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Stop sleeping on the Phoenix Suns

Stop sleeping on the Phoenix Suns

It was Deandre Ayton's turn on Tuesday night. 

The big fella led the Phoenix Suns with 24 points, while also grabbing 11 boards (6 offensive) and swatting a couple of shots away. While the Suns beat the Warriors by eight points, they outscored the Golden Crew by 16 points in Ayton's 34 minutes.

It would be convenient to frame Ayton's big night as a "he stepped up without Devin Booker" performance, though that wouldn't be entirely fair. Yes, Ayton's contributions on the interior helped after Booker sustained a hamstring injury in the second quarter, but Ayton didn't just fill the gaps.

He set the tone.

With Andrew Wiggins getting the Booker assignment, and Draymond Green taking on Chris Paul for switch-the-1-5-pick-and-roll purposes, it was up to Ayton to make that plan a bad one. 

He won early by doing the little things. Hard screens and even harder rolls to the basket. Quick (and deep) seals against smaller opponents. Timely offensive boards. Nine of his 24 points, and 4 of his 11 rebounds came in the first quarter.

Zoom out, though, and you see the beauty — and deadliness — of this Suns team. You have to worry about the three-level scoring prowess of Booker. There's Paul's playmaking ability and otherworldly mid-range shooting. And if you focus on taking those things away, you still have to deal with Ayton.

Tuesday night was a snapshot — a loud one, considering the opponent — of what the Suns have been during their 17-game win streak. Relentless. Calculated. Suffocating. Versatile. They often get a lot from a few, but they consistently get a little bit from everyone. 

That's how you win 17 straight. It's how you build a top-five half-court offense and defense, per Cleaning The Glass.

THE BALLING BACKCOURT

It starts with the duo of Paul and Booker, who seem to have struck a nice balance between lead duties. And by balance, I really mean that Paul is really commandeering this thing.

Paul has taken even more ownership of the offense; he once again leads the team in touches, and his overall time of possession has increased from last season. Booker has seen a decrease in both, an odd phenomenon on the surface considering Booker is ascending while Paul is, well, 37 years old.

Here's where we are this season, with last season's mark in parentheses.

Player Touches Time of possession Avg. seconds per touch Avg. dribbles per touch
Chris Paul 75.7 (77.4) 7.5 (7.2) 5.95 (5.56) 5.29 (4.84)
Devin Booker 51.5 (56.2) 3.6 (4.0) 4.14 (4.32) 3.39 (3.52)

The shift has worked for both parties. Paul is one of the best decision-makers of all time; he leads the NBA in assists (10.1) while only turning the ball over 2.3 times per contest. It's probably a good idea to let a guy like that direct the half-court attack, especially one with the diverse pick-and-roll attack Phoenix has.

Paul has continued to be the NBA's premier drop coverage beater. Play him too tightly, and he's slipping a pass to his big. Give too much grace to the big, and he's firing from mid-range; by the way, Paul is knocking down an absurd 52.1% of his pull-up twos this year. Send a third defender into the action, and Paul will slice you apart with skips to the corner.

For Booker, the off-ball benefit has been two-fold. He doesn't have to carry a ridiculously heavy creation burden, and as a result, he also gets to take easier shots.

Booker's a madman when curling off of screens. Between the lifts from the baseline and flares above the break, Booker is often attacking with a head start. He doesn't have to spam dribble moves to free himself; he's generally within his wheelhouse with a dribble or two.

With Booker operating more off the ball, he's also gotten to take more (and easier) catch-and-shoot looks. Not only is Booker draining a career-high 44.4% of his catch-and-shoot threes, this is the first time since 2016-17 that he's averaging more catch-and-shoot attempts (3.0) than pull-ups (2.8).

Coincidentally, Booker's overall three-point clip (40.3%, also a career-high) seems more in line with his actual shooting ability.

It's almost like shot diet matters when considering a player's efficiency.

