Over the past decade, all sorts of teams have hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy. We’ve seen title winners built around a high-post volcano and a matchup zone; an incandescent constellation organized by principles cribbed from Chip Kelly; the most beautiful and unselfish passing ever; a shooter who broke the fundamental geometry of the game and a 6-foot-6 second-round pick who became the league’s best defensive center; Big Threes; Big Fours; a Big One Plus a Damn Good Seven; and a Big Two toting an elite defense.
All featured top-shelf talent, but the specifics—the way the stars were deployed, the types of players surrounding them, the philosophies installed to maximize them, the way the team evolved over a marathon season—all varied, sometimes drastically. What the best of the best tend to have in common, though, is a cohesion that turns even supreme collections of talent into something greater than the sum of their parts: a connectivity, a swagger, a hard-won edge that sustains them through the tough times and elevates them in the good ones.
Champions don’t always look alike, but they all have that. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said of obscenity and pornography, you know it when you see it. Well, we’re seeing it in Phoenix. I don’t know whether the Suns will win the 2021 NBA championship, but I believe they can. Because with each passing performance—including Wednesday’s 123-98 obliteration of the Nuggets to take a 2-0 lead in their second-round series—they look stronger and stronger.
The Suns trailed for all of 17 seconds in Game 2—the space between newly minted MVP Nikola Jokic scoring the game’s first basket with a turnaround jumper and Jae Crowder immediately answering on the other end. They controlled the first half with defense, holding Nuggets not named Jokic or Will Barton to 9-for-35 shooting. That was enough to stake them to a 10-point halftime lead, even though their own offense had sputtered a bit in the early going.
That didn’t last long:
Phoenix dominated the second half with tremendous play calling, pinpoint execution, and phenomenal movement. The Suns spread the Nuggets out, ran them ragged in the half court, and gave Chris Paul (17 points, 15 assists, five rebounds, zero turnovers in 31 Point God minutes) every opportunity to carve them up and create quality looks. The Suns scored 71 points in 49 possessions after halftime, according to NBA Advanced Stats; that works out to 144.9 points per 100 possessions, a rate of offensive efficiency so far above the Nets’ league-best regular-season mark that it might as well be an imaginary number, like “threeve” or “$Texas.”
That “tale of two halves” flavor to Game 2—going from grinding out a lead with your defense to suddenly throwing fire on every pass and shot—is par for the course for the Suns, who have proved all season they had more than one way to win. Monty Williams’s club was balanced this season, ranking sixth in offensive and defensive efficiency, and boasted the best record in the NBA from February on. It also excelled against elite competition, going a league-best 17-7 against the rest of the top 10 teams in point differential (Phoenix finished second).
The Suns featured a pair of all-world offensive engines and clutch shot makers in Paul and Devin Booker, a pair of developing two-way cornerstones in Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, a veteran 3-and-D complement in Crowder, and a bench that provided reliable production. And, thanks to good fortune with injury and illness, the only rotation player to miss more than 12 games was backup big man Dario Saric. Phoenix had more reps together than any other team in the postseason field. It had everything you need; it checked every box.
And yet, even as the Suns stomped to 51 wins and the West’s no. 2 seed, concerns persisted about how a team with so little postseason experience would fare in the furnace of the playoffs. Well, through eight games, the answer appears to be, “Pretty damn well, thanks.” Booker’s averaging 27-6-5 on pristine .631 true shooting, and plunged the dagger into the heart of the defending champs. Ayton’s making three-quarters of his shots while defending Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic straight up. Bridges guarded LeBron James without flinching for six games, and hung 23-5-5 on Denver in Game 1.
Phoenix owns the stingiest defense in the playoffs; it has won its last four games by a combined 85 points. This isn’t a cute, scrappy upstart that’s just happy to be back in the playoffs after an 11-year absence. It’s a finely tuned, fully loaded ass-kicking machine—one that now, according to The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine, has a 36 percent chance of winning the Western Conference for the first time in 28 years, and a 21 percent shot at the franchise’s first title.
Fans are chanting “Suns in four.”— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 10, 2021
It’s not just the beautiful half-court offense and highlight-reel plays that make Phoenix special, though. It’s Cameron Johnson and Torrey Craig sprinting the length of the floor to make hustle plays to prevent easy looks and create extra possessions; it’s Booker, the high-scoring superstar, stunting from the help side to take away an open pick-and-pop 3 and tracking back to tap out the rebound, and diving headlong into the scorer’s table to try to save a possession, even though the Suns already had a 19-point lead.
“It’s contagious, and it’s been that way from the start,” Booker told reporters after Game 2. “You definitely don’t want to be the guy that’s out there not defending. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”
It’s Paul watching Bridges clang a corner 3 off a great look, then coming down on the very next possession and going right back to him anyway. It’s Ayton picking up two fouls in the game’s first five minutes, Williams leaving him in to play through it because he’s Phoenix’s only shot at guarding the MVP, and Ayton rewarding that trust by not picking up another foul for the entire game. (The Suns have outscored the Nuggets by 29 points in the 62 minutes that Jokic and Ayton have shared the floor—a massive, massive win for Phoenix.)
It’s Crowder getting into a scuffle with Aaron Gordon in one minute, refusing to countenance Denver getting chippy, and then drawing an offensive foul on him in the next, because living well is the best revenge. And it’s Paul—not three weeks removed from a shoulder injury that had him unable to lift his arm and unwilling to even look at the rim—feeling spry enough to drag poor Michael Porter Jr., clearly hobbled by a back ailment, into the torture chamber and put the game to bed:
Denver can still get back into the series. Jokic (24 points, 13 rebounds, six assists) is just too good to count out. Barton impressed in his return from a right hamstring strain that sidelined him for more than six weeks, and could provide vital offensive juice for a team that finally seems to be feeling the loss of Jamal Murray. Porter, if Denver’s training staff can get his back right, has the potential to put up points in bunches; Monte Morris is capable of turning it around after a nightmarish 2-for-17 start to the series; and after head coach Michael Malone called them out for an “embarrassing” performance in which he felt they “quit,” you’d imagine the Nuggets will come out ready for a fight in Friday’s Game 3.
That won’t faze Phoenix, though. The Suns can win with physicality or finesse, by running you through complicated actions or mercilessly hunting your weakest link, by fighting fire with fire or shutting off your water. They’re deep, skilled, poised, and relentless, and they believe. A team like that is dangerous; a team like that can win the whole friggin’ thing.