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Suns may be winning ugly, but they're still dominant in crunch-time

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 18, 2021

The Phoenix Suns are going streaking, winning their 10th straight game Wednesday night to improve to 11-3 overall. Sure, at times the streak has been as aesthetically pleasing as an actual streaker running across the fanbase’s collective line of sight, but winning ugly has its merits too.

In a nationally televised matchup against the Luka Doncic-less Dallas Mavericks, the Suns were heavy favorites to win by near-double figures. But as has been the case multiple times this season and even last year, the shots weren’t falling and Phoenix played down to its competition.

The Suns trailed by 5 points heading into the fourth quarter, but as they’ve done throughout this win streak, they locked in for the final 12 minutes, got stops and outscored the Mavs 37-25 in the final frame.

“I think it shows a lot of growth in our team,” Chris Paul said. “We trust each other, trust our defense and our principles, and we were able to execute down the stretch.”

For the Suns, this was pretty familiar territory, in more sense than one.

“That’s a few games this year where we’ve done something similar,” Devin Booker said. “Obviously you want it to be earlier in the game and put teams away, but this is very talented league. It’s a long game and you stay the course and like Chris said, you trust your defense. We’ve been through it a little bit together, so we know how to lock in and get it done.”

After that worrisome 1-3 start, the Suns resisted hitting the panic button and got back to their defensive roots. Since then, they’ve won 10 straight, matching the franchise’s longest win streak and best start through 14 games since the 2009-10 season.

It hasn’t always been pretty. Just two nights before, the Suns were deadlocked with the Minnesota Timberwolves in a battle for who could throw up the most bricks through the first three-and-a-half quarters. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, who are now 2-14, Phoenix trailed by 14 at the end of the first quarter. They were down at halftime against the Houston Rockets (now 1-4) in their first meeting, and they also trailed the Atlanta Hawks by 12 heading into the fourth quarter of their very next game.

Even as the Suns continue to pile up wins, they’re really only put together a full 48 minutes of consistent basketball once or twice. In Monty Williams’ eyes, however, his focus is simply on getting better, not on win streaks or chasing what he called a “unicorn” of four perfect quarters. It’s about striving for excellence, not perfection.

“I don’t want to sound like I don’t care, but my mindset is always ‘How do we improve and get better?'” he said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the win streaks. I said it the other day, I wasn’t trying to be silly about it, but I love winning. But winning’s hard. And so for me, anyway, my focus is the things that help you win.

“Are we getting better in transition defense? We are. Are we getting better on the backside of our pick-and-roll coverages? We are. We’ve been really focusing on our defense as of late because we feel like we’re getting the shots. So for me, I just focus on the pieces of the game that help you win.”

Defense has certainly been at the crux of Phoenix’s drastic turnaround. During the 10-game win streak, the Suns boast the league’s second-best defense, holding teams to 98.8 points per 100 possessions. Shots will come and go, but defense travels, and it’s a huge part of the reason this team continues to be able to win ugly.

Against the Wolves on Monday, the Suns shot a putrid 37.6 percent from the field and 22.6 percent from 3-point range. But they held Minnesota to 36.5 percent shooting and limited them to 23 points or less in three of the four quarters.

In their first matchup with Houston, Phoenix limited the Rockets to 43.2 percent shooting for the game and only 50 points in the second half. Against the Pelicans, after a 36-point first quarter, New Orleans could only manage 23, 23 and 18 points over the next three. The Suns held Atlanta to just 19 fourth-quarter points in that comeback win, and they’ve held their opponent under 100 points in each of the last four games — the franchise’s longest such streak since 2014-15.

“It’s exciting, because once the shot-making starts to go our way and the defense remains the same, it’s going to be really good for us,” Williams said.

The defense may be paving the way, but the Suns are laying down the asphalt in late-game scenarios. Even on the nights where shots haven’t been falling for the first three quarters, Phoenix keeps finding ways to flip the switch and do just enough to beat inferior teams.

Wednesday night provided the latest example. Through the first three quarters, the Suns had shot just 37 percent from the floor. In the fourth, they went 14-for-20, hitting a staggering 70 percent of their shots to turn Dallas’ 5-point lead into a 7-point defeat.

At the heart of it, as per usual, were Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Paul had a grand total of 1 point, 7 assists and 0 field goals heading into the fourth quarter, but in typical Point God fashion, he turned it on late, finishing with 7 points and 14 assists despite only shooting 2-for-12.

It was a slightly less sexy version of what he did in Minnesota two nights prior, when he dropped 19 of his 21 points in the fourth to bury the Wolves in their own frozen tundra. All season long, he’s been facilitating early in games, lying dormant through three quarters before catching opponents off-guard with rapid-fire scoring bursts in the fourth.

And then there’s Devin Booker, who is impossible to stop when he’s hitting shit like this:

“Chris is just gonna find a way to control the game,” Landry Shamet said. “And Book, this time with his shotmaking, and when you have that combination of those two guys, you put yourself naturally in a really good place.”

This isn’t cherry-picking from one or two games though. While 14 total games and seven games featuring crunch-time minutes isn’t a huge sample size, Book and CP3 have been as good as advertised in late-game scenarios so far.

According to NBA.com, Booker is the league’s sixth-leading scorer in “clutch minutes” (defined as the last five minutes or less of any game where the score is within five points). Book has racked up 24 points in just 22 crunch-time minutes, shooting a blistering 9-for-12 from the field and 3-for-5 from beyond the arc. He’s also chipped in 4 assists for good measure and is a +37 overall in those minutes, the highest mark in the NBA so far.

