Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns are legitimately good … and could be a playoff team

The Phoenix Suns are the biggest pleasant surprise in the NBA, but it’s time to start taking them seriously as a team that could contend for a playoff spot.

The Phoenix Suns are 5-2 to start the 2019-20 NBA season, and the question that’s on everyone’s minds — the one fans are terrified to ask, lest this state of bliss be jinxed back into the perpetual agony that’s hovered overhead for the better part of a decade — is whether it’s for real.

Are the Suns relevant again? Will they continue to stun the world in the ultra-competitive Western Conference? And, God forbid we ask and this beautiful glass house comes crashing down, are they an actual playoff team?

It might feel like it’s too early to say, but the truth is, this isn’t the first promising seven-game span that’s revealed what Devin Booker and the Suns are capable of with actual NBA players on the roster.

After a midseason Kelly Oubre Jr. trade and a Tyler Johnson swap last year, it took some time for a new-look Suns group of Johnson, Booker, Oubre, Mikal Bridges, Dragan Bender and Deandre Ayton to settle in. But once they did in late February, they went on a 5-2 streak that included wins over the surging Miami Heat, a playoff desperate Los Angeles Lakers squad, the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, the admittedly terrible New York Knicks and the West-leading Golden State Warriors.

It was dismissed or overlooked as small sample size theater, more likely to be one random hot streak than a true indicator of how a “good stats, bad team” player like Devin Booker really just needed good coaching and NBA-caliber talent around him.

Fast forward to Nov. 4, 2019, and Phoenix is once again 5-2 over a promising seven-game stretch. Even with Joel Embiid out due to a two-game suspension, consider Monday’s win over the previously undefeated Philadelphia 76ers the Suns’ (second) statement win about how pesky and competitive this team can be.

“I’ve said it from day one, we’re going to monitor our progress month-by-month, but at the same time, this is a huge win,” head coach Monty Williams said. “This is great for the fans, it’s great for our city. We got two hours to enjoy it, and then tomorrow I’ll start thinking about Miami.”

On a night where Booker dropped a season-high 40 points on 15-of-19 shooting, what was striking is how rare it’s been this season for him to have to dominate the proceedings. He’s been Phoenix’s best player by far, and has taken over late in games several times already, but unlike years past, this team’s success hasn’t rested solely on his shoulders.

If anything, no one is really playing outside their means. It’s taken a collective team effort, and most of it feels sustainable.

So far, the Suns have recorded wins over the Sixers, as well as another legitimate title contender in the LA Clippers. They’ve faced some bad teams like the Warriors, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies, sure, but they’ve done exactly what good teams should do, handily beating inferior competition.

“We fought through adversity once again,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said after their first statement win against the Clippers. “We’re finding who we are. We’re continuing to grow and that’s the most beautiful thing about it.”

Even more impressive? Their two losses have come against two Western contenders, the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, by a combined two points. One of those games went to overtime on the road, and both contests were winnable, with a made shot here or an overturned call there being the difference.

“We just continue to play with a level of intensity that I think is contagious,” Williams said after the Jazz loss. “I think our fans can feel it and it’s something that we want to build on.”

That’s right, folks: The Phoenix Suns aren’t far off from a perfect 7-0, and even without playing the “what if?” game, the numbers back up the growing feeling that this team is legit:

  • 4th in the NBA in point differential (+8.6)
  • 4th in Net Rating (+7.8)
  • 10th in O-Rating (108.8)
  • 7th in D-Rating (100.9)
  • 1st in assist percentage (67.4 percent)
  • 2nd in APG (27.7 APG)
  • 11th in pace (104.02)
  • 3rd in true shooting percentage (58.7 percent)

It’s not just the base numbers that look encouraging, however. The Suns are building success by focusing on the fundamentals.

Sure, they’re shooting a healthy 47.1 percent from the field (fifth in the NBA), but they’re doing it efficiently, making 37.7 percent of their 3s (eighth) and racking up 50.3 points in the paint a night (seventh).

They’re getting stops on defense, but they’re also turning their length and deflections into offense, ranking eighth in steals (8.7 per game), seventh in fast break points (16.7 per game) and most importantly, second in points off turnovers (22.6 per game).

“I mean, from day one, coach has talked about setting the tone on the defensive end,” Frank Kaminsky said. “Guard your position, guard your man. That’s really what we’ve done. Nothing is going to come easy.”

Booker — a guy whose defense has always been pegged as his biggest flaw — is not only buying in, but leading by example. His numbers are slightly down from last year, at 26.1 points and 5.0 assist per game, but his improved efficiency (.535/.500/.903 shooting splits) and defensive intensity represent growth to finally answer that annoying “impact” question his critics have been asking for years now.

The 23-year-old star believes defense is going to be the Suns’ identity, and it’s showing with his effort both on and off the ball as a defender this season.

“I’ve talked to some players [saying] you guys are playing really physical and it is better playing physical, picking up fouls, than teams not feeling you at all,” Booker said.

The tradeoff has been rough for Phoenix, which ranks 29th in fouls per game, but it’s the cost of establishing itself as a physical, defensive-minded team.

The Suns have limited opponents to 43.7 points in the paint per game (ninth), are deadly accurate from the free-throw line at 81.9 percent (fourth), and with the ball zipping all over the floor, guys are comfortable sharing and taking the best shot available for the team. It’s an empowering offense that begins with a stingy defense, and it’s not a surprise the Suns have improved night-and-day from last year’s bottom-three unit on both ends.

