Despite their position as a two seed, the Phoenix Suns’ effortless run to the Western Conference Finals comes as a surprise to most of the basketball world. They overcame some early challenges against a star-studded Lakers team in the first round, and they rolled over a Nuggets team that has a knack for fighting back from series deficits. Now, they’re just one win away from a finals berth. The Suns didn’t do it with crazy star power, though. They didn’t have the best player on the court in EITHER of the first two rounds (and they arguably don’t have the best player in this series), yet they are still able to win games by playing as a team on both ends.
Much of this togetherness must be attributed to James Jones, the retired champion turned general manager of the Suns, who’s managed to build a PROTOTYPE starting lineup. They’ve have a true point guard who’s the best leader in basketball, a star player who can score at will, a defensive anchor in the paint, two three-and-D wings, and a fiery, solid bench that’s filled with impact players. Every guy in this rotation knows exactly what he’s on the court to do, and that confidence and comfortability is a big reason why this team is turning so many heads.
Veteran Leadership From CP3
No matter what anyone tells you about how positions don’t exist in basketball anymore, the point guard will always be a pivotal role on the court. This player must manage the game, get all his teammates involved, and essentially be a continuation of the head coach. We’ve seen teams struggle, despite having loads of talent, when they don’t have a designated player towards the end of the game to slow things down, direct everyone where to go, and make plays for himself AND OTHERS (the Clippers from last year come to mind). The Phoenix Suns, however, CERTAINLY do not have this issue.
Chris Paul might be the best game manager we’ve ever seen in the history of basketball, and his presence alone brings calmness to his four other teammates on the court. He sets up his teammates for wide open shots (out of both the pick and roll and transition offense), but he also knows when to take over games and make plays for himself. He’s the ultimate quarterback and leader, and that’s how the game of basketball is meant to be played: with the point guard being your smartest player, your most vocal player, and the one with the ball in his hands at the end of the game. CP3 is literally the definition of that guy; he leads the playoffs in assist to turnover ratio at 5.3 and there’s no stat to illustrate vocal leadership, but if there was, CP3 would be at the top of the list.
While it’s the point guard’s job to manage the game and get everyone involved in the offense, it’s the star player’s job to put the basketball in the hoop. And well, Devin Booker does a pretty solid job of that. He’s averaging 27.1 points per game, and he’s scoring 57.8% of his field goals unassisted, which means you can give the ball to him and say “go get a bucket” with confidence. Aside from the numbers, he has a pretty picture-perfect offensive game. He can score from all three levels, he has a beautiful shot release from all spots on the court, and he’s a great athlete with a killer instinct. In short, he’s everything you would look for in a prototypical scorer.
More importantly, though, he’s given the freedom to play in that scorer role because they have CP3 at the helm of the offense, so he doesn’t have to worry about getting everyone involved or managing the pace of the game. Some other star players (on teams without true point guards) are tasked with doing both (Embiid, Giannis, Jokic, etc), and we’ve seen how that plays out in late-game situations. Having this clear distinction between point guard and scorer, although rare in today’s NBA, is super beneficial for the Phoenix Suns and for Devin Booker. I would argue it is a huge reason why they’ve been so successful in these playoffs, especially in the 4th quarter and in close games.
Anchor in the Paint
Deandre Ayton is one of the few classic NBA centers left in the NBA. He doesn’t shoot threes, and he doesn’t even take mid-range shots with much volume, but he still finds ways to be successful in the painted area. Offensively, Ayton plays a vintage center role: he sets tons of screens (2nd most in the playoffs), and he’s able to score around the rim with his size, touch, and hands. He’s really learned how to receive the ball out of the pick and roll with CP3, and he’s the 2nd leading scorer in the paint in these playoffs, so he’s exactly the type of player Paul needs to run screen and roll with.
Ayton’s largest impact comes on the defensive end, though. He’s contesting the 3rd most two-point field goals in these playoffs, which has made him a textbook anchor in the paint for this Phoenix Suns defense. He knows how to contest without fouling, and he’s been a real deterrent to players seeking to finish at the rim. Furthermore, he’s able to hold his own in terms of his individual matchup as well. He limited Jokic to 22, 24, 32, and 22 points in their four games, and much of those points were scored without a double team. That’s the MVP I’m talking about, by the way, and Ayton competed with him all series without getting into foul trouble, which is quite impressive for a young big man.
3 and D Wings
So, we’ve been over the Phoenix Suns’ true point guard, their star player, and their rim protecting anchor. With all of the play creation and scoring that these guys provide, you’re looking for your other two players to be able to do two main things: make open three pointers and play great defense against multiple positions. If Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder don’t fulfill those requirements, I don’t know who does. Bridges is shooting 42% from the three point line on 4.4 attempts per game this season, while Crowder is shooting 39% on 6.3 attempts per game. Both of their percentages are above average, but more importantly, they’re getting lots of shots up, which is an indication of their confidence (both within themselves and from their teammates and coaching staff).
Furthermore, Crowder and Bridges rank 6th and 9th in these playoffs in defensive rating, and they’re both able to guard multiple positions. Crowder is an absolute DAWG who’s able to handle himself against stronger players but is also able to overpower smaller players with his strength, while Bridges is able to guard positions 1-4 with his size and length (side note: next time you watch the Suns play, look at Mikal Bridges arms – the length is absurd). Both of these guys stay within themselves and play perfectly in their roles. They are literally the definition of three-and-D, and they’re the perfect duo to pair with the other pieces that the Suns have. When CP3 and Ayton run their actions, or when Booker begins to go to work at the elbow, the defense is forced to stay home on both Crowder and Bridges, which allows their star players to play with space.
The Phoenix Suns bench is filled with talented players, all of whom know what their role is and how to play that role effectively, without many mistakes. I want to talk about the Cams specifically, though – Cam Johnson and Cam Payne – because I truly feel that these two are the PERFECT bench combo.
Cam Payne is an extremely dynamic offensive weapon who has become one of my favorite guys to watch in the league (he’s about to get ABSOLUTELY PAID, by the way). He’s got elite level quickness, and his touch around the rim allows him to showcase a really nice floater game. He brings what virtually every team wants their 6th man to bring: scoring and energy. He’s got a bounce in his step from the time he gets on the court to the time he sits down, and he serves as a great primary playmaker while CP3 and/or Devin Booker is resting. After Payne, the Suns usually bring on Cam Johnson, who’s had a breakout playoffs as well.
First of all, he does many of the same things the Suns already have Crowder and Bridges doing, so he fills in for those two pretty seamlessly. More unique, though, is his uncanny ability to find cutting lanes to the rim without the ball in his hands. He plays so well off of his teammates driving to the rim, and he often finds himself with very easy layups or putbacks because of it. The phrase “knowing your role” was literally made for Cam Johnson, and to see that in such a young player is both rare and exciting. With how rotations shrink in the playoffs, these two guys have been the main weapons off the bench, and they only further prove the point that the Suns are constructed like a prototypical championship team.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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