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What’s with the defense? Suns’ recent success stems from a few things

Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins, center, reaches for the ball in front of Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Johnson, left, and forward Dragan Bender during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, March 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

PHOENIX — No, the Suns haven’t found sudden success with one flip of the switch, one tweak of the gameplan.

Completing what is statistically the most improbable season sweep ever, then earning the first conference road win in 20 tries in what was the NBA’s biggest individual upset in two calendar years doesn’t come after one itty-bitty fix.

Phoenix has won five of seven, and of course it’s easy to believe Igor Kokoskov’s squad could sink back to the uninspiring play that earned it an 11-50 record just two games out of the All-Star break. But hey, there are promising signs and tangible reasons for why the Suns have taken steps forward.

More than anything, it’s about the defense.

A 17-game losing skid came with offensive struggles, for sure, but it also included a team allowing 118.3 points per 100 possessions over that span, worst in the NBA. For comparison, the Cleveland Cavaliers are last with a defensive rating of 115.9 for the entire year.

Skip to Phoenix’s last seven games since Feb. 25, and the team is allowing 109.6 points per 100 possessions, a monumental improvement that’s 15th-best in the league in that span.

The Suns promise it’s not about scheme adjustment, or more effort and energy. Very little has changed since the start of the year, they say.

But a combination of things have changed, even if overall philosophy and practice topics haven’t.

No finger-pointing

The Suns fought back on Feb. 25 to beat the Miami Heat. It wasn’t pretty, but that fight came without something new more than it came with something new.

That something was a lack of finger-pointing.

“I say communication and not wanting to be the one that’s messing up,” Devin Booker said Tuesday. “I think that’s what’s keeping our team going.  You don’t want to be that guy in film room now who, you repeatedly keep messing up. So everyone’s holding each other accountable.

“Now guys are messing up and knowing when they mess up. That’s important too.”

Confidence

Kokoskov noticed something grow when he challenged his team.

After the win over Miami and a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, he got just that when he asked center Deandre Ayton to spend a chunk of his time on the court chasing around the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James.

Since, Phoenix put its big man on fellow ultra-athletic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks in a stunning win that allowed the Suns to sweep the season series against the NBA’s best team by record.

“I think our confidence is a little bit different, guarding LeBron, guarding Giannis, Klay Thompson, all those guys. I think that’s the only difference I can see,” Kokoskov said. “Psychologically for a young group, confidence is higher.”

Young guys growing up

Look at rookies like Ayton and Mikal Bridges’ development, and it’s part of the cumulative effect of the team’s recent defensive leaps.

Bridges made more than a handful of winning plays in Sunday’s win over the Golden State Warriors.

Kokoskov acknowledged that confidence was one thing. But Bridges knowing tendencies and reading plays to put himself in position to intercept passes where weakside cuts might occur is another thing. Not guessing and taking risks is part of that.

“We try to be solid. We try to be disciplined. That’s the one thing we didn’t have in the past,” Kokoskov said. “Instead of reaching and try to be hero and try to steal the ball, we’d rather — we want our guys to be solid. But if you can anticipate the play, you can steal the ball.”

New additions fitting in

The trade for point guard Tyler Johnson and move of Kelly Oubre Jr., an earlier trade acquisition, into the starting lineup parallels the Suns’ defensive uptick.

“The additions of Kelly and Tyler helped a lot,” Booker said of the teammates who have been on playoff teams. “What everybody sees, they’re just saying. And you’re hearing each other out, you’re coming at each other in a respectful way and know that the end goal is to win and get better.”

Johnson has been credited for stopping by on the team plane and going over a film clip or two with teammates. Oubre has also been a bonding glue piece off the court with his Valley Boyz Instagram posts and a swagger in games.

 

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“I think you just look at a bunch of young guys with a swagger about them, a demeanor about them, on the court, off the court,” Booker said of Oubre’s Valley Boyz nickname for his team.

Time

Yep, while confidence and comfort has allowed for individual progress, sticking to a consistent message of accountability and scheme has allowed the Suns to finally begin playing together.

“We just became a unit,” Bridges said. “It took time. You just can’t be a good defensive team in a second — it takes time. Our coaching staff does a great job with the scout and how we play — ball screens and stuff like that. Just a lot of practice, reps, getting better at that.

“You watch guys, you play them multiple times, you know their tendencies and just play basketball.”

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