by Gina Mizell

Headline

EVERYTHING COUNTS
Why the Phoenix Suns are fueled by attention to detail, an emphasis that will continue during Western Conference Finals

The Chris Paul transition layup, flex and scream pushed the Phoenix Suns’ lead back up to double digits with less than three minutes to play in last weekend’s close-out game against the Denver Nuggets.

But that bucket to help seal the Suns’ trip to the Western Conference Finals would not have been possible without Mikal Bridges’ hustle.

After Paul poked the ball away from Nuggets guard Will Barton near the top of the key, Bridges collected it with both hands and took one dribble. When Barton stepped in front of Bridges, the Suns’ wing used his strength and body control to loop the ball around Barton’s body while falling on his side out of bounds, sending it into the path of a streaking Paul for the easy finish.

“We talk about 50/50 balls and little things that lead up to the big things, and that’s ‘Ws,’” teammate Jae Crowder said about that sequence. “The small aspects of the game — diving on the floor, wanting it more than the other team, 50/50 balls, helping your teammate — those are things we talk about on a daily basis.

“So it’s no coincidence to see that ‘Kal did that, and it was definitely a good momentum swing for us.”

It takes talent, relentless drive and togetherness to become one of the NBA’s final four teams remaining in the postseason. But the Suns’ ability to reach this level of consistent, confident and clinical execution, particularly while winning a franchise-record seven consecutive playoff games, can be directly tied to their willingness to embrace the belief that everything counts. That attention to detail becomes even more critical with an NBA Finals berth on the line when Phoenix’s series against the Los Angeles Clippers begins Sunday afternoon, especially with Paul missing at least Game 1 while in health and safety protocols.

“We highlight plays that might not be the plays to make SportsCenter top 10,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said. “ … We highlight some things that probably wouldn’t be highlighted on a lot of people’s film sessions that fall right into that ‘everything counts’ concept. It takes more than just scoring the basketball to win the game. There’s a lot that goes into it, and it takes a collective group.

“We’ve realized that from the beginning of the season on, that it’s going to take each and every one of us to get to where we’re trying to go.”

“Everything counts” is one of coach Monty Williams’ mantras regularly emphasized to his players. Early in his first season in Phoenix, plastic buckets featuring the phrase appeared inside the Suns’ lockers. The task: Symbolically begin filling them with the right stuff, from everyday work habits to crunch-time play.

“It’s an accountability thing,” second-year wing Cam Johnson said. “Everything counts, positively and negatively. You slip up and you start doing things you’re not supposed to do, that counts. But if you continuously chip away and put in work and deposit work into your bucket, then it adds up over the course of a season, over the course of years.”

The people, of course, foster this mentality.

Paul first credits the Suns' coaching staff. During the series against the Nuggets, the point guard marveled aloud that, “We’re so prepared, man, going into every game” despite a lack of practice time during this condensed season and “the dopest part about it is to see the progression of it.”

Williams’ goal is to strike a balance being meticulous without burdening the players with too much information.

Throughout the season, assistant coaches have demonstrated defensive drills on the court so the second team can observe from the sideline, illustrating that every staff member counts. Williams also harps on fundamentals such as how to space the floor and be in the right spot at the right time — even if those seem “busy work” to younger players — because every inch and second counts while running a crisp offensive set. Crowder once recalled his team running a box-out drill off of missed free throws during a midseason practice.

“(There are) little things that you may not think make the difference until you get into that situation,” Williams said, “and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘I’m glad we went over that’ or ‘I’m glad we talked about that.’”

Added Booker: “We don’t leave the gym until we are all on the same page, so there is no gray area on any (defensive) rotation or anything that we’re doing.”

Williams also highlighted a recent meeting when that staff-player partnership took hold. Coaches had mocked up a way to counter a particular trap defense, before Paul, Crowder and Booker respectfully suggested an alternative strategy that made more sense. Because every voice counts.

