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

Mar 12, 2019, 5:15 PM | Updated: 9:24 pm
Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins, center, reaches for the ball in front of Phoenix Sun...
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)
(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.”


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.


View this post on Instagram



A post shared by Tsunami Papi🙏🏽 (@kellyoubrejr) on

“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.


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.”

Penguin Air

Empire of the Suns

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) shoots over New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14)...
Kevin Zimmerman

Deandre Ayton still Suns’ priority, says GM: ‘We want to keep it together’

Suns general manager James Jones said nothing has changed on the Deandre Ayton front over the past several weeks, from his seat at least.
2 days ago
General manager, James Jones of the Phoenix Suns before Game One of the Western Conference Second R...
Kellan Olson

GM James Jones clarifies ESPN article on Phoenix Suns’ draft strategy

Suns GM James Jones clarified an ESPN article that painted a detailed picture of the team's unorthodox practices in the NBA Draft.
2 days ago
NBA draft prospects pose for a photo with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, center, before the start of...
Kevin Zimmerman

NBA Draft live blog: Pistons deal for C Jalen Duren in trade-heavy night

Visit ArizonaSports.com for Phoenix Suns coverage as they stand pat without a draft pick or move into the Thursday action.
2 days ago
Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns in the third quarter at Crypto.com Arena on April 06, 2022 ...
Kellan Olson

Cam Johnson ready for upcoming process, extension talks with Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns forward Cam Johnson discussed the contract extension he is eligible to receive this offseason and how he's approaching it.
3 days ago
Jamaree Bouyea #1 of the San Francisco Dons makes a move along the baseline while being defended by...
Kellan Olson

2022 NBA Draft targets for Phoenix Suns: Projected undrafted sleepers

Could the Phoenix Suns find a rotation player in the undrafted rookie free agent market after the 2022 NBA Draft?
5 days ago
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Ish Wainright #12 after scoring against the Dallas...
Kellan Olson

Deandre Ayton’s Suns teammates want RFA C back, supporting him

A few of Deandre Ayton's teammates expressed support for him and a desire for the restricted free agent to stay with the Suns.
4 days ago
What’s with the defense? Suns’ recent success stems from a few things