Time to stop sleeping on the Phoenix Suns

Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns
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LOS ANGELES — Last season, the Suns were the 64-win championship favorite in April, until they weren’t in May.

By the time predictions for this coming season rolled around in October, the Suns were almost an afterthought. Not bad, but barely discussed.

That was a mistake — watching the Suns in person, it quickly becomes clear this team is a title contender. This season. Again.

Just ask the Warriors, who fell to the Suns on Tuesday night, 134-105.

Phoenix has its superstar in Devin Booker, whose numbers from the first week of the season — 32.5 points per game while shooting 48% from 3 — show him taking a step forward from his All-NBA level a year ago. The Suns also have a high-level two-way center in Deandre Ayton, athleticism with shooting and defense on the wing in Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, good depth off the bench, plus arguably the highest basketball IQ player in the game at this point in Chris Paul to tie it all together.

This year’s Suns remind anyone who watches them of the 64-win team we saw last season.

So why is every preseason prediction down on them?

Maybe it’s because the historic, embarrassing blowout that ended last season for the Suns is burned into our memory. The team’s 33-point destruction — at home in a conference semifinals Game 7 — at the hands of the Mavericks was even worse than the final score indicated.

The Suns remember that loss, too.

“[Booker] and Chris worked out a lot this summer…” coach Monty Williams said. “But I think we all still feel the pain of the way we went out. And that can drive you. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win it, but it certainly will motivate you to work on things you need to work on and address things you need to address.”

“I think it definitely motivates us,” Paul added.

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns - Game Seven
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“We also understand how important but unimportant these [regular-season] games are. You know what I mean? We understand it’s about building — 60-something wins last year don’t mean nothing. So right now we just try not to get too high, not get too low. Keep building.”

That building has started on the defensive end. It’s early, but the Suns have a top-five defense in the league to open the season. This follows the pattern of the past two years, when the Suns had top-10 defenses, and it’s not hard to see why. They have a strong perimeter defender in Bridges, athleticism all over the court, CP3 is still solid at his position and can create some steals, and there is a solid rim protector in Ayton backing him up.

Booker used to be the easy target for his defense, but he put in the work on that end. The best evidence is in his improvement in defensive estimated plus/minus (there is no great, public defensive statistic, but the EPM at Dunks & Threes is the one people in NBA front offices say may be the best of the lot). Booker was a minus defender most of his career by this stat, but steadily improved, and last season was +.03 — basically a neutral defender.

Or, ask Klay Thompson how Booker has improved as a defender — Thompson was 1-of-8 shooting against the Suns on Tuesday — and knew how to get under his skin and get Thompson ejected for the first time in his career.

 

Booker remains the spark on offense, putting up monster numbers to open the season.

“I think he’s not just a special player, but he’s an elite competitor,” Williams said of Booker. “I’ve never seen him back down from anyone, any situation. And that’s what impresses me just as much as the scoring and the defensive plays that he makes.”

The Suns’ offense overall is still a work in progress. The halfcourt offense was pedestrian the first couple of games but has improved, and the Suns play at one of the slowest paces in the league (as is traditional with Chris Paul teams). The ball is moving in the half court, the Suns are second in the league in assisted field goals, but they aren’t consistently finishing at a high level. Outside of Booker, the offense feels solid so far but not necessarily elite.

Maybe that’s the other reason we all slept on the Suns.

Every time we heard about Phoenix during the summer, it concerned the indiscretions of owner Robert Sarver (who will now sell the team). While much of the rest of the West upgraded rosters, the Suns stood pat and bet on internal growth. So far, that internal growth is only showing up in moments.

Williams wants his team now to focus on that growth, on building good habits over the course of the season now that will prevent a blowout loss in the playoffs. Williams is comfortable with the work his players put in over the summer, but it’s time for them to move on from last season’s pain.

“You let it go for sure,” Williams said of last year’s playoff exit. “Because once the season starts, it’s a new deal. But the summer is hard. You live in that kind of hurt and whatever that is. It can motivate you to work your tail off even more than you already would have.

“But once the season starts, it’s like, OK, there’s new challenges. But I bet everybody that was in that locker room [who is] in our locker room now dealt with that. Thought about it all summer… Once you start the season, then you have new challenges and different teams that are coming into your head, but it can be a great motivator for some.”

Ayton put it more bluntly.

“I’m not talking about last year, only this year,” he said after his Suns beat the Clippers.

Four games into the season, the Suns sit at 3-1 (their only loss in the last seconds to red-hot Portland). Quietly, this team is motivated to prove last season’s ending was an anomaly. That one bad game is not a symptom of something bigger.

However, the real test can’t happen until the postseason. The Suns understand that and are building toward that moment.

Until then, sleep on the Suns at your own peril.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.

Three things to know: Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

This game felt like a 2019 playoff time capsule, with Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray trading blows in a dramatic game.

Lillard landed more of them, he finished with 40 points — and his final three were vintage Dame Time.

But Murray had the final word.

The final minutes of this game were insane.

It was a needed win for a Denver team that some nights look like they can compete with the best in the league, then turn around 48 hours later and mail in a loss to a tanking team. Nikola Jokic scored 33 against Portland (with 10 boards and nine assists) — he is again putting up numbers that will have him in the MVP conversation (even if it’s a longshot he wins it). However, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense makes them inconsistent night to night.

Portland revamped their roster to get younger and more athletic around Lillard this past offseason, but one of the results of that is the inconsistency of youth. The Blazers don’t bring the same level of execution every night. If they don’t learn that lesson, they may be different in makeup but the results will be the same as many Portland teams of the last decade — an early playoff exit.

2) Brittney Griner is home on U.S.soil

After spending 10 months in Russian jails — including being convicted and sent to a penal colony — on trumped-up drug charges that made her a political pawn in a massive geo-political battle, Brittney Griner is finally home on U.S. soil, her plane landed in Texas overnight.

The Biden administration worked out a prisoner exchange with Russia that brings Griner home to be with her wife, family and friends — that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, there was some pushback online/in the media from people who care only about trying to score political points for their selfish ends. Fortunately, we had the family of Paul Whelan — a Michigan corporate security executive who has been behind bars in Russia since December 2018 on trumped-up espionage charges — who praised the president for bringing Griner home and making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

An American citizen is home. She happens to be a WNBA star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but those things are not what matters most, and are secondary to her family who are just happy to hug her and tell her they love her again. We all hope that day comes soon for American political prisoners held around the globe (including Whelan), but we should celebrate the big victory of Griner being back on U.S. soil.

3) Spurs snap 11-game losing streak behind 32 from Johnson

Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs’ 11-game losing streak.

“This has been the first game in a while where we were clicking defensively,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the game. “You can tell when we get stops, get out and run and be able to get out front. If we can keep that mindset of defense first, get stops and we let the offense take care of itself, we’ll be in great shape.”

All of that is interesting, but the real debate of the night: Was this an offensive foul by Alperen Sengun, or a block by Zach Collins?

Sengun was in the air when Collins came over, but he also used his off hand to create space for the dunk. This is a bang-bang call and the challenge of the block/charge call — I think that’s a block by Collins, but that’s not how the referee or many others have seen it. How would you have called it?