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Tuesday’s primetime matchup between the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors is a battle between the NBA’s two best teams so far, a possible playoff preview, and a potential passing of the torch moment all at once.
Grounded by a core of talented youngsters, a few perfectly-fitting veterans and a head coach who places a heavy emphasis on ball movement and defense on the court as well as culture and good vibes off it, the Suns are on a mission to prove themselves with a Larry O’Brien trophy. Standing in their way is a Warriors team that’s dominated most of the last decade and built a dynasty on those very same tenets.
“I do enjoy games like this, when you get a chance to play against a team that’s done way more than you have,” Monty Williams said. “They have everything that we want. They have championships, they have MVPs they have Defensive Player of the Years, they have all that. We don’t. So from that standpoint, those are the teams that you want to take down.”
The Suns are riding the NBA’s longest active win streak with 16 straight victories; the Warriors are tied for second, winning their last seven. Phoenix leads the league in field-goal percentage; the Dubs rank second. Golden State leads the NBA in point differential (+13.7), defensive rating (99.4) and true shooting percentage (59.5 percent); the Suns follow up in third (+7.6), third (103.7) and fourth (57.7 percent) in those respective categories.
It’s a battle between two Western Conference titans, the two best records in the league and two of only three teams to rank in the top-seven for both offensive and defensive rating.
Basically, this is as close to playoff basketball as November could possibly bring us. It’s only fitting the Suns will be attempting to tie their franchise record of 17 straight wins against the Warriors, a team they hope to emulate in terms of winning culture, accolades and championships.
“They’re battle-tested,” Devin Booker said. “They’re champions. They’ve done everything that I’m trying to get to.”
November basketball is usually meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but in the NBA’s biggest regular-season matchup so far, which could have a bearing on Western Conference seeding down the line, here are some key areas that will determine this highly-anticipated showdown.
1. Warriors’ small-ball vs. Suns’ bigs
The tallest player in Golden State’s starting lineup is Kevon Looney at 6-foot-9, and they frequently deploy Draymond Green (6-foot-6) at the 5 as they’ve done for years. So yeah, this team likes to go small.
The Suns, meanwhile, now have two legitimate 7-footers to put to good use in Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee. How they fare against the Warriors’ small-ball lineups on both ends of the floor may go a long way in determining this first regular-season showdown.
After Ayton was able to hang with the LA Clippers’ small-ball lineups in last year’s Western Conference Finals, and after the Suns bested the Brooklyn Nets’ smaller configurations over the weekend, Williams is confident in his bigs’ ability to stay on the court, score in the paint and attack the boards.
“I think we saw it last game, with he and JaVale against Brooklyn,” Williams said at Monday’s shootaround. “They went smaller and tried to switch, and we were able to punish those guys in the paint. We talked about that today.”
So far this season, the Warriors are allowing their opponents the fewest points in the paint (39.6 per game) and the lowest percentage of shots at the rim (26 percent) in the league. Conversely, the Suns are sixth in points in the paint, averaging 48.5 per game. Being able to punish those smaller lineup with efficient looks around the basket will be key for Ayton and McGee, a former Warrior who won two titles with the team.
“Focusing on being big,” McGee said about his mentality for Tuesday’s game. “I feel like a couple years ago, it was a real emphasis on bigs, trying to get the bigs out of there and going small, and people thought that was the way to beat the Warriors. But I definitely think going big can serve up some problems also.”
Golden State is sure to go small, and switching defenses have given the Suns fits in the past, when guards like Devin Booker and Chris Paul no longer have mismatches to target on the switch. That midrange mastery out of isos is more difficult against switching defenses, so being able to set up their big men for good looks against smaller defenders could go a long way in this particular matchup.
“Most teams go to zone or switching defenses to slow you down and break your rhythm, and we’ve talked about not allowing teams to do that to us,” Williams said.
On the other end, Ayton and McGee will be tasked with being switched out onto the perimeter, which means they’ll need to remain on their toes against Golden State’s plethora of ball-handlers, drivers and 3-point shooters.
“That’s the beauty of having the bigs that we have with DA and JaVale putting that size around the rim, and their ability to guard,” Booker said. “If they’re going smaller, they’re gonna have to defend like some guards. They’re gonna be out on the perimeter a lot more, away from the basket where they tend to be, so we just gotta find ways to help each other out and cover up for each other.”
2. Containing Curry
Guarding Stephen Curry calls to mind that classic scene from Coach Carter, when the titular coach played by Samuel L. Jackson encourages big man Junior Battle to keep doing his best defending Ty Crane, one of the state’s best players with NBA-caliber talent:
You can’t stop Steph Curry; you can only hope to contain him.
