Suns staying focused, ready for grind ahead in 2nd half of season
The second half of the schedule for the 25-11 Phoenix Suns hangs steady in one direction before rapidly swinging in the other.
Prior to Friday’s action, there were nine teams other than the Suns that were at least three games over .500.
In the Suns’ next 13 games following Thursday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers, they only play one game against one of those teams, and it’s the Los Angeles Lakers, who on March 21 could still be without Anthony Davis and/or Marc Gasol.
But after an April 5 meeting in Houston against the Rockets, eight of Phoenix’s next 14 games are in matchups versus those nine teams. That includes three back-to-backs involving travel, as opposed to the easier stretch having two of its three at home.
Point guard Chris Paul said Thursday after the win while complimenting the chemistry of the team that hard times will be coming, and how they respond to the test of that adversity will say even more about them as a group.
That could come in a few ways, whether they fail to take care of business in that opening spurt of winnable games or run into some trouble when the schedule gets the most challenging it has been all season.
Paul saying that could come off wrong for a team that is white-hot with 17 wins in its last 20 games, but he’s been down this road and seen its bumps far too many times.
There is an invaluable level of experience someone like Paul brings, a veteran that knows the rigors of a full regular season while leading at this level. That’s not something the majority of the roster can know firsthand, while Paul has finished 10 games above .500 in every season the last decade.
“You understand the messages that are being conveyed on the bus, on the plane, in the locker room, [in] their group text,” head coach Monty Williams said Friday. “Those guys, Chris, Jae (Crowder), E’Twaun (Moore), Langston (Galloway) — older players have an understanding of the psyche of other teams, what’s coming as far as the season is concerned. Those are things that you appreciate when they’re conveyed to guys that don’t have the experience.”
It’s a consistent message Paul is sending.
“Just telling us we can’t let up. Keep going,” wing Mikal Bridges said. “Especially (after) how well we played the first half, teams are going to get after us … We did our job (in the) first half, and (the) second half is where we see how really tough and mentally tough we are as well to go out there and keep fighting every night.”
After a Feb. 28 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, one in which the Suns mostly lumbered around before Devin Booker took over, Williams emphasized that his team can’t get bored with what’s working. It’s something that’s so simple and obvious, but again, this is new for a lot of these guys and the grind of a full season as a potential contender is no joke.
Bridges has at least been able to take some experience from college, where the Villanova teams he was a part of won two national championships in three years with a combined record of 103-13.
It was instilled into Bridges to always be prepared to face the opposition’s best effort.
“You’ll watch a team (on film) that’s one of the worst teams in the Big East, and whoever you’re watching on film, coach is always saying, ‘They’re gonna be a different team than this. He shoots 25% from 3, he hasn’t made a 3 in his last five games, (but) against us, he’s going to make a 3,'” he said. “So you just gotta be ready for it and I’m used to it and I embrace it.
“Because I feel like especially when teams bring out their best, they bring the best out of personally me. And for our team, I think when they bring their best we always come out firing.”
Dario Saric’s second year in the league was with the 52-win Philadelphia 76ers. He referred to how teams can “hunt” them with that similar mindset Bridges brought up.
Williams mentions those other elements in the mix but plans to continue having all things center around his group.
“My number one priority is always our team,” he said. “And for me, it’s been an emphasis on the strength of our team and how we have to stay together in every situation and how that can help us when we face these teams that may be coming after us, a team that we have to catch, a team that may have beaten us last time, a team that we just beat — just talking to them as a secondary subject about the psyche of approaching a certain game.
“But for me primarily I’m always, as best (as) I can, trying to focus on us and what we do and what we can do better to further our program and help guys individually get better.”
Despite Booker showing some visible discomfort in his left knee late in Thursday’s game, he is listed as probable for Saturday’s matchup in Phoenix against the Indiana Pacers. Cam Johnson is still not with the team yet and remains out due to health and safety protocols.