Attention to detail on defense driving Suns during run

The Suns have won 11 of their last 13 games as they prepare to face the Lakers in a big West matchup.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

The Suns are currently ranked 4th in points allowed per game (107.5).

Deandre Ayton declined to divulge “the secret” to what’s changed defensively for the Suns since the fourth quarter of the club’s Feb. 19 win over the Pelicans.

But “locked in” are the two words you hear most these days when talking to the players, and Ayton’s description of what the term means to him provides a sense of the culture of accountability the Suns have built in Year 2 of the coach Monty Williams era.

“Just knowing the type of dude I am, knowing the expectations and knowing the responsibility every night, there is no [room for] hiccups, really,” Ayton said last Monday after Phoenix’s 132-100 win against the Blazers on Feb. 22.

“If I gave you the secrets, I think every team would want to use it. So, I can’t give you the secret. I’ll just give you the general, serious basics of just keeping each other accountable, being on top of each other, your teammates expecting more from you than your coach, playing alongside your brother and knowing you have a brother for life when you’re coming out here playing hard every game. It’s just all that stuff that we are locked in on this team, where it’s beyond basketball.”

Whatever it is, Phoenix seems to relish it as a catalyst to running off 11 wins in its last 13 outings. The Suns head into tonight’s matchup against the Lakers on the heels of Devin Booker reeling off a season-high 43 points Sunday in a 118-99 victory over the Timberwolves.

But let’s go back to Feb. 19, when Chris Paul picked apart the Pelicans with 19 assists on the way to an 11-point, fourth-quarter comeback in the Suns’ 132-114 victory. Three nights prior at home, Phoenix surrendered a 24-point lead against Brooklyn that proved critical in breaking the team’s six-game winning streak. The Nets torched Phoenix in the comeback, as Landry Shamet, Jeff Green and James Harden alternated taking Ayton to the hole for buckets as the Suns produced their worst defensive fourth-quarter performance of the season.

Against the Pelicans, though, Phoenix pulled off a complete 180 by outscoring the opposition 41-12 in the final period. Phoenix forced seven New Orleans turnovers, and converted those into 14 points to finish the final frame with a defensive rating of 52.2, which translates to just 12 points on 23 possessions. That fourth-quarter performance ranked as Phoenix’s best of the season in the final frame.

“When you look at that New Orleans game, it was our defense that allowed for us to get out in transition,” Williams explained. “I think our offense has just been a byproduct of us being able to get stops and rebounds.”

Game Recap: Suns 132, Pelicans 114

The Suns outscored the Pelicans 41-12 in the 4th quarter on their way to a 132-114 victory in New Orleans.

It’s certainly working as Phoenix enters tonight’s matchup against the Lakers ranked fourth in points allowed per game (107.5), tied for fourth in defensive rating (108.5), eighth in offensive rating (115.0) and third in net rating (+5.9).

“I think that fourth quarter in New Orleans, I think we talked to each other and communicated a lot,” Booker said. “Ever since then, it’s been really effective for us. Obviously, it’s not always gonna be like this. We’re not gonna make all of our shots. But defense is something that we can rely on.”

Williams pointed to Mikal Bridges as a significant contributor to Phoenix’s improvement on defense because of his ability to consistently guard the opponent’s most dynamic offensive threats.

“A lot of times, [with] his length, he gets his hands on a lot of balls or he forces a lot of hang-time passes because he is long. And on the backside, our guys can get steals or deflections,” Williams said.

Paul also heaped praise on Bridges for his defensive effort.

“Mikal is the guy who has the hardest defensive assignment every night,” Paul said. “So, we want to know his feedback. What do you like? How would you like to guard this? It’s really been a lot of fun.”

They’re communicating heavily in the prep department, too.

Case in point: Wednesday morning’s shootaround ahead of the matchup against Charlotte. Paul spent a few minutes talking with Suns assistant Brian Randle as they pored over the Hornets scouting report before finding Booker as they walked off the court.

“I think I told Book: ‘One thing about us, is we’re always gonna be prepared,’ ” Paul said. “I think that’s a credit to our coaching staff, how they pay attention to detail, and they allow us to speak up.”

How far the work takes the Suns is up to them.

Williams remains “hopeful” that Phoenix “can continue to grow” and reach “a level or two” in terms of improvement. But he laughed behind the face mask Sunday when hearing that in a postgame interview, Booker quoted one of the coach’s favorite sayings in pointing out that Phoenix can’t afford to “get happy on the farm.”

So, in preparing for the Lakers, Williams plans to spend the team’s next film session focused on Phoenix’s shortcomings.

“You get happy on the farm because of a few things; you’re scoring the ball, you’re winning a few games, whatever the case may be,” Williams said. “We can’t get bored with being efficient. We can’t get bored with getting stops. We understand that right now they’re the standard. They’re the champions. So, we know we have to bring a great effort and execution.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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