Tied for the league lead in scoring at 28.6 points per game, Curry is taking a career-high 13.1 3-point attempts per game, and he’s making a staggering 42.3 percent of those shots. To put that number into context, Curry is currently averaging more 3-point makes per game by himself than 20 teams were only 20 seasons ago.
Calling him the “best shooter to ever touch a basketball,” Booker stressed the importance of staying with him until the Suns close out stops with a rebound.
“Just the stamina, the conditioning, he just doesn’t stop,” he said. “The possession’s never over, the action’s never over, and just the leadership behind it too, having everybody bought in.”
The brunt of that task will fall to Mikal Bridges, who’s already putting together an impressive resume for this year’s All-Defensive team. But against a singular talent like Curry, it takes a village, and Williams believes Bridges’ ability to not get discouraged when the Warriors superstar hits tough shots will be key.
“It’s the old cliche: It’s gonna take a team to defend a guy like Steph, and you have to emotionally be strong and consistent,” he said. “If you watch the game [Sunday], he ran off a few 3s, and you could see it emotionally got to the Clippers, and that was it. I think our guys understand who he is as a player. Today, yesterday, historically — like, he’s the guy for that organization, and he has been for a long time. So you can’t get deflated when he knocks down a shot 40 feet from the basket. It’s like, how do you respond to that? How do you keep your emotional essence in check, and just continue to stay with it?”
3. Battle of the ball movement
Williams wasn’t buying into the notion that the Suns and Warriors are mirror images of each other, but there are still quite a few similarities between the two teams on the offensive end.
“We both move without the ball,” Williams said. “We have dynamic players on the outside, for sure. But I think there’s some differences too.”
The Warriors currently lead the league in assists per game (29.3) and assist percentage (70.6 percent). The Suns rank a respectable fourth and seventh in those categories, respectively, but are fairly distant at 26.3 dimes per game, with an assist percentage of 61.7.
One difference, which Williams pointed out at shootaround, is how Golden State’s bigs frequently function as facilitators. Even without the immense gravity of Curry’s deep range, his incessant cutting and his nonstop movement, the Dubs have bigs who can pass from anywhere while their cutters and off-ball screeners zip around the court.
“It’s just constant movement,” Booker said. “I think our ability to switch and guard multiple positions, have different guys to match up with that, it helps us out a little bit. But just the continuous movement. We call the head of the snake, obviously is Steph creating for a lot of people, but everybody else is playing very confident too. So you have to key into everybody. It’s not just a Steph show, but obviously it’s hard to contain.”
According to NBA.com, the Warriors lead the league in points off cuts (17 per game) by a country mile, with the next-closest team averaging 12 per game. It’s mostly due to sheer volume: Golden State’s 11.8 percent cutting frequency is also tops in the league. The Suns are no slouches in this category either, however. In fact, on a points per possession basis on cuts, Phoenix ranks second (1.40), while the Dubs come in ninth (1.29).
Where the Warriors are truly dangerous, aside from the unrelenting motion, is coming off screens. They lead the NBA in both points per possession (1.16) and points per game (11.1) off screens. Stephen Curry accounts for a league-leading 5.8 points per game off screens, and Klay Thompson, who led the NBA in that category for four straight years before his ACL tear, will be returning soon. A switching defense will help with all that activity, but communication will be key too. Fortunately, the Suns have the seventh-best defense when it comes to limiting points off screens.
4. Tale of the turnovers
The Warriors are a turnover-prone team. They cough it up 16.1 times per game on average, which ranks 28th in the NBA. That’s led to 17.5 opponent points off turnovers per game…which is right around what the Suns average at 17.3 points per game off turnovers. The Suns are also fifth in steals, so feasting on the Dubs’ mistakes and turning them into scoring opportunities could serve as a big advantage.
On the flip side, the Suns take pretty good care of the ball. They average 13.5 turnovers per game, which is the 10th-best mark in the association. They only give up 15.4 points off turnovers per game, again the 10th-best mark in the league. Keeping their turnovers to a minimum will go a long way in limiting Golden State’s transition offense, since Steve Kerr’s squad does an incredible job of turning mistakes into easy buckets. The Dubs rank:
- 2nd in steals (10.1 per game)
- 2nd in points off turnovers (20.3 per game)
- 1st in fast break points (17.2 per game)
It’s simple: Take care of the ball, don’t let the Warriors get out and run, and turn their many errors into scoring chances.
Limiting the NBA’s second-best offense won’t be easy, nor will it be easy to score on the league’s stingiest defense. We’re only six weeks into the new season, but make no mistake about it: This early-season matchup could very easily be a Western Conference Finals preview.
“I think they’re one of the few teams including us that play consistently together all the way through, 48 minutes, and communicate on the defensive end also,” Booker said. “So you have two talented teams that know how to play against each other. Now it’s just coming down to competing the full 48 minutes.”
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