The Phoenix Suns are approaching the halfway point of the 72-game season on a roll. Following Sunday’s win in Minnesota, the Suns are 22-11 and threatening the No. 2 spot among Western Conference playoff contenders.
They visit the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.
It’s no longer “early,” either. The Suns are likely to finally snap their long playoff drought.
What awaits beyond the team’s final regular-season game?
The Phoenix Suns’ playoff path could include the Lakers, a matchup challenge the Suns will continue to try solving on Tuesday.
The top teams in the Western Conference are clear — the Suns, Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz — though the disappointing Denver Nuggets figure to challenge for a top-four spot when they figure things out.
Despite the Lakers’ position as defending champs, they are no lock for the No. 1 seed, nor do they care.
Standout big man Anthony Davis has missed considerable time and isn’t expected to return until well after the All-Star break, but L.A.’s goal is to be playing like champions by the time late May rolls around.
The first hurdle in facing the Lakers is dealing with L.A.’s league-leading defense. Davis certainly drives the elite “D,” so the Suns can more confidently attack the Lakers on Wednesday.
Entering Monday, the Lakers led the NBA in defensive net rating, you know, No. 1 in the league.
And they have LeBron James, who clearly isn’t pleased with the results of the past two seasons’ worth of MVP votes.
The Phoenix Suns’ success from 3-point range will be critical against the Los Angeles Lakers.
This holds especially true if they face L.A. in the playoffs. The Suns held the advantage from long range, hitting 37.5% entering Monday, good for 10th in the NBA.
The Lakers sat 25th, hitting only 34.8%.
While L.A. is holding opponents to 35% behind the arc, good for No. 4 in the league, the Suns say, “Hold my beer.”
Phoenix, which has been stunningly successful on defense in 2020-21, is second in defending the 3, holding opponents to a 34.3 mark.
The numbers really do indicate how the Lakers and Suns have reached elite levels this season.
Points allowed: The Lakers are second, giving up only 105.6 ppg entering Monday; the Suns are fourth, surrendering 107.5.
Net rating: The Suns are third; the Lakers are fifth.
But the area in which the Suns must carve out an advantage is turnovers. Phoenix, despite a sloppy night in Minnesota, has the league’s fifth-best turnover percentage. The Lakers sit 26th.
Smart passes. Good decisions. You know, everything Monty Williams will be preaching Tuesday night and in future meetings with the Lakers.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker are being noticed by more than just Phoenix Suns fans.
In a kind of a strange phenomenon, the Suns perform better in certain metrics when Booker and Paul are NOT playing together.
When one is on the bench, the Suns, entering Monday, were at +13.4 points per 100 possessions in 697 total minutes.
When Paul and Booker are on the floor together, the Suns are only a +3.8 in 663 minutes.
The situation is improving as the chemistry begins to click, though.
Before this 12-3 stretch entering Lakers game, the Suns had a net rating of -5.2 when the pair shared the court.
During this 15-game run, however, the team’s net rating has risen to +12.9 with the two on the court together.
So how can Phoenix best exploit its advantages? Paul’s elbow, step-back (or side-step?) jumper needs to fall, and Booker would do well to anchor himself in the low block if his long-range shooting is spotty.
According to Synergy tracking, Booker’s 1.18 points per possession on post-ups ranks sixth among 59 players with at least 25 post-up possessions.
It doesn’t hurt that the Lakers will be without Anthony Davis on Tuesday night, but the Suns must take advantage of the “now,” because the future may already be here.
That future could see a playoff matchup with the likely healthy Lakers, and winning now could help secure a home-court edge — even though the Lakers probably don’t care.
If the COVID-19 fog continues to lift, the home-court edge could actually mean something in May … and June (?).