PHOENIX – Most of the time, it’s easy to tell the difference between a regular season NBA game and a playoff game.
Tuesday’s matchup between the Warriors and the Suns was not one of those occasions.
In front of a raucous hometown crowd and star Devin Booker injured early in the game, shorthanded Phoenix pulled away late to beat Golden State 104-96 at the Footprint Center. The victory pushed the Suns’ winning streak to 17, tying the franchise record, with the opportunity to surpass it coming Tuesday night when Phoenix hosts the Detroit Pistons.
More than that, the game against the Warriors felt like a preview of the Western Conference Finals. But there are many miles and games to go before the playoffs, and injuries to overcome.
The Suns had a scare of their own midway through the second quarter when Booker exited with a left hamstring injury that kept him out for the rest of the night. The All-Star guard walked to the locker room with only a slight limp but was quickly ruled out of the game. (The injury was determined to be minor, but Suns’ medical staff have ruled him out for the next few games as a precaution.)
Booker’s exit had a palpable affect on the crowd at Footprint Center. The anxiety could be felt, as a loss seemed inevitable and the streak appeared doomed. But Phoenix responded well to the challenge, taking a 56-54 advantage into the half.
The Suns knew that the biggest challenge of the night still lay ahead: playing the Warriors tight in the third quarter. Until then, the Warriors had led the league in third-quarter points, averaging more than 30. Suns coach Monty Williams spoke after the game about the concerted effort his team took to shut down the Warriors’ offense in the third.
“We told the guys about their third quarter, Chris (Paul) also talked to the guys, so there was a heightened awareness of what they do in the third,” Williams said. “And case in point, they come right out, they try to get a quick three for Steph (Curry), and we just were there … our guys were sort of ready for that.”
The Suns’ defense in the second half was remarkable, holding the Warriors to 24 points in the third, and a mere 18 points in the fourth – denying Golden State 100 points for the first game this season.
The Warriors shot only 39% from the field in the second half, as the Suns’ switch-heavy defense shut down the Warriors’ off-ball movement. On the other side, the Suns began to find cracks in the Warriors’ defense. Eight different players scored for the Suns in the third as they matched the Warriors with 24 points in the quarter, keeping their small lead.
This cohesion on both ends of the court proved to be too much for the Warriors. The Suns shot 52% from the field in the fourth and stifled the Warriors down the stretch, outscoring them 12-3 in a key four-minute stretch. The gritty effort was the difference between the two title contenders, as both teams now sit atop the league at 18-3.
Curry was cold in the first half, shooting 3-13 from the field and 2-8 from deep, and his struggles carried into the second half. He finished the game with 12 points on a ghastly 4-21 from the field and 3-14 from beyond the arc. Jordan Poole led the Warriors with 28 points and Otto Porter Jr. contributed nicely off the bench with 16 points.
But it was the outstanding team performance from the Suns in lieu of Booker that headlined their victory. All 10 players who stepped onto the court scored, with eight of the 10 scoring over five points. Deandre Ayton led the way with 24 points and 11 rebounds (six offensive) and two blocks. Paul, the “Point God,” scored 15 points and had 11 assists, as well as six rebounds and five steals.
The Suns’ collective work on the defensive end brought them the win, but Mikal Bridges’ defensive efforts on Curry were especially noteworthy, as Bridges forced Curry to shoot below 20% from the field and had four of the Suns’ 12 steals. After the game, Curry spoke about the effect that the Warriors’ sloppy play had on both ends of the court, as they tied their season high with 22 turnovers.
“We got to make adjustments to counter that and take care of the basketball,” Curry said. “Because if you take eight away of those turnovers, you get shots up, one – it’ll help us offensively, two – we won’t feel their transitions and they have shooters everywhere in transitions and they can just (tee) up threes.”
Williams praised Bridges for his effort, but also credited the team’s focus as a unit to not let Curry get going.
“Mikal’s defense — Steph missed some shots, but I think the respect Mikal has for Steph and our team defense showed in bodies tonight,” Williams said. “We tried to make it as tough on him as we could. We just had a number of guys step up.”
The team’s ability to step up in this moment was especially impressive. Despite losing their best player midway through the game against the top team in the league, the Suns refused to be discouraged and simply employed the ‘next man up’ mentality.
“Just keep playing. It’s not one guy that is going to fill that void,” Paul said when asked about replacing Booker’s contributions. “We have so many guys like Elfrid Payton, EP, hadn’t played the last few games, he came right into the game ready. Cam Johnson started the second half.
“We have so much depth on this team that if somebody does go down, somebody will step up.”
The Suns look to make franchise history Thursday night, breaking the record of 17 set by the 2006-07 “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns. They then hit the road to play the Warriors on Friday night.
The two teams face off on Christmas Day, too. Barring a setback, Booker should be available by then. The same may not be true for the Warriors’ All-Star wing, Klay Thompson. The long-awaited return of the other “Splash Brother” is around the corner, as Thompson has been cleared to go 100% per CBS Sports’ Jack Maloney and was sent down to the team’s G-League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, for scrimmages.
How these teams would fare with their rosters healthy can’t be predicted, but one thing is for certain: Suns-Warriors is a playoff classic just waiting to happen.