston to just 89 points, coach Monty Williams touched on the team’s defensive philosophy.
“I thought the defense again allowed for us to have the kind of cushion we needed even when we had that lull in the second quarter,” Williams said. “To hold an NBA team to 23 or less points in three quarters, two games in a row, and then hold them under 90 points, that to me is a pretty cool accomplishment, and that’s what we want to do every night, have our defense create our offense.”
It’s true, during this winning streak, Phoenix’s offense has only been slightly above average, but the defense on the other end has a stranglehold against opponents, especially down the stretch. Going back to that Hawks game, after Trae Young put up 14 of his 31 points in the third quarter, he was held to just four points in the final 12 minutes of the game, while going 1-of-7 from the field.
The same thing happened when Phoenix took on the Mavericks. Kristaps Porzingis had no issue racking up 14 first-half points, then he was held scoreless in the third quarter, which helped the Suns avoid a bigger deficit after shooting just 29.2 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from deep heading into the final 12 minutes of the game.
Ayton did a great job of not allowing Porzingis any space to get a decent shot off, and when he thought he had the tiniest bit of room, in comes Crowder with the help defense:
The other thing the Suns did a good job of was denying entry passes to Porzingis which resulted in turnovers, like this from Bridges:
Crowder did the same thing in the first half to Porzingis, too:
That pesky defense led by Bridges and Crowder throughout the game helps Phoenix tread water when its offense is struggling. It then typically leads to a fourth quarter where the Suns’ offense starts to catch fire, as they lead the league in fourth-quarter points through their winning streak (29.9).
“There’s a few games this year where we’ve done something similar,” Booker said. “Obviously you want it to be earlier in the game and put teams away, but this is a very talented league so it’s a long game and you stay the course. Like Chris [Paul] said, you trust your defense and we’ve been through it a little together so we know how to lock in and get it done.”
The Suns keep getting it done each game, and when their shots start falling earlier in games, it’s only going to make this team that much harder to beat. Although the winning streak will come to an end eventually, this stretch of games has shown how versatile and tough this team is going to be this season.