By: Jay Dieffenbach
The Suns dispatched the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday with their trademark “killer” mentality and will try to apply the shackles to the Dallas Mavericks as Round 2 begins on Monday.
Whatever it takes, it seems, the Suns are willing to lock down an opponent at the critical moment.
After the Suns’ pivotal Game 5 victory, coach Monty Williams cited the team’s cohesiveness.
“Our game discipline was about as good as we’ve seen in the playoffs for sure,” Williams said. “I thought our guys were locked in to what we were trying to do.”
Locked in and locked down
Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the 2021-22 Suns’ personality than this one: Throughout the regular season and the playoffs to this point, Phoenix has led after the third quarter 50 times. And they have won all 50. No chokes. None.
That’s a team with a trademark resilience showing through now as the calendar flips to May.
Need Devin Booker to return from a hamstring injury and shake off the rust just in time to bury a clutch 3-pointer? Check.
Need Deandre Ayton to continue providing defensive force and frustrating opponents with a mid-range touch right out of “How to Shoot the Perfect Jumper”? Check.
Still need a little more? With Booker injured, it was again made clear that Chris Paul is a legendary leader. How about an NBA playoff record-setting performance from the Point God/Maestro?
Suns fans are acutely aware of Paul’s excellence, but even they probably hurled delighted expletives at their flat screens as Paul hit every shot he attempted during Game 6 to lead the NBA’s top team into Round 2.
And Mikal Bridges’ defensive excellence coupled with his elite versatility on offense (see Game 5), slams the cell door on opponents hoping for freedom.
Adding to the killer concept is Booker’s return to full availability, and it took only one half in New Orleans, according to Suns coach Monty Williams.
“I thought in the first half, we were a bit off, trying to balance it all out with him being back,” Williams said on Saturday. “In the second half, we just kinda played the way that we typically play.
“Scoring 60-plus points on the road in a close-out game was indicative of everybody finding more balance with him being on the floor.”
DA and Mikal Defense
Something for Suns fans to watch as Phoenix takes on Dallas: Ayton is the key to the lock – not Bridges – when it comes to making most of the defensive calls.
“Mikal has risen to this level of Defensive Player of the Year status,” Williams said, “but DA is the quarterback of the defense. The guys are always telling him, ‘Whatever you say, we’re gonna do.’ And I think that’s given him ownership.”
That dynamic will be fun to watch as the Mavericks employ a small-ball approach, and Bridges has several seasons of watching Ayton grow as a defensive force.
“It’s that bond we have,” Bridges said Saturday, explaining that when Ayton sees Bridges react one way on defense, he’ll cover for him – and vice-versa.
To close out the Pelicans in the first round, though, the Suns desperately needed Bridges, the ultimate dead-bolt device. He played 47 minutes in Game 5 and came back strong in Game 6 to help finish things. His defense gained league-wide acclaim – finally – this season.
“We’ve put him on everybody,” Williams said after Game 5. “Can’t clone him but you wish you could. He’s just one of those rare basketball players that can play that way on defense but also give you the point production he did tonight. ...
"To play that kind of defense and only have one foul, says a lot about his IQ and understanding the way the game is being called. It certainly helps us in so many ways and he covers up a lot of mistakes -- and that’s hard to do when you play on the wing.
“A lot of times, when you talk about a guy covering up mistakes, it’s usually a Big, but he does it from the wing and that’s really hard.”
And the challenge of attempting to lock down Luka Doncic?
“He gets better every year,” Bridges said, “... (But) it’s never just me out there, you know what I’m saying? I got four guys behind me so it makes my job a little bit easier while I’m up there (guarding him).”
With Dallas, Williams will find a different opponent than the regular-season Mavericks, from new players to analyze and having to deal with a healthy Doncic.
While meeting with reporters following Saturday’s practice, Williams made his approach seem pretty clear: It’s on the Mavericks to figure out how to solve the locked-in Suns; not the other way around.
“You really have to rely on who you are as a team,” he said. “Then once you get an idea in the first half ... make adjustments based on what you see on the court.”
The road to the Finals is never easy, and following a challenging first-round series against the Pelicans, the Suns – with Booker intact – are locked and loaded for another test against the Mavericks.