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Remember when the Phoenix Suns were 1-3 to start the new season and everyone wanted to hit the panic button? Boy was that silly!
After Sunday’s 26-point win over the lowly Houston Rockets, the Suns notched their eighth straight win, improving to the NBA’s second-best record (9-3), fifth-best point differential (+5.7) and longest active win streak in the process. This eight-game win streak tops any that the Suns enjoyed last year and is only matched during Monty Williams’ tenure by Phoenix’s infamous 8-0 run in the NBA bubble.
“For me, I don’t take them for granted, but I’m focused on just getting better and improving and seeing consistency,” Williams said before Sunday’s win. “The guys probably look at me sometimes and they wonder if I’m happy. My deadpan probably confuses them, but I’m focused on our team getting better. I don’t want to take away from the wins and the success we’ve had early in the season, but I have a short-term view, I have a long-term view. I love the wins, but I’m also focused on us getting better.”
Winning is nice, but the most encouraging thing is how much has changed for the Suns over these last eight games compared to their worrisome first four — especially when you consider they’ve been missing Deandre Ayton for all but two games during this win streak. So before Phoenix takes on the Minnesota Timberwolves on the second night of a back-to-back, it’s worth briefly noting the things that have changed for the better so rapidly.
1. Suns on a string again
Granted, we’re dealing with small sample sizes here, but the numbers didn’t lie about how uncharacteristically poor the Phoenix Suns’ defense was through the first four games. Their 113.9 defensive rating ranked 28th in the league, they gave up 47.8 percent shooting from the field and even worse, they were drastically out-performed from 3-point range.
In that opening 1-3 stretch, the Suns gave up a league-worst 42.4 percent shooting from long range, which was compounded by their opponents taking a whopping 40.3 attempts per game from beyond the arc. Williams and the Suns attributed the early defensive woes to not being on a string and over-helping on drives, which left far too many shooters open.
Since then, however, the Suns have looked like a new yet familiar team on that end. During this win streak, Phoenix’s 99.1 defensive rating ranks second in the NBA. They’re only giving up 42.2 percent shooting from the field (fourth-best mark in the league) and holding opponents to 30.7 percent from downtown (fifth) on 33.4 attempts per game (ninth).
“We’re just making it very, very tough for these teams on the defensive end, because offensively, we have weapons,” Jae Crowder said. “We know that. We have a lot of guys who can shoot, who can create, who can score, who can do a lot of things on that end of the court. But I think for us, it comes on the defensive end and giving ourselves up for the team and for a bigger success.”
Over the last two games, the Suns have held their opponents to 23 points or less in six of the eight quarters. According to Williams, simplifying their pick-and-roll coverages and simply getting in better shape to make multiple-effort plays has Phoenix looking more like the top-10 defense they were last year.
“The guards have done a really good job of pursuing over pick-and-rolls,” Williams said. “I think that’s helped us a ton. The communication’s gotten better, but I would say the next thing in line is the backside of our defense and the multiple efforts. They’ve been tremendous. Being able to cover the secondary and the tertiary options is hard to do in the NBA, ’cause a lot of teams don’t get to them. But when you play good defense, you can force them into their second and third options, and I think our conditioning has gotten a lot better. That allows for us to have more energy, more focus on the backside.”
The extra energy has helped the Suns become menaces over the last eight games when it comes to steals, deflections and blocks too:
- First 4 games: 7.3 SPG (23rd), 3.0 BPG (28th), 17.5 deflections per game (4th)
- Last 8 games: 11.0 SPG (2nd), 6.1 BPG (4th), 12.3 deflections per game (26th)
It’s no wonder the Suns are giving up nearly 13 fewer points per game during the win streak, and building that defensive identity back up will be key to making another deep playoff run.
“I think that’s the thing that we always talk about: Sometimes shots won’t fall, but you gotta make sure the defense travels,” Chris Paul said. “That’s one thing that can be a constant, and effort.”
