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Can The Phoenix Suns Cap Off A Magical Season?

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Andres, Jared, Louis, I thank you all for not getting injured and for making it to another one of our postseason NBA chats. I want to start today by talking about the Western Conference champions Phoenix Suns, because honestly, they deserve it.

First Finals berth for the franchise in 28 years. First Finals appearance EVER for Chris Paul. There are so many threads to this Suns-making-the-Finals story, so I just want to throw it out there. What’s been your favorite nugget about the Suns this season?

zatzman (Louis Zatzman, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Deandre Ayton could be putting together my favorite statistical nugget for the Suns. He’s shooting better at the rim in the playoffs than Giannis Antetokounmpo — who had the best regular-season mark since at least 1996-97 — did in the regular season! Almost 80 percent. That’s really a nugget about Paul.

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’ll keep it simple just by referencing Paul’s Game 6 against the Clippers: He now has two of the three playoff games in’s database (i.e., since 1983-84) with 40-plus points, eight-plus assists and zero turnovers. CP3 is one of the best playoff and crunch-time players ever, and that fact has long been overshadowed by a couple of horrific meltdowns and horrendous injury luck. He deserves his flowers, as they say.  

zatzman: (Kitchener, represent! Jamal Murray with the third game!)

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dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Jared beat me to it, LOL. I was just about to say the same thing! Not only did he disprove his critics, he placed himself in elite company while doing so. He’s now one of only four players ever to put up 40 points and 0 turnovers in a series-clinching win, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. 

dubin: I think we also need to talk about this play, which I feel like somehow got lost in the shuffle as Phoenix built its big late-game lead. This is incredible!

tchow: Jared, I saw that play in real time AND on the slow-motion replay, and I still had trouble figuring out how Paul did it.

dubin: I also cannot help but be so happy for Monty Williams, who has done a fantastic job with this team and, in any year where the New York Freaking Knicks did not make the playoffs, would have been the slam-dunk Coach of the Year winner. (And he did win the version voted on by his fellow coaches.) He and CP3 went to the playoffs together with the then-New Orleans Hornets 10 years ago and lost as a No. 7 seed to the No. 2 seed Lakers. This year they flipped the script by winning as a No. 2 against the No. 7 seed Lakers, and now they’re in the Finals.

zatzman: Symmetry! There’s a lot of legacy building going on in Phoenix this postseason.

A fan sitting in the stands watching a game amidst a bunch of empty seats. They are wearing a mask and a jersey that says “Young.”

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tchow: On that note, when the playoffs started, 17 of 18 NBA experts on ESPN predicted that the Lakers would beat the Suns (shoutout Bobby Marks for predicting Suns in six). FiveThirtyEight gave them a 5 percent chance of making the Finals around the time the play-in games were happening. Basically, this seemed improbable to most, even though the Suns had the second-best record in the league this season. Why were folks so doubtful of the Suns?

dubin: If only someone had written about that very question at some point this season. Perhaps in mid-March

tchow: Give us a TL;DR of that article, Jared. (I promise I read it.)

dubin: Basically, projection systems did not think the Suns had an extra gear, whereas they thought other teams were more able to take it to another level in the playoffs, whether due to having players coming back from injuries or just more minutes from their stars.

The Suns looked like how they’d look in the playoffs

NBA teams with title odds of at least 1 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s model by difference between full-strength and playoff ratings in RAPTOR-based Elo, and between current and playoff ratings in the Basketball Power Index

Team Full Playoff Diff. Current Playoff Diff.
Lakers 1653 1716 +63 5.8 8.8 +3.0
Clippers 1656 1714 +58 4.1 5.4 +1.3
Celtics 1594 1648 +54 3.4 4.3 +0.9
Nuggets 1666 1716 +50 3.4 4.6 +1.2
Bucks 1648 1697 +49 5.6 6.4 +0.8
Nets 1685 1732 +47 5.7 7.4 +1.7
Heat 1568 1615 +47 3.7 4.7 +1.0
76ers 1638 1674 +36 2.9 6.0 +3.1
Jazz 1680 1698 +18 6.3 7.5 +1.2
Raptors 1606 1623 +17 3.4 4.7 +1.3
Suns 1644 1660 +16 3.7 4.8 +1.1

Through games of March 17, 2021.

