NBA’s national spotlight shifts to Phoenix for Suns-Nets in primetime

Feb 15, 2021, 4:28 PM | Updated: 7:00 pm

Devin Booker #1 and Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns look down court during the second half of the...

Devin Booker #1 and Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns look down court during the second half of the NBA game against the Dallas Mavericks at PHX Arena on December 23, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Mavericks 106-102. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Is it a little bit warmer in here or is it just me? Ah, the national spotlight. Right. Tends to do that.

The Phoenix Suns have won nine of their last 10 games, making them the hottest team in the NBA outside of the league-best 22-5 Utah Jazz.

Most of the concerns from an 8-8 start have faded.

Devin Booker and Chris Paul have, unsurprisingly, figured out how to coexist. During the seven-game run both were healthy, the Suns have outscored teams by 9.5 points per 100 possessions when both are on the floor. That has been aided greatly by both of them finding their elite form:

Booker: 8 GP, 27.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.6 TPG, 52.6 FG%, 40.9 3P%, 82.2 FT%

Paul: 9 GP, 19.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 7.3 APG, 2.6 TPG, 1.8 SPG, 53.1 FG%, 45.0 3P%, 96.2 FT%

The nightmarish numbers in crunch time that saw the Suns losing in the clutch are long gone. In Phoenix’s last five games involving clutch minutes, it’s plus-29 in just 19 minutes. Before that, the Suns were minus-35 in the clutch.

And they’re finally healthy. Saturday’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers was the second game all season the Suns had all their players available. The return of Cam Payne and Dario Saric has boosted the second unit, a group already fully churning thanks to Frank Kaminsky and E’Twaun Moore stepping up during those two absences.

The Suns are now 17-9. They have certified themselves as a good team and are banging on the door to being a great one, where discussions can start about being potential contenders in the Western Conference.

That is what we like to call juice. Or, in simpler terms, momentum. Conveniently, as the Suns enter the new week in the top-5 of most power rankings out there, they host the must-watch Brooklyn Nets in primetime on Tuesday.

The Suns’ postgame media availability after Sunday’s victory against the Orlando Magic included more questions about the Nets than the Magic, and with good reason.

The Nets (16-12) are appointment television since the arrival of former MVP James Harden.

Using numbers prior to Brooklyn’s contest on Monday against the Sacramento Kings, it has a 119.1 offensive rating in the 15 games since acquiring Harden, third-best in the NBA. On the inverse, its defensive rating is 117.6, 27th leaguewide.

Sometimes a team led by Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni does exactly what you think it would do. They are very much in the middle of figuring it out, 9-6 since the blockbuster deal.

Brooklyn will be without All-NBA wing Kevin Durant due to a left hamstring strain, but it’s still going to have Harden and All-Star Kyrie Irving. Here are those two’s numbers since Harden’s debut:

Harden: 14 GP, 23.0 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 11.6 APG, 4.3 TPG, 1.2 SPG, 48.3 FG%, 38.1 3P%, 89.7 FT%

Irving: 12 GP, 27.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 5.6 APG, 2.5 TPG, 53.8 FG%, 39.4 3P%, 93.2 FT%

That’s quite the backcourt matchup on deck, eh?

And we didn’t even get to Nash’s first game coaching in Phoenix. Safe to say there’s a lot to this game.

But it is a game, after all, so let’s review a few things that stand out inside of it, beyond the obvious All-NBA guard showdowns and the Nets’ elite offense facing the Suns’ elite defense (fifth in defensive rating).

The Nets made the terrible decision to ship talented center Jarrett Allen to Cleveland as a part of the Harden trade, probably to start DeAndre Jordan again and keep everyone happy, which butchered their frontcourt depth.

The 32-year-old Jordan is already far beyond his All-Star ability of years past and his backup is Norvel Pelle, who was signed three weeks ago. Nash has been going small without Pelle through a nine-player rotation as of late, using veteran wing Jeff Gren as his only other big.

Again focusing on the numbers since the Harden deal, the Nets are 27th in opposing second-chance points and dead last in opposing points in the paint.

That’ll take a concerted team effort by the Suns to take advantage of, but if it points to one individual in particular, it would be Deandre Ayton.

Ayton has been floundering during this great Suns stretch, playing mostly fine (13.0 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 2.4 TPG) while impacting the game the most when he’s crashing the offensive glass and running the floor. Even though he’s currently not reaching his potential, those two parts of his game have become consistent in the past month and could make a difference on Tuesday.

Another hole in Brooklyn’s defense has been the midrange, where Paul and Booker own year-round residencies. Teams have shot 48.0% in the midrange against the Nets with Harden, third-last in the league, and they give up 33.8% of their shots there, 25th in the NBA. Keep an eye on the Suns’ star guards finding a rhythm in those pockets of space.

Lastly, Nets opponents against Harden have a league-low 10.8 turnover percentage.

The Suns will be able to score inside and from their two ball-handlers’ favorite area, all without much pressure of turning it over.

Seems like the winning formula is there. Should be fun!

All statistics via NBA.com/stats and Cleaning the Glass

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