“As I’ve told the players, ‘I’m not trying to be right. I just want to be effective,’” Williams said. “I think when we have that kind of relationship and we’re able to walk through a lot of those situations, you can see the residual effects on the floor.”

Paul is known for his tireless routine and approach, from his vegan diet to his training and recovery regimens to the way he manipulates the game with the ball in his hands and utilizes every second during breaks in the action to work with teammates. That all rubs off on the rest of the roster.

The Suns’ depth keeps practices competitive, ensuring every rep counts. The veterans’ experience and wisdom count by contributing to film sessions and conversations with younger players navigating a playoff run for the first time. The continued engagement and support count, leading to moments such as when Johnson, Langston Galloway and Cameron Payne rushed over from the bench to help Paul off the floor following an and-1 layup during Game 4 of the Nuggets series.

“You talk about that Day 1 at training camp, just coming in, talking, all guys being on the same page,” Crowder said. “But it takes a full season. It takes ups and downs to go through to come out on the good side of that and be prepared for moments like we’re putting in right now.”

In the heat of the game, every possession counts. The Suns ranked fourth in the league during the regular season in fewest turnovers per game (12.5) and pride themselves on making the extra pass in Williams’ “0.5” system, helping turn their offense into a top-10 unit during the regular season (116.3 points per 100 possessions) and average a stunning 122.1 points per 100 possessions against Denver.

Every defensive stand counts, and not just while guarding the ball. Sprinting and turning in transition, getting over a screen, helping on the backside or sticking a hand up can shift momentum, such as when Torrey Craig’s block from behind against the Nuggets directly led to a Dario Šarić 3-pointer.

Every box out counts, such as the April 7 game against Utah when Deandre Ayton corralled five offensive rebounds against three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert during the fourth quarter alone to give the Suns extra possessions in an overtime victory.

Every scoring opportunity counts, including the points Paul manufactures at the free-throw line while getting yet another defender to bite on his signature rip-through move.

And every fan counts, because the 18,000 inside Denver’s Ball Arena were not nearly as raucous as the 16,000 creating a fantastic atmosphere inside Phoenix Suns Arena.

A scan through the Suns’ four one-point victories perhaps most highlights this mindset.

Feb 1. vs Dallas: Booker’s game-winning 3-pointer was set up by an Ayton screen and Paul bounce pass — and that Williams drew up a play Paul had previously run with the Clippers.

Feb. 10 vs. Milwaukee: With the Suns clinging to the lead and on defense, Crowder pulled the chair out from two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to force a steal in the final seconds.

April 19 at Milwaukee: Booker drew the foul and with 0.3 seconds left in overtime, and hit the two free throws for the win.

May 13 vs. Portland: After Crowder rebounded a Robert Covington missed free throw, Booker was fouled and sank the two shots to win.

“We’re prepared for the moment,” Crowder said. “We’re prepared for whatever is thrown at us, from different coverages on an offensive scheme. And defensively, it’s trying to put out a fire whether it’s one guy hurting us or one action hurting us.”  

As the Suns waited for their next opponent after sweeping the Nuggets, Williams said coaches and players dissected every game of the Clippers-Jazz series the following day. Though Paul has been away from the team this week while in protocols, Crowder said Paul has "been blowing up my phone nonstop” and called him during halftime of Game 6 of that series. Because every conversation counts.

And when asked last week to expand more on the practice drills that are now satisfyingly translating to games on the biggest stage, Paul spotlighted Ayton’s screening.

Before the season, Ayton gleefully shared the “little secret” he learned from Paul, that angles would unlock so much more in his game and the Suns’ offense. That applies to where and how long the center sets screens, and how he rolls to the basket.

That synchronization was fully on display during Game 4 in Denver, when Paul went 6-for-6 on pick-and-roll pull-ups, often thanks to space created by Ayton.

“Those jump shots that I hit toward the end of the game,” Paul said, “those don’t happen without (Ayton) setting a screen, setting it with pace, the rebounds and all that.”

Because everything counts.

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