With eight minutes left in the fourth quarter on Thursday, Los Angeles Clippers forward Patrick Patterson is pressed up against Phoenix Suns big man Deandre Ayton’s back, then his front, doing everything he can to prevent the former No. 1 pick from catching the ball in the post. When that doesn’t work, Clippers guard Rajon Rondo pounces from the baseline to try to steal the catch. Ayton pivots away, but he’s frazzled. He passes the ball right into the hands of Paul George, the All-NBA defender roaming the weakside.
On Jan. 7, I encouraged fans to join the Suns bandwagon. At the time, Ayton was averaging under 10 touches, struggling to find his way in the Suns’ new offense with Chris Paul running the show. The starters were sputtering, with Devin Booker leading the league in turnovers while expanding his playmaking. On defense, they felt the growing pains of implementing a new switch-heavy defensive scheme.
They started the season 6-2 despite that and eventually, Paul’s non-stop communication on defense seeped into Ayton, Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, who are now talking, pointing and closing out incessantly, finding new defensive highs almost every game. Ayton is catching lobs, posting up weaker players, gobbling up boards and falling less for pump-fakes, finding a happy medium between frenetic and reactive while patrolling the weakside with increasing clarity.
The Suns are now the No. 2 seed in the West, a top-10 offense and defense that now demands the attention of their Western Conference foes, who are approaching them with a level of scrutiny and attention that they haven’t experienced before.
Before the Suns played the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, Royce O’Neale told reporters he’d be approaching it like a playoff game. The Suns knocked them off in overtime.
The next day, the Suns ran out of gas against a Clippers team that was laying in wait for them. The game exposed the Suns’ current limitations, but it also provided crucial clues, a potential roadmap to the next step in their evolution.
“Like I told our guys,” Suns coach Monty Williams said after the game, “we’re gonna get everybody’s best every night now, and that’s gonna help us get to our best, for sure.”
The best part about trying your best: The closer you get to your ceiling, the easier it is to find the cracks.
Booker is no stranger to being trapped, but the Clippers attacked him with a new level of physicality and surprise when Paul hit the bench, trapping him in the corners while his teammates provided passing angles that were easy for the Clippers to suss out. Over the course of the game, Booker started matching the Clippers’ physicality, coming off high screen-and-rolls too quickly for the trap to get set up, and in some cases, he even forced the double to follow him until he found an angle he liked.
After the game, Williams noted that the ball often stopped moving once Booker relinquished it. This is a weak spot, but it’s also an opportunity for burgeoning playmakers like Cameron Payne and Ayton to work on running a four-on-three offense.
Ayton, a few possessions after turning it over to George, was doubled again. At first, he missed Booker for an easy three in the corner but he dribbled away from the double, keeping the ball away from Kawhi Leonard and Patterson long enough to find Bridges for a cut and free throws.
Even the losses are oozing with progress, an encouraging sign for a team that’s played in so few big games.
“Our young guys have to understand that those are the kinds of environments you have to be comfortable with,” Williams said after the game. “Close games like that where the other team knows your plays, intense games, flagrant fouls can’t take you out of your game. All that stuff we talk about, for a lot of those guys, these last two nights were the first time they’ve played in games like that.”
Booker, Bridges, Ayton and Johnson are all under the age of 25, without a lick of postseason experience. They have done well against the pressure they’ve faced thus far, but they have to scratch the surface. They currently exist in liminal space, where they haven’t experienced enough pressure to be molded into their full potential. Nobody — not us, not them — knows how much mettle they have. It’s a process of self-discovery that we get to bear witness to from here.
All of which is to say: It’s a great time to join the Suns bandwagon.
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