EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns face far different Warriors team in last regular season meeting
PHOENIX — Last time the Phoenix Suns matched up with the Golden State Warriors, the sentiment continued of feeling like a meeting in the Western Conference Finals was inevitable.
But that was three months ago and a whole lot has changed for the Warriors ahead of Wednesday’s last regular-season game between the two teams in San Francisco.
Golden State ripped off a nine-game winning streak that ran through the first week of February to improve to 41-13. Since then, the Warriors are 7-15. If this pace across the west keeps up to end the regular season, they will be either the fourth or fifth seed.
Across those 22 games, forward Draymond Green and guard Klay Thompson have combined to only play in 22 games. Green just returned on March 14 from a back injury that caused him to miss two months. Thompson, who came back from a 30-month absence on Jan. 9, is joined by Green in not playing both games of a back-to-back at this point.
Leading scorer and All-Star Stephen Curry, meanwhile, strained his left foot on March 16 and has been ruled out for at least another week.
Despite some younger players stepping up that we’ll get to in a minute, it is a borderline tailspin for the Warriors. They are 20th in offensive rating and ninth in defensive rating across that 22-game stretch, which doesn’t sound too terrible, but some of their lead voices sure paint that picture.
Head coach Steve Kerr has not beat around the bush for a team with championship aspirations, saying it needs to learn how to win and doesn’t know how to right now after a loss to the Orlando Magic on March 22.
Green has joined in on that, saying after that defeat the Warriors are playing soft and stupid before referring to his own play on Sunday as terrible.
To put it simply, it seems like too many things are going wrong now for them to go right in a few weeks when playoff basketball begins.
But the thing is, most of the players who needed to step up offensively across these tough times have.
Going back to those 22 games, third-year guard Jordan Poole is averaging 20.7 points per game with stellar shooting splits of 47/41/94.
Poole is a player I dove into for the first game’s preview. The question that I had was for how he’d adjust once Thompson came back, and the results have been encouraging.
For Thompson, he very much looks the part agility-wise of a guy playing after two serious long-term injuries and an extended break, one that forced him to miss the Warriors’ first three games versus Phoenix.
Suns head coach Monty Williams put it best, though, on how Thompson has looked.
“He’s Klay,” Williams said Tuesday. “I’ve seen him have nights where he goes for high 30s and I’ve seen him have nights where he doesn’t look like he’s been out for as long as he has. He’s Klay. He’s one of the most dangerous players in the history of the game and one of the more efficient players in the history of the game.”
Thompson is at 20.6 points a night in those 22 games, so the production is certainly there, even though his 37.4% efficiency at 3-point range is not where you’d expect one of the greatest shooters of all time to be. Some of those scoring barrages Williams mentioned included 37 points and nine 3s for Thompson on Thursday.
All these absences brought on more opportunities for Warriors 2021 first-round picks Jonathan Kuminga (seventh overall) and Moses Moody (14th) to get a crack in the rotation.
It was difficult to imagine either rookie factoring into the playoffs but both have more than earned a look, particularly Kuminga, who is an interesting wrinkle to consider in a possible playoff series with the Suns. He played a combined seven seconds in the first two games this season against the Suns before recording 21 minutes in the showdown on Christmas.
The 6-foot-8 strong and explosive 19-year-old provides the Warriors a unique skill set of an energetic wing that is dynamic with quick-twitch movements. He has been such a positive for Golden State that Kerr changed up his starting lineup three games ago, inserting Kuminga for center Kevon Looney to go small from the jump.
Williams noted how there’s a pure athleticism advantage that Kuminga simply just has over most players most nights.
“He’s a freaky athlete,” Williams said of Kuminga. “When you see him get off the ground, that’s a different level of athleticism. Has the ability to shoot from range but right now his ability to attack and finish in transition and that kind of thing is a little bit different than most, not just rookies, but most players you see in the league.”
Kuminga has played in all 22 games of the aforementioned stretch, registering 13.1 points in 24.5 minutes per game. While the consistency on Kuminga’s 3-point shot still needs to grow, sitting at 31.3% across that spurt, he’s at 61.2% on two-pointers.
His handle has been developed enough to where Kuminga will just glide past slower defenders. He uses his strength and a pinch of craft to finish from there.
If he’s got a size mismatch, Kuminga will employ bully-ball tactics.
The Warriors will also use him a screener where Kuminga’s speed really stands out.
And with those athletic gifts, the defensive potential is massive. We’re talking about a guy who can move his feet with most guards and also protect the rim like this:
That sound the crowd makes after the block is the type of sound only special, special talents can inspire.
Kuminga gets to the line a fair bit, managing 3.8 free throw attempts per game over the 22 games, and is also a factor on the offensive glass. Williams mentioned the latter as something the Suns know they need to manage, noting that body position of not allowing Kuminga a clean lane to crash is a key.
There has been one disappointment individually for Golden State and it is forward Andrew Wiggins, who sure isn’t helping the argument that his All-Star nod (as a starter!) was undeserving. The 22-game split for him is a rough 14.5 points per game on 41/31/54 shooting percentages, and no, the 53.8% at the free-throw line is not a typo. With the Warriors’ three future Hall of Famers in and out of the lineup, the 27-year-old Wiggins should have been the one to elevate his game the most, but it has actually been the youngins.
Golden State is undermanned and not playing good basketball but do not let that allow you to think for a second that the Suns will lose focus for this because homecourt is clinched. The Warriors’ second straight win over Phoenix on Christmas was the only time this season the Suns have not followed up a loss to a team by beating them the next time they play.
Even though it was 40 games ago, I guarantee the Suns have not forgotten that.