Photo: Andrew Bernstein/NBAE
The Phoenix Suns created an identity of being a fun team for most of their history. They would run offenses such as run-and-gun, small ball and pick-and-roll. It did not win them a championship, but it made them sell tickets and win regular-season games and some playoff games.
This year’s Suns are no different than any other Suns teams. Their success is predicated by their offense. Yes, they play defense unlike those other Suns teams, which is why they are in a position to win a championship. But make no mistake. It’s their offense that makes them go.
The Suns went as far as they have so far because they feature six players that create matchup problems. Not only do teams need to prepare for Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, but they have to prepare for Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne. It’s enough to keep opposing coaches up at night. This explains why the Suns are the favorite to win in this year’s NBA Finals.
In Game 1 of the Suns’ 118-105 victory over the Bucks Tuesday night, they boasted six scorers in double figures. Paul led the way with 32 points. Booker finished with 27 points and Ayton added 22 points. Bridges had 14 points. Johnson and Payne scored 10 points apiece.
The Suns can count on these guys to perform every game. There is never an off-night for them this postseason.
We know Paul has been established for 16 years. There’s no secret about his game. Booker has always been a scorer. It’s been the development of Ayton this postseason that has transformed the Suns into a championship contender. He figured the game out after two seasons of inconsistency. His defense has been solid, and he has become the go-to guy for pick-and-roll. No one can forget Jae Crowder throwing the ball to Ayton, who scored to give the Suns a 104-103 Game 2 Western Conference Finals victory over the Los Angeles Clippers with 0.9 seconds to go. Bridges and Jae Crowder can score in their own right, and there’s no doubt they have been the beneficiary of playing with Paul, Ayton and Booker by being open to shoot when teams are doubling down on the Suns’ Big Three.
The Suns boast a solid bench that can score in their own right. Torrey Craig, Johnson and Payne gave them good minutes with their scoring production.
It’s a credit to Suns general manager James Jones for putting this roster together and to Suns head coach Monty Williams for maximizing the talent out of it.
When the Suns played the Brooklyn Nets at Phoenix Suns Arena on Feb. 16, I watched them out of curiosity based on their 17-9 start and their 8-0 NBA bubble performance that almost had them in the playoffs last season. It presented an opportunity to see how good they really are. They gave the Nets all they could handle despite a 128-124 loss. If Ayton played like he is doing in the postseason right now, the Suns would have won that game. They were still finding ways to click at the time, which was encouraging. The more they played together, the better they would be.
When the Suns played the Knicks at the Garden on April 26, they improved to 43-18 on a 118-100 victory while snapping the Knicks’ nine-game winning streak in the process. It wasn’t only the record that was impressive. It was how the team dug deep despite finishing off a five-game East Coast trip. It could have been easy for them to mail it in and let the Knicks go on a 10-game winning streak. They fed off the Garden crowd’s intensity and went on to beat the Knicks.
It was right there this Suns team grew up as a championship contender. Their ability to grind out wins like that would serve them well heading to the postseason. It’s what they have done against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and the Clippers in the Western Conference finals.
It’s remarkable what they have done. We knew they would be good this year just by last year’s bubble success and the acquisition of Paul. But to go ten seasons of no playoffs to the NBA Finals is quite a quantum leap. Normally, teams go through growing pains by losing in a playoff series before they can be a champion. Look at the Bucks going through playoffs disappointment to be in the position they are in now.
The Suns diversify in beating teams in so many ways whether it’s defense, 3-point shooting, pick-and-roll and layups. It makes them such a fun team to watch.
With so many divas that play in the NBA, especially in our backyard in Brooklyn, the Suns are refreshing in a sense they are likable. It’s easy to root for these guys. They play for each other, and they define unselfish play by looking out for others than themselves on the court. They have so much respect for the game.
They enjoy playing the game, which also makes them so fun to watch.
After all these years of basketball wonks mocking about the Suns’ identity, it makes it easy for anyone to root for the Suns to win a championship this year.