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On Tuesday night, the Phoenix Suns stretched their win streak to 17 games but picked up what was clearly their most important win of the season. By knocking off the Golden State Warriors they bested the one other team that’s been on an elite trajectory this season and took over the top spot in the Western Conference standings.
The Suns and Warriors will play again on Friday night but this first matchup should provide some important lessons for round two.
The Phoenix Suns defense can rise to the challenge
Steph Curry’s rough night (more on that later) was a big factor in the Suns victory but the way they took the entire Warriors’ offense out of their rhythm is probably much more significant than how many 3s Curry missed. The Suns forced 22 turnovers and helped push the Warriors’ offense just enough towards stagnation.
The Warriors finished the game with 307 passes, about 10 fewer than their regular-season average. So far this season no team has kept the ball moving as quickly as the Warriors, averaging just 13.8 seconds per offensive possession. Last night, their average possession lasted 14.9 seconds, nearly a full-second longer and roughly the same as the season-long average for the New Orleans Pelicans, the seventh-slowest offense in the league.
You could see this stagnation especially in the way it affected the Warriors’ role players. Jordan Poole had a strong game, scoring 28 points on 9-of-15 shooting but Andrew Wiggins attempted 12 shots and just three were of the catch-and-shoot variety. With Curry struggling and the entire team battling turnovers, he ended up with more than a few long possessions, trying to do a bit too much with the ball in his hands and just working himself into tough shots.
Statistically, the Suns have the second-best defense in the league, right behind the Warriors. With elite defenders at multiple positions and well-executed structure they have the ability to do more than just shut down one elite scorer.
Deandre Ayton can play bully ball when he needs to
Ayton was a beast for the Suns Tuesday night, finishing the game with 24 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and 2 blocks. He was especially important down the stretch after Devin Booker left the game with a hamstring injury, putting up 8 points and 4 rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Ayton is an incredibly skilled offensive big man but under Monty Williams, the Suns have largely resisted trying to turn him into a post-up behemoth like Joel Embiid. Less intimidating post players like Julius Randle, Luka Doncic and Bam Adebayo have all finished more post-up possessions per game than Ayton this year and he’s finished far more possessions (53) as the screener in the pick-and-roll than he has on post-ups (43).
This makes sense when you consider he’s playing with pick-and-roll masters like Chris Paul and Devin Booker but keeping him on the move also creates additional opportunities for him to leverage his size and strength scoring around the basket. The Warriors are an undersized team that has fueled their defense with swarming small ball units. Throwing Ayton in the post is an obvious counter that might have appealed to some coaches but the Suns kept him on the move, forcing switches and letting his post touches come against even smaller wings like Andrew Wiggins or Steph Curry.
Ayton powered his way through the Warriors defense, bodying up smaller players and crashing the glass for 6 offensive rebounds. The Suns finished the game with 46 points in the paint, tied for the second-most the Warriors have given up in a game this season. It was bully ball overpowering small ball but it wasn’t as simple as throwing the ball to the big man on the low block and letting him go to work.
Steph Curry is still human
Curry finished with one of his worst shooting performances in recent memory — 12 points on 4-of-21 from the field and 3-of-14 from beyond the arc. The Suns defense did a great job, fighting through screens off the ball and swarming Curry when he had the ball in his hands, making sure everything was contested:
Of Curry’s 21 shots, just six came without a defender within six feet of him. But the truth is, Curry often makes the impossible look easy. This season, he’s made 31-of-60 3-pointers that were tightly or very tightly contested (a defender within four feet of him). The Suns defense played him about as well as they could have but even if they replicate that level of defensive execution when they play the Warriors again on Friday, they should count of Curry shooting that poorly.
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DeMar DeRozan has already lived more than one NBA life. And he’s arguably never been better.