2. Generating and hitting 3s
Part of what made the Suns’ early struggles to defend the 3-point line so glaring was their inability to cash in on their own looks from deep. Through the first four games, the Suns were taking 29.8 attempts per game from beyond the arc, which ranked 27th in the NBA, and they made only 32.8 percent of them, a conversion rate that ranked 19th.
Williams and the Suns emphasized letting it fly after a few games where the players seemed to be overthinking it on offense.
“They try to do the right thing, but the right thing at times is shooting the ball,” Williams said early in the season. “I think there is some feeling out going on right now, but again, that’s the thinking part. We don’t want the guys thinking about that. We feel like all of our guys have great intentions.”
That conversation must have struck a chord, because ever since the win streak started, Phoenix has bumped those numbers up to 32.6 attempts per game (24th) and 37.5 percent shooting (sixth). It’s no coincidence the Suns’ offensive rating has shot up by 7.0 points per 100 possessions during that stretch.
So what was the key for the Suns to start generating and making more 3s?
“Me getting out of Chris’ way,” Williams said. “Putting him in pick-and-rolls and he’s finding guys.”
3. A more aggressive Chris Paul
We covered Paul’s pass-first, scorch-fourth approach extensively already, but part of the Suns’ “let it fly” approach has been enhanced by CP3’s willingness to get everyone involved early on, even at the expense of his own looks.
“Chris is trying to make everybody happy all the time,” Williams said a few weeks back. “I’m like, ‘What? Everybody is happy. Like, you have the ball.’ But it just speaks to his integrity, he has basketball integrity, he doesn’t want to go out there and just jack up shots. But I’m like, ‘You gotta play.’”
Ever since then, play he has:
- First 4 games: 12.0 PPG, 10.8 APG, 1.8 SPG, 9.5 FGAs, 39.5 FG%, 30.0 3P%, -14.0
- Last 8 games: 15.3 PPG, 10.3 APG, 3.3 SPG, 10.9 FGAs, 54 FG%, 40.9 3P%, +16.0
Not only is Paul leading the league in assists (10.4 per game), but after a 7-steal performance and vicious nutmeg Sunday night, he’s also leading the NBA in steals (2.8 per game) and souls snatched (one, R.I.P. Usman Garuba).
Williams has called Paul a “safety blanket” because of his ability to get off that deadly midrange shot at any time, but it wasn’t always present early in games. In the first four contests, Paul was averaging 0.8 shots per first quarter. Over the last eight games, that number’s spiked to 2.6 shots per first quarter.
Despite all that, his head coach doesn’t believe the Point God’s mentality changes much during the game. What was perceived as a lack of aggression early on was really just an all-time floor general feeling out what defenses were giving him.
“He just knows when to [take over], and it’s a skill,” Williams said. “He just figures out like, ‘This is this way, this guy is playing me this way, they’re blitzing, they’re dropping,’ and then he just goes into a period in the game where it’s just him. He can be passing, or he can just go into his midrange game and take over a little bit. But the intention is to always win. It could be three shots, and you’re just like, ‘That changed the game. He just knew when to do it.’ And that’s special.”
4. Level of competition
We probably shouldn’t go much further without acknowledging the Suns’ schedule has been pretty favorable lately. In the first four games, Phoenix faced teams that currently have a combined 28-26 record (.519 win percentage).
Over their last eight, the Suns have gone up against opponents with a combined 34-61 record (.358).
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a winning team, the Atlanta Hawks should be a playoff contender in the East despite their slow start, and the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies will be in the playoff hunt out West. But beating up on bad or average teams is definitely one good way for the Suns to rediscover their groove!
5. Changing the turnover battle
To be perfectly honest, the Phoenix Suns are still turning the ball over about the same amount during this win streak as they were during their 1-3 start. In the first four games, they coughed it up 13.8 times a night. Over the last eight, they’re still at 13.3 turnovers per game.
But it’s the nature of the turnovers that has changed, as well as the transition defense that goes hand-in-hand with their mistakes.
“Taking care of the ball has helped us in transition,” Williams explained. “We’ve given up so many live-ball turnovers. Teams were converting turnovers into points, and it was deflating.”