Source: ESPN

dre.waters: For the pre-first-round predictions, I don’t think it’s that people were doubtful of the Suns. More so, they believed in the Lakers.

zatzman: I can only speak for myself, but I thought the “you have to lose in the playoffs before you can win in the playoffs” rule would apply to Devin Booker, and it really hasn’t at all. It helps to have Paul alongside you, but Booker’s been so consistent. He’s had four games scoring in the teens in the playoffs, and everything else has been 20-plus.

That could have something to do with the model not believing the Suns had an extra gear, too.

dubin: I also want to note that a 5 percent chance is actually a pretty decent chance. It’s the exact cut-off Daryl Morey once specified as being the point where a team should be all-in. “If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title.”

We ended the Suns story with a focus on that theory, and it actually looks pretty prescient now.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban echoed Morey’s sentiment: “One sprained toe or two, and the competitive landscape changes,” he said. “You don’t want to miss that opportunity. You should always put the best team you can on the floor within the parameters you have set for yourself.”

The Suns made every effort to put the best team they could on the floor. They traded for Paul, signed Crowder, brought back key reserves like Dario Šarić and added quality depth pieces that have helped them find the type of regular-season success they knew they’d need to solidify their postseason standing. Now, they’re in that small group of teams potentially within a sprained toe or two of finding themselves with a real shot to bring home the big prize. Considering the franchise has never won a championship in its 53-year history (and has not even been to the playoffs since 2010), crashing the title picture is an accomplishment in itself — even if, at the moment, the Suns are only on the edges of the frame.

tchow: Is this the season Booker becomes a household name? Die-hard NBA fans knew he was a star, and to be fair, you did hear his name mentioned more and more in the bubble last season. But this season is a whole other level, right?

dubin: I would think/hope so.

dre.waters: It has to be. This is the second year, if you include what he did in the bubble last year, where all eyes were on him and he showed up. He led the team, without CP3, to winning all eight of their games, and it wasn’t just luck. And this postseason, when CP3 went down with a shoulder injury early and missed time due to COVID-19 protocols, he was a major factor in putting the team in positions to win games, and ultimately series.

zatzman: And it’s no surprise, Dre, that he’s shown up. His game is built for the playoffs. Aesthetically, his game doesn’t look like Kawhi Leonard’s, but he’s got a similar shot profile, and he’s an absolute bruiser inside the arc. He scores the way old heads want current stars to score, which is in the post, in the midrange and at the rim. He’s a good shooter, but he doesn’t rely on it to the same extent as a lot of stars.

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dubin: What’s interesting is he’s had a reputation throughout his career as a knock-down sniper from outside, but he’s never really been that guy. He’s a career 35.2 percent shooter from three. He shot 34 percent this year. His career high is 38.3 percent. His game is much more in the in-between areas, and he’s become a fantastic finisher at the rim.

dre.waters: He’s a scorer — everybody has been calling him a shooter for years — but that’s a discredit to his versatility.

zatzman: I have a theory that that reputation is based entirely on the attractiveness of his jumper rather than its chances of going in.

dubin: Like early-career Bradley Beal.

zatzman: Exactly.

tchow: OK, we’ve talked about Paul and Booker, but Phoenix has its own big three. There were questions before the playoffs about Ayton’s ability to handle defensive matchups, and yet the Suns have been really solid with him on the floor (on both ends). Has Ayton (and maybe this year’s playoffs in general) shown a return of the big man?

dubin: If your big man can stay on the court defensively against smaller units (by handling himself in space and/or being valuable enough as a rim protector that being a liability in space doesn’t matter quite as much) AND punish them on the other end with offensive rebounds, duck-ins or post-ups, then yeah, that’s very important. That’s the difference between Ayton and, say, Rudy Gobert, who could do the former against the Clippers only sometimes, and couldn’t do the latter well enough to overcome the ways the Clippers stretched him on the other end.

zatzman: I don’t think the big man ever left so much as Draymond Green (and to a lesser extent PJ Tucker) was a unique blip in team construction that skewed how we view which trends work and which don’t. And as Jared says, the three remaining starting centers in Ayton, Brook Lopez and Clint Capela have all been more or less great defensively.

tchow: Yeah, perhaps I shouldn’t have said “return of the big man,” especially when Nikola Jokić is sitting right there in his horse-drawn buggy with his MVP award. But like Louis hinted at with Ayton, Lopez and Capela, there does seem to be a crop of “modern-day” big men that have a very different game than your stereotypical NBA bigs.

