The NBA season has less than six weeks to go, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.
1) Chris Paul, Suns make case they are best in West
Some Phoenix fans are frustrated. They see their team having the best season since Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni revolutionized the game, and they feel disrespected. Those fans focus on stories about how Chris Paul could leave after the season or how other teams out West want to be on the Suns’ side of the playoff bracket because they are seen as an easier target.
Welcome to life atop the NBA, Suns fans. Gone are the plucky underdogs everyone loved in the bubble. Life on top of the league is often a discussion of what weaknesses could trip a team up in the second round of the playoffs and beyond, and often less on how well you’re playing during the doldrums of the season. Consider it a sign you’ve arrived.
A bit of advice: Savor this season. Don’t get caught looking to future seasons or focused on a discussion of goats from the past. Enjoy what you have, read the numerous positive stories about your team, and live in the moment.
Savor wins like the one against Utah on Wednesday, a showdown of the West’s top two teams on national television.
What is Chris Paul’s secret in transforming the Suns’ offense? Clearly, it’s the Space Jam Secret Stuff.
CP3 was drinking some of his Space Jam "secret stuff" during the Suns-Jazz game 😂 pic.twitter.com/gtSnAE5mFZ
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 8, 2021
Also, it’s something as simple as balance.
Chris Paul brought balance to Monty Williams’ “five-point” Suns’ offense and to Devin Booker‘s game. You can see CP3’s influence in Phoenix — the slower pace and very deliberate halfcourt offense, the high IQ use of the high pick-and-roll — but Phoenix maintains the selfless Spursian touches Williams brought with him to the Valley of the Sun. CP3 is just better at orchestrating that offense because he is a threat to score (something Ricky Rubio was not a season ago) and because he takes some of that play creation pressure off All-Star Devin Booker, who is taking more spot-up or one-dribble shots and can pick his spots to run the offense.
Phoenix has a +7.1 net rating when Paul and Booker share the floor. Paul still dominates the ball, but the defenses focusing on him gives Booker just a sliver of extra space, and that’s all he needs to get a bucket.
With that duo leading the way, they take fewer shots at the rim than last season but replace them with threes — and they knock down those shots at a higher rate — giving the offense a boost. While the Suns are taking more mid-range shots, too, Paul and Booker are two players so dangerous from their spots in that range it’s a good look.
The Suns are where they are because Mikal Bridges has grown into a prototypical modern NBA wing player (and when he was having an off night against Utah Wednesday, Williams could go to Cam Johnson and get solid play), and Deandre Ayton has become a forceful presence in the paint on both ends of the court. Jae Crowder has brought veteran intensity and shooting, and CP3 and Dario Saric have shown real chemistry at points. The Suns are deep with players Williams can trust, and that gives him versatility late in games to go with the hot hand or matchups that work.
The Suns are a top 10 offense and defense in the NBA this season — one of the statistical markers of a contender. Yet, because of CP3’s playoff history and the fact Booker, Ayton, Bridges, and the rest of the young Suns are untested in the postseason, they will be seen as a target. We all know what Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard can do in the playoffs, and other teams fear them for good reason. These Suns have to earn that level of respect, and it can’t be done in April this season.
Don’t focus on that right now, however. Just savor the wins as they come.
2) Kevin Durant returns, scores 17, Nets cruise to win
Nobody knows when Brooklyn’s three stars will get healthy, get on the court at the same time, and potentially form Voltron then overpower the league.
What we know is the Nets, with two-thirds of their stars, still win a lot of games, as Brooklyn did easily over New Orleans on Wednesday. The news in this game was Kevin Durant’s return — he came off the bench, scored 17 points on 5-of-5 shooting, and looked closer than maybe expected to getting his form back after missing 23 games with a hamstring injury.
Another dunk by Blake Griffin!
10 PTS (4/5 FG, 2/3 3PT) in 5 MINS pic.twitter.com/NhAGcQQMG8
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) April 8, 2021
Brooklyn is back on top in the East, and that matters this season — there are three elite teams in the East (Nets, 76ers, Bucks) and the top seed only has to face one of them in the playoffs, not both.
New Orleans needs to find some wins fast to make the play-in games.
3) Dunk of the Night: Kyle Anderson off the glass to Ja Morant
While you were ignoring Memphis, they have quietly gone 26-23 on the season, they have won 5-of-6, they have a top-10 defense and one of the game’s elite young playmakers in Ja Morant.
Oh, and the Grizzlies can do this.
Memphis is expected to get Jaren Jackson Jr. back around the end of the month; they will be a tough out for someone in the playoffs. This is a good team nobody is talking about.