Despite still turning the ball over at a similar rate, the Suns have cut down on some of the live-ball turnovers that were leading to easy scores. None of these numbers represents a drastic turnaround, but just chipping away at a few of them helped:
- First 4 games: 18.3 opponent points off turnovers per game (18th), 14.5 opponent fast break points per game (22nd)
- Last 8 games: 15.1 opponent points off turnovers pre game (10th), 11.4 opponent fast break points per game (T-13th)
6. FRANK THE TANK
We’ve also covered Frank Kaminsky’s recent rise to prominence at length, but it’s worth mentioning again: It’s pretty damn cool to see how he’s stepping up with Ayton sidelined, especially on a Suns team he always wanted to be with.
Through the first four games of the season, Kaminsky played a grand total of 10 minutes in one appearance, recording 2 points and 5 rebounds on 1-of-4 shooting. During the win streak, he’s played in seven games, averaging 12.9 points and 4.7 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game, all while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 38.5 from 3-point range.
Long live Frank the Tank.
7. Picking up the pace
Last year, the Phoenix Suns ranked 24th in pace (98.00). This season, coming off an NBA Finals run where the tempo slowed down and a Chris Paul-led team specialized in hunting mismatches on nearly every possession, this group needed to relearn how to play fast and loose during an 82-game regular season.
“We’re trying to play a little methodical instead of just letting the ball find energy, find the right shots,” Crowder explained early in the year. “Instead of trying to say, ‘This play is going to this shot,’ we gotta play more upbeat, more fast-paced. I think the style we played in the playoffs makes you slow down a little bit. We gotta roll over right now from playing a possession game. Right now, it’s not that type of season. We’re not in that. We gotta get our flow, we gotta get all the guys touching the ball, we gotta get the ball hopping, and right now, the offense is not finding the energy that we need.”
The Suns made it a point of emphasis to push the ball a little more, even during their 1-3 start. After all, they ranked 13th in pace at 101.25 through the first four games.
But during the win streak, they’re ratcheted that number all the way up to 103.0, which leads the NBA during that span. They’ve also bumped up their points off turnovers and fast break points per game:
- First 4 games: 14.0 points off turnovers (25th), 9.5 fast break points (24th)
- Last 8 games: 19.9 points off turnovers (4th), 14.1 fast break points (9th)
“I think concepts are more important than plays,” Williams said. “When you have guys like Chris and Book and playmakers like we have, pace and space is a premium more than calling a play. Sometimes when you call a play, it can slow the game down. Or if you’re thinking of a play, it can slow the game down. I see our guys thinking more than they have, which is okay, but it shouldn’t slow us down.”
Phoenix falling back on more pick-and-roll sets has gone hand-in-hand with a more up-tempo offense. Even if the Suns don’t maintain a league-leading pace, Williams is cognizant of his team’s need to play a little faster than last season.
“That’s how we want to play, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “I’m not concerned with being the highest-paced team, I’m not quite sure if that equates to much. But you don’t want to be the slowest team, and typically, pace means you’re getting stops. So I think that’s a good indicator.”
8. Cam Payne’s return
A bit of a no-brainer, but as it turns out, having your backup point guard to lead a mostly-new second unit is pretty helpful!
In the 1-3 start, Payne only played two games due to a hamstring injury, and he wasn’t great in those games either, averaging 7.0 points per game on 4-of-14 shooting, including 1-for-6 from deep.
But even after a bumpy return against the Hawks, Payne immediately bounced back the following game against the Kings, dropping 24 points to tie his regular-season career high.
“I saw the Cam Payne that we’re used to,” Williams said after the game. “He had a good offensive game going. The shot-making was there, the penetration to the lane was there, you could see him getting his burst back. So we certainly needed his scoring off the bench.”
In the five games since he’s been back, Payne is averaging 12.0 points a night on 46 percent shooting from the field and 40.9 percent shooting from 3-point range. Having his scoring back has been huge for a second unit that is still searching its rhythm.