That brand has led to winning basketball, with everyone from Doc Rivers to Brett Brown and Kawhi Leonard to Patrick Beverley commending the Suns for their fight, for wanting it more, for playing harder, for hitting tough shots to put games away.

“We haven’t had an easy schedule to start the season, there’s been some good teams to come through here,” Booker said Monday night. “We’ve showed that we’re battle-tested and we can come out and play with anybody if we’re doing what we need to do.”

To this point, Phoenix is the only team in the NBA to rank in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive rating. Seven games may be a small sample, but we’re nearly one-tenth of the way through the regular season and the Suns have played an absolute gauntlet to start the year.

“How could it not be fun? It’s fun for everyone here involved,” Aron Baynes said. “That’s one of the good feelings we have right now is we understand that when we’re playing within the system and the ball is moving and everyone’s getting a shot, we’re just taking the best shot for the team — that’s when it’s fun. When we keep playing defense the way we are, it allows us to get out in transition. It’s fun through sticking to the little things and doing the little things consistently and making the most of every single play, and that’s how we have our fun.”

What’s more impressive is how much fun the Suns have been despite the adversity they’ve faced. After a promising 18-point, 11-rebound, four-block debut, Deandre Ayton was suspended 25 games. That type of loss should’ve stopped Phoenix dead in its tracks after a feel-good season opener, but instead, Baynes stepped right up, anchoring the defense, shooting 46.7 percent from 3 and averaging 16.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game ever since.

Despite missing Ricky Rubio due to a minor knee injury against the Clippers, the Suns beat one of the best teams in the NBA on the second night of a back-to-back following a tough OT loss in Denver the night before. Rookie and likely backup point guard Ty Jerome has yet to play a single game due to an ankle sprain. Assuming his suspension isn’t reduced, Ayton won’t be back until December.

And yet, with the lineup in flux and a bunch of new faces to implement, Monty Williams has continued to emphasize month-over-month growth for the NBA’s biggest pleasant surprise team. Kaminsky was a flamethrower off the bench to start the year. Jevon Carter looks like a legitimate backup point guard. Baynes and Rubio have been complete difference-makers, Booker is playing airtight defense, Oubre is maximizing his game with his cutting … the list goes on and on.

At some point, the Suns will be hit with more adversity. There will be cold streaks, as Kaminsky and Carter returning to earth after hot starts has already shown. But at that point, the team’s commitment to defense should continue to shine through, just as it has through the early ups and downs on the offensive end.

“There’s gonna be adversity,” Baynes said. “Even within every game there’s adversity. One thing coach said is ‘the next right thing.’ That’s what we have to do. That’s what we need to focus on. It applies to on-court, it applies to off-court.”

Seven games in, the Suns have sometimes looked outmatched by superior competition. Yet they’ve hung in every single game, despite being underdogs in a new system under a new coach, thanks to a type of toughness that hasn’t stuck in Phoenix for years now.

“When I came here I saw all guys were good people,” Dario Saric said. “Sometimes you kind of need chemistry, sometimes one month, two months to stick together. But this team, they’re really willing to sacrifice for other teammates. If somebody slips on defense, another guy will step up, try to cover his back. If you have that intensity for 48 minutes, it’s just unbelievable. I think this team can do great things and I think it’s just beginning for us.”

Some of that change comes with having fundamentally solid, experienced players, but that defensive focus, that intensity, that on-court intelligence, that ability to simply hang around against good teams — those things travel, even on nights when the shots aren’t falling.

“I don’t think we can win without it,” Williams said of the Suns’ intensity level. “That’s how I’ve always approached the game. There are teams in the league that have so much talent that they can turn the switch on. We can’t. Our guys understand that. We have talent, but we don’t have continuity, we just got together, so we have to play hard.”

While this start has understandably gotten everyone excited in the valley, Monty is keeping his team grounded. That’s probably for the best with the NBA’s youngest team whose core players are experiencing success — even in a small, concentrated dose — for the first time.

“We can’t skip steps is something that keeps coming back to me with [Gregg Popovich],” Williams said. “The way he taught us is to not skip steps.”

This represents a radical culture shift for an organization that’s repeatedly tried to do just that over the years. The rebuild has been in progress for awhile now, but ironically enough, this apparent overnight change in Phoenix’s competitiveness stems from the values Williams has been instilling all summer.

“When you weigh out the basketball teaching, he’s an excellent teacher,” said Brett Brown, who had Williams on his coaching staff last year in Philly. “He’s detail-oriented. He understands team. He is also a heck of a good person. That is a wonderful package to have as your head coach. His fast start does not surprise me.”

The Suns are showing they can win ugly or that they can win pretty. After years wandering the desert searching from some kind of oasis, their fans could probably care less how they’re doing it now, so long as it continues.

The good news is, all the evidence we have so far suggests it should. It’s far too early to say whether that means ending the franchise’s nine-year playoff drought, but here’s what’s for certain: The Phoenix Suns are a legitimate, competitive basketball team, and even in the loaded West, they look like a team that should at least be in the running come April.

Next: Meet the 2019 NBA 25-under-25

It will be hard to actually get there. But after years of embarrassing teams, home areas half-filled with opposing fans, sub-30 win seasons and constant roster turnover, “hard” is nothing new for Devin Booker and his teammates. If anything, it might provide more motivation than anything else.

“Monty always says a quote, ‘Everything you want is on the other side of hard,’ Booker said. “I’ve took that quote and embraced it.”

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