The Phoenix Suns have been the feel-good story of, not just the 2020-21 NBA regular season, but also of the 2021 postseason.
With the addition of Chris Paul in the offseason, nearly everybody expected the franchise to rise from the ashes of the past decade.
However, they weren't expected to post the league's second-best record of 51-21 and be the first team to punch their ticket to the Conference Finals - the same stage they were eliminated at during their previous trip to the postseason back in 2010.
Given the rest of the league's experience, they've been relatively unscathed from injuries or COVID-19 protocols. Having said that, they have faced their fair share of adversity and have found ways to overcome it, and they are up against it once again as Paul reportedly enters the league's health and safety protocols.
"For us, it's unfortunate that it happened, that he had to enter protocols this week," Suns general managerJames Jones said on Wednesday. "But like always, we started to reflect on what we've done so far this year and how our team has performed when our guys have been out. We've been relatively healthy, so we've been in a good space.
"This team is in a good spot," he said. "I think Monty (Williams) said it earlier, we're gonna focus and worry about those decisions when they get closer but with Devin (Booker), with Jae (Crowder) and Mikal (Bridges), Cam Payne, with those guys playing well, I feel good that whoever we play and whenever we play. You'll see the Suns play our brand of basketball, be competitive and put ourselves in a position to win games."
From the eye test and the numbers, the Suns back-up Jones' words. All throughout the season, they've competed on both ends and given themselves a shot to win games.
Defence isn't generally the first thing young teams can boast about but the Suns, with their mix of veterans in Paul and Crowder, have brought the intensity on that end. Their defensive rating during the regular season ranked sixth, making them one of only two teams to rank in the top seven of both offensive and defensive rating.
Yes, they played against two teams dealing with injuries to key players in their first two rounds of the playoffs in the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets, but they made the most of their situation, much like every other team still going in the postseason.
For most of the series against the Lakers, All-NBA Second Team Paul was dealing with a shoulder injury of his own, and against the shorthanded Nuggets, who were coming off eliminating the experienced Portland Trail Blazers in six games, the Suns made easy work of the series and swept them.
Despite having inexperienced names, in comparison to those on the Damian Lillard-led roster, the Suns made the Nikola Jokic-led squad sweat on both ends.
|Defensive Rating in playoffs||Defensive rating in regular season||Opponent's PPG in playoffs||Opponent's PPG in regular season|
|Portland Trail Blazers||122.9 (14th)||115.3 (29th)||120.8 (13th)||114.3 (23rd)|
|Phoenix Suns||102.1 (2nd)||110.4 (6th)||100.8 (1st)||109.5 (7th)|
With the Trail Blazers among the league's best on offences (regular season or playoffs), the lack of defence was the difference-maker. While the difference isn't much during the regular season, the massive gulf during the postseason is quite clear.
That's what allowed the Suns to sweep the Nuggets while the Trail Blazers were eliminated by the Denver franchise in six. Much of the Suns' defence starts with their frontcourt trio of Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton.
Bridges, an athletic young wing, is among the best young defenders in the league and has the capability to guard the opponent's best player - wing or guard. His two-way impact is such that he ranked 14th in the league in win shares during the regular season and was the only Suns player in the top 20.
Meanwhile, Ayton has taken a huge leap this season after his game on the defensive end was questioned in his first couple of seasons. The Suns' big man had the 20th best defensive rating in the league during the regular season, per Basketball Reference, and was the only player from the team to rank in the top 20 for defensive win shares at 13th.
Through the two rounds in the playoffs, he held All-Stars in Jokic and Anthony Davis to below-par shooting numbers when matched-up. He held AD to 11-of-29 shooting from the field and restricted league MVP Jokic to 24-of-59 from the field and 2-of-12 from long range.
Can the Suns tread water on offence?
Defence, fueled by effort, is relatively easier to produce. But what offence? Another huge reason why the Suns made short work of the Nuggets was their backcourt, especially Paul, who averaged 25.5 points and 10.3 assists against Denver.
Provided Paul's recent improved fitness, the Suns haven't played much without him. In their 82 games this season - regular season and playoffs - they have suited up without him just twice.
In his absence, Devin Booker will certainly be the focus of the team's offence.
After dropping a combined 81 points in closeout games against the Lakers and Nuggets, can the playoff debutant surprise everybody further and carry the Suns' offence enough to allow their defence to give them a shot at wins?
Only time will tell, but the Suns do have reliable guard depth. Cameron Payne has been one of the unsung heroes of the postseason, averaging 10.2 points and 2.9 assists per game while shooting a solid 38.9 percent from 3. He'll likely be the candidate to receive the bulk of playing time in Paul's absence, although other trusty guards like Langston Galloway, E'Twaun Moore and Jevon Carter also wait in the wings if their number is called.
The Suns will look for their backcourt depth to provide just enough to get the job done until Paul can return to the floor.
Shot at history
If the Suns can hold it together until Paul is back and advance beyond the Conference Finals, it would be the franchise's third NBA Finals appearance ever and first since 1993.
Who knows, based on which team comes out of the East, maybe Phoenix could cap off its Cinderella-type playoff run with a championship, which would be the first-ever in franchise history.
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