dubin: Watching Lopez turn back the clock in Game 5 against Atlanta was really something. That looked like Brooklyn Brook.

zatzman: Lopez has to be an (aging) version of what the modern-day big is evolving to look like, right? A great rim protector, a passable shooter and a solid post player. How many centers can actually do all three of those things? 

dubin: A lot of times Lopez only does two of the three. That’s what was so exciting about seeing him dominate Atlanta inside. The Bucks don’t go to that very often.

dre.waters: There really aren’t many. And it’s really cool that he’s doing it after EVERYBODY was sure that they needed to take him off the court after his performance in Game 1.

zatzman: Could not agree more, Dre. Mike Budenholzer’s reliance on Lopez was controversial, but in hindsight seems like a credible coaching choice!

Cam Payne in mid dribble during a game.

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dubin: The Bucks going with a huge lineup (Tucker-Lopez-Bobby Portis) in Game 5 worked quite well, too. They’ve typically started Portis in games when Giannis had to sit, but I was surprised to see it with Tucker already starting in place of the injured Donte DiVincenzo.

dre.waters: With the way Portis and Lopez were playing, how could you take them off the court?

zatzman: It helps that for the Bucks, supersizing is also maximizing their shooting. But I always enjoy when coaches find success in unorthodox options.

dre.waters: And a lot of credit has to go to Jrue Holiday for creating so many looks for Lopez. Over half of his assists Thursday were to the big man.

dubin: Several Bucks have gone from looking terrible for a multigame span to looking incredible, at different times during the playoffs. Holiday and Khris Middleton both fit that description.

zatzman: For all their success, the Bucks just don’t seem to have an engine to create consistent low-variance points. Everything looks like a struggle. But they’re the best playoff defense, and they have enough talent to make it work. It just means sometimes they’re gonna look rough.

dubin: That defense has been their calling-card throughout the Budenholzer era. And getting more versatile with it this year has been key. They were even switching 1-through-5 for a lot of the game last night.

tchow: Speaking of the Bucks, they’re now one game away from making it to the Finals, but I get the sense that fans still don’t really believe in them. After they swept the Heat in the first round, there have been caveats to their wins in the playoffs. They beat an impressive but heavily injured Brooklyn Nets team. They won the pivotal Game 5 in the Eastern Conference finals without their two-time MVP, but the Hawks were also without Trae Young. Should there be an asterisk next to these Bucks wins? Or are people discrediting what this team has done?

zatzman: If we’re doling out asterisks, the Suns haven’t faced a healthy team yet. But you can only play the team in front of you, so no, I don’t think either team should have an asterisk. (To be fair, the Suns have been more convincing in all their wins other than the first round.)

dre.waters: Exactly, Louis! We’d pretty much be putting asterisks on the entire postseason if we did that.

tchow: Yeah, I think that’s right, and I’m glad we’re on the same page here. I think we needed to address it, though, because it was getting annoyingly loud.

zatzman: And it’s not like Atlanta is a slouch without Young, either. They’ve been (slightly) better with him on the bench during the playoffs, and they’ve compiled enough incredible pull-up shooters that their offense will be threatening with or without their star. Their team construction is fascinating.. 

tchow: OK, let’s finish by looking into the future. I have three questions for you all.

  1. Will the Bucks wrap this up in Game 6?
  2. Does Phoenix match up better with Milwaukee or Atlanta?
  3. Who’s going to win the ring?

zatzman: Okay, short and sweet:

  1. Yes;
  2. I don’t think it matters much one way or the other, which points to my final answer;
  3. Phoenix, handily.

dubin: I agree with Louis on 2, and probably on 3. 1 depends on whether Young is back for Game 6, and whether or not Phoenix wins the Finals handily depends on whether Trae or Giannis is back. It’s tough to see the Hawks or Bucks winning with their best player likely hobbled, though.

dre.waters: I’d probably say yes to the first question, especially if Young can’t go. And for 2 and 3, I’d have to agree with Louis as well. 

zatzman: I thought I was being controversial!

tchow: So you all think Phoenix and Paul will win their first championship?

dre.waters: I think this is the first time this postseason we’ve all agreed on a pick, LOL. 

zatzman: So three firsts, then.

tchow: I might cry. Also, in case we somehow jinxed this: WE ARE SORRY, PHOENIX!

dubin: Look, if Charles Barkley can win four guarantees in a row on TNT, anything can happen.

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Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.