The Phoenix Suns are in a position few teams in franchise history have ever been.
As the halfway point in the season has crossed, they are currently the best team in the NBA. While certainty leaguewide remains difficult to fully grasp because of the statuses of Klay Thomspon with the Warriors and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, all the Suns provide is that certainty that they should be the favorites to win it all.
On Thursday night, Phoenix was without center Deandre Ayton (right ankle sprain) in a specific matchup against the Dallas Mavericks where he is sorely missed even more than usual. It was against a team that was rolling, with wins in 10 in its last 11.
The Suns couldn’t hit a shot, failing to convert on 16 straight three-pointers in the first half and finishing the night 8-of-36 (22.2%).
And yet, Phoenix was fine because it brought championship-level defense to Dallas and that allowed them to get to another crunch-time situation they’d dominate for a 109-101 victory.
The Suns are now a league-best 35-9. They hold a 3.5-game lead over the Golden State Warriors for that spot and are at least five games ahead of anyone else. The win made it a perfect 5-for-5 road trip and an 8-2 record over a stretch with two separate journeys out east.
“Like I told our guys, just a high level of character and integrity,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Thursday’s win. “I didn’t think we played particularly solid in the first half. And even to begin the third quarter, it wasn’t that great from a solid perspective.”
Phoenix struggled immensely to get shots to fall for three quarters and it appeared it was going to be the ever-rare night of poor play from the centers, with JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo both getting dissected a bit too much on the defensive end.
Outside of those two, though, it was aces from the Suns defensively. They forced 19 Dallas turnovers for 31 points. Seven players for the Suns had at least a steal, including four for Mikal Bridges and a pair each via Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and Biyombo.
“Defense. That’s what we pride ourselves on,” guard Devin Booker said of what led to the win. “Really both halves, we weren’t shooting it as well as we usually do or tend to. Just sticking together and understanding it’s a 48-minute game.”
Phoenix’s scheme against Dallas All-NBA guard Luka Doncic was throwing help defenders at him as soon as he showed an intent to attack off the dribble, a second or two earlier than the rotations normally come. That threw him off a bit and the Suns’ general ball screen coverage outside of that had hands everywhere. Phoenix totaled 18 deflections, a mark that is four above league average.
“It’s who we are … It was the defense that anchored us for sure,” Williams said. “That’s a team that’s been running through the league here of late and to beat them on their home floor like that is huge for us.”
Doncic was his normal terrific self with 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists but also had eight turnovers. That was more than the Suns produced as a team (7).
Paul specifically was an absolute menace in the third quarter defensively and set the tone for the levels Phoenix needed to reach to close out the game.
CP3 gets the steal then dimes it to Bridges!
— NBA (@NBA) January 21, 2022
This let the Suns stay within range or even lead at some points through those opening three quarters. Paul’s play in that third brought on a 12-3 run to see the Suns go up one, but Dallas is playing great basketball and wasn’t fazed on the second game of a back-to-back.
It answered that run with its own 11-2 run in the remaining 3:26 of the quarter that Paul rested to then lead by eight.
All the Suns needed, though, was to get it to clutch minutes. That’s when the score is within five points with under five minutes left, a collection of games Phoenix is now an NBA-leading 15-3 in.
Phoenix did enough to make that a reality, and when trailing by one once the five-minute mark crossed, it closed the game on a 15-6 burst.
“We had a lot of learning curves last year,” Booker said of clutch time. “Having that time and experience together I know put us in a situation where we never hit the panic button. We never get flustered or out of whack. We stick to what we do and perform well down the stretch.”
The Suns’ purpose was there offensively, mercilessly putting Dallas’ far-improved defense on its back foot and punishing it for giving Booker too much attention.
With 3:38 left, Paul found Biyombo on a clean pick-and-roll finish for an and-1 finish, and after Doncic answered, Bridges zoomed by a lazy Doncic closeout for a confident floater that put the Suns back in front by two.
After a Suns stop, Biyombo grabbed a Suns miss to sink one free throw and another empty trip for Dallas was followed by Bridges again being aggressive off the bounce to find an open Biyombo for a dunk that extended the lead to five.
Possessions for both teams without points had Dallas with the ball and under a minute to go. When the Suns collapsed on a Doncic drive, he kicked it out to the Mavericks’ Dorian Finney-Smith.
The wing drove hard down the baseline and was met at the rim by Booker, who has an underrated knack for weakside rim protection and getting vertical in those positions.
What was initially ruled a foul on Booker was overturned after Williams’ challenge in the biggest play of the game.
Here it is in the clutch. Suns challenge and the foul gets overturned pic.twitter.com/CLH3bOSnfh
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) January 21, 2022
A ho-hum business as usual three-pointer for Paul off extra attention again for Booker wrapped up the proceedings.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 21, 2022
“I remember last year when a team would try to double one of us and our competitive spirit comes out like, ‘Aight! Aight! You gonna double me? Aight!’” Booker said of he and Paul getting double-teamed. “It just makes the game easier. We all trust each other to that degree and that level.”
As you can tell by how that crunch time swing went down, Biyombo was crucial during it, overcoming a poor showing by keeping his motor high to eventually impact things when it mattered the most.
“Playing hard is a talent. And he does that,” Paul said of Biyombo. “When you play hard, good things happen and he’s been a huge addition to our team.”
Biyombo finished with nine points, four rebounds, an assist and two steals in 28 minutes. He was a +13, making up for an abnormal poor showing from McGee.
Booker was 11-of-25 for 28 points, six rebounds and five assists, keeping his rhythm rolling from his latest scoring outbursts this past week.
Paul provided one of his best games of the season with 20 points, five rebounds, 11 assists, two steals, a block and zero turnovers.
Bridges was tremendous in the second half, contributing 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals overall.