The Phoenix Suns continued their winning ways on Tuesday night, as they blew past the Dallas Mavericks for their seventh straight win. The 132-109 victory coming in Texas, and giving the Suns their second seven game win streak of the season.
It is hard to say if this was the most impressive victory of the campaign, beating the Los Angeles Lakers at the fourth time of asking is up there, as was coming from 22 points down to beat the Sacramento Kings.
This Mavericks win felt different though, because it showed that the Suns are able to cope with a physical opponent en route to a big win.
It seemed fitting that this game took place as part of the NBA's Rivals Week, because this one was chippy from the start. Interestingly however, it was not Devin Booker and Luka Doncic who were getting into it from the jump. Rather Grant Williams and Kevin Durant had a coming together in the first-quarter and when Jusuf Nurkic got involved, all three were issued with technicals.
The Mavericks held a one point lead at the half, and Doncic went off as he always does to the tune of 34 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Yet by the end of the game, the Suns had pulled away behind a scorching 43 point third-quarter, and Booker had hung 46 on the Mavericks while Durant could only offer up 12 points himself.
The importance of this cannot be overstated, because the perception that the Suns are a soft team is one that has stuck with them for a while now. Booker in particular has come in for criticism in the past, with other players feeling that when it comes down it it, he doesn't want that smoke. Doncic himself - impressive irritator that he is - has said as much to the media before.
So to pull out this win on the road - against a team that is bringing a playoff level of intensity and physicality - is huge for Booker and the Suns. Durant has never been known as somebody who likes to get into it, and the same is also true of Bradley Beal. Really this is a "Big 3" of stars that let their play on the court do the talking.
What has changed though is the supporting cast around these three, who look more comfortable with the rough and tumble elements of the game. Grayson Allen didn't get involved in the initial Williams/Durant altercation, but we all know he has no problem mixing it up when required. Center Nurkic did though, and his role as enforcer is becoming more evident as time goes on.
His ability to stay on the court for essentially all of this season so far - he missed a pair of games because of the death of his Uncle - has given this team a big man in the middle who sets hard screens and backs up his teammates out on the court. Really Nurkic has been the perfect player for this group, because nobody outside of Allen on this roster understands their role better.
Lost on many is the rapidly improving defensive play of this group as well, and during this current win streak they rank sixth in the league in defensive rating at 112.3. Defending at a high level isn't necessarily a sign that a team is "tough" or "up for a fight" out on the court, but there is no doubt there is some correlation between playing hard on that end and not being pushed around by opponents.
Even Booker and Beal have played their part in that regard - and although neither is known to be a high level defender - the effort they are showing combined with their athleticism and ability is leading to steals, deflections and getting in passing lanes to intercept the ball. This was on full display versus the Mavericks, and it a great sign as the postseason picture begins to come into focus.
When you consider where the Suns were even one month ago - languishing in 10th spot in the Western Conference and going nowhere fast - this quickly developed ability to go to a hostile arena and convincingly beat a good opponent is a huge development for the Suns. They might not be viewed as true contenders just yet, but they are closing the gap on the top teams in the West rapidly.