A no. 1 seed usually coasts through the first round of the NBA playoffs—especially if that no. 1 seed is as dominant in the regular season as the 64-win Suns were this year. But Phoenix needed to sweat out six games against the 36-46 Pelicans before advancing.
Devin Booker missed three and a half games with a hamstring injury. Chris Paul, just shy of his 37th birthday, had to extend himself early in the postseason. And the Pelicans looked like the downright better team at times. Through the first four games, Phoenix and New Orleans were tied 2-2, and the eighth-seeded Pelicans had a better point differential.
Meanwhile, other leading title contenders were winning about as handily as the no. 1 seed usually does. Boston swept Brooklyn, effectively shutting down Kevin Durant in the process, and Golden State ran circles around Denver in a gentleman’s sweep. Even though Phoenix was the NBA’s best team by an eight-win margin in the regular season, the Suns quickly tumbled in the public’s estimation: After Booker’s injury and the team’s first loss of the series, Phoenix was no longer the betting favorite to even reach the Finals.
All that drama seems rather silly now, less than two weeks later. With a commanding 129-109 victory over the Mavericks on Wednesday, the Suns took a 2-0 lead in their second-round series, all but clinching a spot in the Western Conference finals. In NBA playoff history, 92.4 percent of teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series have gone on to win, and The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine places Phoenix’s odds to advance at a nearby 89 percent.
Booker looks fully recovered, Paul has been as potent as ever, and a team with no major weaknesses is now exploiting its opponents’ flaws at will. As Pelicans guard CJ McCollum tweeted in the fourth quarter, “Damn this Suns team is really good. Don’t feel as bad watching CP and them cook someone else.”
Cook, indeed. The most spectacular Suns statistics from Game 2, and more broadly this entire postseason, come on offense: Phoenix is scoring a blistering 121.4 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, four ticks better than the second-place Warriors and five ticks better than Utah’s league-leading regular-season mark.
The Suns’ shooting splits border on the absurd. They’ve been spotty from long distance, but at the rim, they’re shooting 75 percent in the playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass, the best mark for any team that reached the second round. From floater range, they’re at 51 percent, second best behind the Warriors. And on long midrange shots? They’re making 61 percent, from an area where no other second-round team is even above 50.
Simply, a team with Phoenix’s shot diet—lots of midrange jumpers, not a lot of 3s or layups—should not be capable of producing these kinds of offensive numbers. And yet, as offensive performance becomes decoupled from shot selection, the Suns are scorching the nets anyway. Their teamwide effective field goal percentage in the postseason is 8.3 percentage points higher than what it “should” be, based on factors like shot location and defender distance, according to Second Spectrum. The chorus sings again: That’s by far the best for any team that made the second round.
That shot-making prowess was on full display Wednesday. The Suns outperformed their expected eFG% by 22.3 percentage points in Game 2, the largest mark for any team this postseason by a huge amount (second place was the Suns’ plus-16.9 percentage point effort in Game 6 against New Orleans). In the past half-decade of playoff basketball, only the 2020 Clippers, in a win over Dallas in the bubble, have had a better shooting night relative to expectation than Phoenix in Game 2.
The Suns’ success was a product of both personnel and strategy. They have elite shooters, especially from the midrange, of course, and Booker and Paul combined for 58 points, including 23 in the fourth quarter. And the role players flexed their depth behind the star guards, even as Deandre Ayton, who scored a team-high 25 points in Game 1, struggled with foul trouble all night and scored just nine points. But Jae Crowder (15 points on seven shots) and Mikal Bridges (11 points on six shots) both stepped up in Ayton’s stead.
Heck, even lightly used Bismack Biyombo added nine points on a perfect 4-for-4 shooting off the bench. The Suns’ downfall against Milwaukee in last year’s Finals was an inability to play big when Ayton went to the bench—and now Phoenix has not one but two capable backup centers on the roster.
The strategic aspect was more interesting, though, as it both gave the Suns repeated runways to their favorite spots on the floor and helped neutralize Luka Doncic’s own outrageous offense. Doncic scored 24 points in the first half Wednesday and 35 in the game, nudging his career playoff scoring average to 33.5 per game—the highest in NBA history for a player with at least 10 games played. Michael Jordan is now in second place, at 33.4.
But the Suns forced Doncic to work on the other end, dragging him into the center of the defense repeatedly to exploit his sluggish reactions and make the Mavericks’ offensive hub expend valuable energy, especially late in the game. That’s one reason the Mavericks led by two at halftime, and the Suns ran away with a 71-49 advantage in the second half.
The Suns are RELENTLESSLY hunting Luka pic.twitter.com/WS9ZQQXYG3— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) May 5, 2022
Doncic guarded the screener for 27 picks in Game 2, per Second Spectrum, after he guarded 29 picks in Game 1, and the Suns scored an average of 1.6 points on any possession in Game 2 when Doncic had to defend a screen. In layman’s terms, that means the Suns are running plays specifically designed to make Doncic defend a barrage of picks, and then they’re scoring the equivalent of a layup on the average possession when he does.
With Paul at the point, this is the Suns’ attacking philosophy: operate with ruthless efficiency and target the weakest link in the opposing defense, no matter how contorted the play might initially seem. Our third-string center is receiving surprise minutes because Ayton and JaVale McGee are in foul trouble? Sure, let’s have him set a pick if Doncic tries to hide on him—it’s OK to get Biyombo involved as long as Luka is, too.
(As an aside, the two Finals favorites, per the Odds Machine, are Phoenix and Boston. Given the Suns’ predilection for preying on mismatches and the Celtics’ lack of a defensive weak link, that would be a fascinating X’s-and-O’s matchup.)
The Mavericks can make adjustments in the coming games to hide Doncic better on defense, à la the Hawks with Trae Young; on the other end, Jalen Brunson probably won’t score nine points on 3-for-12 shooting again, which would help alleviate some of their star’s massive offensive burden. But the way the Suns are rolling right now, Dallas has to play near-perfect basketball to beat them—and that’s a near-impossible task four times in the next five games.
After a season full of intrigue surrounding exciting teams further down the standings, it appears that these playoffs are headed for a chalky conference finals, with a no. 1 seed facing either a no. 2 or 3. The best regular-season teams are winning, as is typically the case in the NBA playoffs. But the best regular-season team of all was the Suns—and with Booker back and the offense humming, they look the part in the playoffs, too.