Chris Paul is no slouch either. He’s the NBA’s 12th-leading crunch-time scorer with 21 points in 22 minutes, shooting 5-for-8 from the floor, 10-for-11 from the free-throw line and chipping in a league-high 9 assists. It’s no wonder his +35 plus/minus trails only his teammate Booker.

“I say it all the time, I don’t take for granted what those two are able to do in closing moments,” Williams said.

It’s not just the backcourt carrying the load, however. In fact, the Suns’ entire starting lineup is near the top-10 in this category. Mikal Bridges is third in the NBA with a total plus/minus of +34 in crunch-time. Jae Crowder is fourth at +31, and despite missing six games, Deandre Ayton is already 11th at +20.

“There’s a number of things, but you need really good backcourts to finish well in this league,” Williams explained following the Timberwolves game. “Chris has been in so many situations, and now Devin, he’s right there as far as guys his age having the experience that he has now. It helps, but having Jae on the floor in those moments, the ability to affect the game when you’re not making shots is something that we value. We saw a number of guys who couldn’t put the ball in the hole had really good shot quality, but found a different way to affect the game.”

The Suns rank first in the NBA in clutch plus/minus, being a +35 in their 22 minutes of crunch-time action. They’re 6-1 in those games, trailing only the Washington Wizards (7-0). Their +5.0 point differential in the clutch leads the NBA, and their offensive, defensive and Net Ratings are eye-popping — even as early-season, small-sample-size outliers that won’t hold up for very long:

  • Net Rating: +61.0 (4th)
  • Offensive Rating: 139.2 (4th)
  • Defensive Rating: 78.3 (3rd)

“I feel like in this win streak, we’ve had glimpses of greatness from a lot of different people,” JaVale McGee said. “So it’s just showing the world that as a team, the Phoenix Suns are the one.”

The Suns have numerous sayings and principles to fall back on that have helped them through this win streak. When the shots aren’t falling, like they weren’t for Mikal Bridges or Jae Crowder on Wednesday night, it’s “trust the work” to keep letting those shots fly. When the Robert Sarver story broke and threatened to loom over the team’s day-to-day focus, it was “control what you can control.”

For every bit of adversity, this young but suddenly seasoned team has a mantra, a Monty-ism or a real-game experience to fall back on. It probably shouldn’t be surprising for a group that just went to the NBA Finals a few months ago.

“There were a ton of learning moments that they had to go through to grow,” Williams said. “This is our third year together. It helps, because you can’t win big unless you can win close games, and you can only win close games if you have the experience.”

Last season, the Suns boasted the NBA’s second-best record in games involving crunch-time minutes, but they also posted a worse record against teams below .500 than they did against teams at or above .500. They regularly played down to their competition, and given how favorable their schedule has been to start this season, it appears that recurring trend is back.

The difference is, the Suns are at least winning those ugly games now, flipping the switch despite playing with their food at times.

“I think we figured it out now,” Deandre Ayton said. “Earlier in [last] season, we was kind of shaky in a way closing out games. We were losing a lot of close games last year, easy ones. I think we learned from that as well, just making sure we execute plays down low and communicating. C’s big on that now, him and Book, where we are extremely locked in to where, we have a thing, saying, ‘Yo, this is that moment.’ And everybody just chips in and locks in like, ‘Okay, let’s go.’”

Unlike last year, where the Suns lost themselves quite a few winnable games against bad teams, this year’s iteration is finding ways to win ugly despite not bringing it for the full 48 minutes. In some cases, they’ve really only had to truly bring it for 12 minutes or so.

“Every time we step on a court, I feel like we have the better team,” Crowder said. “It’s just all about if we’re gonna play better that night, and I think recently, we’ve been playing better, playing more purposeful basketball. We’re realizing what we’re trying to do on both ends of the court. It’s just all clicking right now, connectivity-wise.”

Having the continuity and trust that comes from making a Finals run while keeping the roster largely intact helps in that regard, but Williams has been around long enough to remember when Phoenix had the youngest team in the league and couldn’t close out games. Bringing in veterans like Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, plus the natural maturing of young cornerstones like Booker, Bridges and Ayton, has led to this point, where the Suns are cruising to 10 straight wins despite not even eclipsing their best basketball yet.

“I think the mental stamina is something that I see from our guys,” Williams said. “We’ve had a number of situations in the fourth quarter where a team makes a run or they take the lead and we come to the side and our guys are in the same mode as if it was the first quarter. I think that’s something that we probably have grown in over the past year with this particular group. I’m sure a lot of that playoff experience helped us grow in that area.”

That approach may cost Phoenix a game here or there, but getting additional practice with late-game scenarios — even against bad teams they should be blowing out — isn’t a bad thing. It helped prepare the Suns for a Finals run last year, and if they’re putting together 10-game win streaks despite not being totally locked in, the rest of the league should be very concerned about when a team notorious for rising to the occasion against elite competition starts putting it all together.

“I think after our experience and our playoff run last year that we pay attention to the details,” Booker said. “Every game we’re preparing for what the next level is, and that’s the postseason. So every play counts. We always say we’re not playing against our opponent, we’re playing against ourselves and holding each other accountable. It’s been working well for us, but we always have room to grow.”

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