NO BURNING BRIDGES

There's much to be said about Mikal Bridges' defense. Frankly, he should already have an All-Defensive team selection under his belt. He's certainly on pace to achieve the feat this season.

Only a handful of players have a tougher matchup difficulty — percentage of possessions defending high usage players — than Bridges does. He takes the toughest on-ball assignment virtually every night.

Among the players he's defended for at least 30 possessions, per NBA.com's tracking data: Damian Lillard, Trae Young, Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James and Michael Porter Jr.

Big, small, bulky, lanky. Pull-up artists, pick-and-roll maestros. Silky jump shooters. Isolation masters. Mid-post powerhouses. You name it, Bridges has held his own against it at the very least.

The real intrigue lies with how Bridges is being used offensively. His scoring is down a point this season, which coincides with a slight dip in three-point accuracy (39.1%, down from 42.5%). Volume is the real story; Bridges' three-point rate has dropped over 12 percentage points from last season.

He's seen a bump in both at-the-rim and mid-range (10-to-16 feet, per Basketball-Reference) frequency. As pointed out by tremendous Suns follow (and recent guest of The Dunker Spot) David Kevin, the Suns are using Bridges in place of Booker in some of their intricate pick-and-roll sets.

With Booker set to miss the next few games with his hamstring issue, it wouldn't be a shock to see an(other) uptick in usage from Bridges.

MAN IN THE MIDDLE

And then, there's Ayton — figuratively and literally at the center of it all. 

His physicality gives the Suns a much-needed boost in rim pressure, whether that comes with rim-running in transition, or rolling hard (and sealing) after ball screens. Ayton is converting a career-best 84% of his shots inside of 3 feet.

Ayton has been just as impressive defensively. While Bridges (rightfully) gets the love for his defensive aptitude, Ayton's combination of size and mobility allows the Suns to shapeshift when necessary.

The Suns don't run a strict drop system with Ayton. They play him way back in ball screens — this is a large human being, of course — to wall off the rim, then late/peel switch to keep the action in front. The block numbers aren't there (career-low 0.7) because of it, but neither are the fouls (career-low 3.1 per 36 minutes).

Teamwide, the system works as designed. Only seven teams give up a lower share of rim shots than the Suns. Conversely, only four teams allow a higher share of mid-range shots.

It's not like teams have much success if they happen to get to the rim. Opponents are shooting just 50% at the rim when defended by Ayton, serving as the stingiest number of his career, and the 10th best mark in the NBA among players defending at least four shots per game.

It's hard to overstate how impressive the synergy is between the Suns' top four guys.

Paul's playmaking (further) unlocks Booker as a scorer; Booker's scoring chops tilts the defense in a way that makes like easier for Bridges. The combination of playmaking and shooting from those three gives Ayton ample room to roll into.

Defensively, Bridges and Ayton hold down the exterior and interior respectively. Paul is able to fill gaps as a helper and communicator; Booker is able to take the lesser of wing options when he wants, though it's worth noting his on-ball defense has graduated well beyond the "liability" range at this juncture.

And with those four gelling the way they do, life becomes even easier for The Others. 

Cameron Johnson (39% on 4.8 attempts) and Landry Shamet (37.8% on 4.5 attempts) are able to bomb away from deep; Crowder fills that role as the fifth starter, and has rebounded nicely from a slow start (37.1% on 5.6 attempts in November). JaVale McGee has thrived alongside Paul in pick-and-roll. Cam Payne has been able to shake loose when sharing the floor with Booker in hybrid second units.

The Suns took the NBA world by storm last season, riding their momentum all the way to a Finals berth. You can quibble about some of the injury "luck" they faced among the way (as long as you do it for literally every other Finals team in league history), but their proficiency on both ends was hiding in plain sight.

They seem to be even better this year. With reasonable health, there may only be one team with a chance of stopping them from returning to the Finals — and they just beat them.

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