PHOENIX — If you were too quick to react, a 1-3 start to the season fooled you into thinking the Phoenix Suns were not going to get an expected boost from their continuity.
While they are still piecing together complete games and not playing tip-top basketball at the moment, utter domination in the clutch has the Suns winners of 10 straight after a 105-98 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.
“Mental stamina is something that I see from our guys,” head coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve had a number of situations in the fourth quarter where a team makes a run or they take a lead and we come to the [bench] and our guys are in the same mode as if it was the first quarter.”
Looking at clutch minutes, defined by those in the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points, Phoenix is now +35 in 22 of those minutes this season after going +10 in ’em on Wednesday. That’s the best +/- in those situations across the league, and they are only one of three teams above +20, per NBA Stats.
“I think that’s something that we probably have grown in over the past year with this particular group, and I’m sure a lot of that playoff experience helped us grow in that area,” Williams said.
In somewhat of a repeat from Monday’s victory in Minnesota, the Suns (11-3) continued to miss open shots and couldn’t knock down the ones that would start the surge that breaks the game open. The longer it went, the more realistic the proposition became that it just wasn’t going to be the Suns’ night.
But then came a 37-point fourth quarter, outscoring Dallas (9-5) by 12 after a 15-of-28 effort from three-point range allowed the Mavericks to be up five through the opening 36 minutes despite being without star guard Luka Doncic (ankle).
Clearly, Williams felt like his guys were going to play their way through it and wanted his key players to, as Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges played the entire fourth quarter while Deandre Ayton sat for just 19 seconds.
He was right.
All five starters had at least five points in the closing frame. Paul had six of his seven points and seven of his 14 assists. The Suns shot 14-of-20 (70%) from the field.
At the start of the quarter, Cam Johnson hit two 3s that were sandwiched by a Bridges floater, the eight points in two minutes type of windup to a flurry of scoring we were waiting on. The aforementioned trend, however, was insistent, with Phoenix scoring only five points over the next three minutes.
That’s when Paul really got involved and started getting downhill, providing pressure at the rim or near it to open things up. He found Ayton for a layup before Johnson topped him with a gorgeous bounce pass to locate Ayton at the basket again for a bucket.
— NBA (@NBA) November 18, 2021
Booker then barged into the lane for a tough layup finish, and after the Mavericks answered with a 3, Paul kicked off clutch time with a midrange jumper at 4:55 remaining to tie the game.
Paul assisted Ayton again, and at that point Dallas head coach Jason Kidd had seen enough and wanted to change his defensive coverage.
His answer was, strangely, a zone look against a team with Paul, Booker and shooting.
The Suns quickly roasted that with wide-open triples for Bridges and Jae Crowder on back-to-back possessions before Kidd bailed. Crowder said postgame that was a wrinkle Phoenix was ready for and went through in shootaround the morning of the game, a valuable piece of extra prep work in hindsight.
That run of offense is nice and all, but through that, Dallas knocked down a couple tough shots and still had the game tied at 2:42 remaining.
That’s when Phoenix’s defense went up another level, holding the Mavericks to two points the rest of the way, where Bridges was the star of the show.
After Crowder got two free throws, Phoenix had their best defensive possession of the game, a mad scramble after a double-team of the Mavericks’ Kristaps Porzingis that ended with a highly contested corner 3 that did not go down. The scramble was necessary because the 6-foot-6 Bridges was getting switched onto the 7-foot-3 Porzingis and battling like a madman to hold position, which let the recovery happen a little easier.
Crowder missed a 3 the next time down, but Bridges fought with Porzingis again, and this time his extremely long arms got a hand on the entry pass for a steal.
— Pablo Martinez (@true1480) November 18, 2021
In semi-transition, Paul had only getting to the basket on his mind, and somehow delivered a dime to Ayton as he was falling out of bounds to finally have it at a two-possession lead up four.
— NBA (@NBA) November 18, 2021
Following more good defense, a Suns offensive possession went south, but the basketball gods were kind in a deserving act of granting a Booker dagger from 28 feet to fall after so many better looks did not throughout the night.
— NBA (@NBA) November 18, 2021
Booker contributed 24 points on 11-of-21 shooting. His offensive effort kept the Suns afloat through those rough three quarters, as Paul missed his first eight shots and didn’t score until the 1:01 mark of the third. Ayton’s finishing around the rim was the only other consistent source of points.
He had 19 points and 13 rebounds while the supporting cast of Crowder (14 points), Bridges (10), Johnson (six) and Landry Shamet (11) combined for 11 of the Suns’ 13 three-pointers, which was just enough to get the job done.
“When we needed it, guys just stepped up,” Williams said. “We have the mentality of let it fly.”
Wednesday was the Suns’ third straight game in which they held their opponent under 100 points. Williams said he’s seen consistent improvement in a few different defensive areas over the past handful of games, a huge step for the squad that was previously leading the NBA in field goal percentage on the other end.
Williams said he’s eagerly awaiting a look at shot quality numbers on offense for Wednesday, because his initial impression was they were going to look good despite the shooting percentages suggesting otherwise until that scorching fourth quarter.
Williams looks at those shot values just as much as the Suns’ actual efficiency.
“It’s exciting because once the shotmaking starts to go our way and the defense remains the same, it’s going to be really good for us,” he said.
That is a wild statement to take in, not only because it’s true, but also because it’s coming from the head coach of a team that’s on a 10-game winning streak.