EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns cite process after starting lineup held worst plus/minus

Jul 9, 2021, 9:48 AM

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, left, celebrates with Jae Crowder after the Suns defeated the Milwau...

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, left, celebrates with Jae Crowder after the Suns defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

Devin Booker and Chris Paul eventually clicked despite both being alpha leaders. They say it’s because they have aligned goals.

But they also have the same appreciation for the process to reach those. They love the daily grind to get there.

The Phoenix Suns’ two stars have been surrounded by like-minded players who show up to the gym on practice days or the offseason ready to work, and as good as Phoenix has made things look through 18 playoff games, it wasn’t always that way.

It took time, tough conversations and sacrifice — not only on the part of the team’s two All-Stars — for the whole thing to snap into place.

Just two wins from the franchise’s first title, it looks like no opponent will be able to snap the Suns out of it.

Yet back in January, just 11 games into the season, the Suns weren’t doing all that great in terms of plugging in offseason additions Chris Paul and Jae Crowder with the returning youngsters.

“I just know that I remember being on that one road trip and (head coach Monty Williams) telling us we had the worst plus/minus starting five. That hurt,” Paul said Thursday after Phoenix went ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks 2-0 in the NBA Finals.

“I ain’t never been on a minus side or any of that stuff. But we knew that we had to figure it out. Like if we wanted to get where we are now, we knew we had to figure it out. So, we did it and we are going to keep it going.”

They sure did.

On Jan. 17, the Suns were 7-4, and COVID-19 protocols had led to three games being postponed.

Their current starting lineup of Paul, Crowder, plus returning core members Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges had the worst plus/minus in the league (-2.5) among five-man units who’d appeared in at least 10 games with one another.

By net rating (-6.5), only the Golden State Warriors’ starting five — Stephen Curry, Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr., Draymond Green and James Wiseman — had played worse.

Obviously, things changed from those early samples.

Williams went away from Crowder and with Cam Johnson in the starting lineup coming out of the coronavirus-caused hiatus, and the Suns lost Booker three games into that stretch. The team lost four of five after the postponements.

But over a five-day span of three games from Jan. 18 to Jan. 22, the current starting lineup (again, not starting) posted a positive 4.5 plus/minus before Booker went down with an injury. It bumped the season plus/minus of the group from -2.5 to -0.9.

From there, Paul went on a scoring binge until Booker returned, and the Suns never looked back.

Phoenix didn’t record a losing streak until late April. It wasn’t until mid-May, shortly after Crowder returned from an ankle injury, that he was reinserted into the starting lineup.

Williams has maintained that starting unit this postseason aside from two games Paul was lost due to COVID-19 protocols.

“We sat down — it wasn’t just me and Chris. It was the whole starting five,” Booker said on Wednesday when asked about making it work with such a significant running mate. “We were just really honest with each other. I always say we hang our hat on the defensive end, and that’s where most of the conversation was.

“We obviously have to figure out chemistry on the offensive end and how we’re going to move and what pace we’re going to move at, but if we’re not going to be scoring, the other team can’t be scoring either.”

In the playoffs, the Suns’ starting lineup holds the sixth-best plus/minus (4.4) of groups who have appeared in more than four games together.

They’ve played consistently good basketball while appearing in 309 minutes together this postseason. That’s 309 minutes out of 864 total, which makes for a huge chunk of pretty good basketball.

That has the Suns, to borrow a few phrases from Booker, in good shape and coming for Larry.

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