On Tuesday night, the Phoenix Suns extended their winning streak to 17 games, beating the Golden State Warriors 104-98 and in the process ending the Warriors’ seven-game stretch of success.
After Phoenix disposed of Detroit to run that winning streak to 18, they headed up to San Francisco…and lost 118-96 to at last drop their fourth game of the season and end up at 19-4.
In so doing, the Suns ended up in second place in the Western Conference, behind that 19-3 Golden State squad that now leads them by half a game in the standings once more.
That’s right. The Suns have gone 18-1 in their last 19 games…and because of who the 1 was, they’ve gained just one game in the loss column compared to the standings on October 28, when the Warriors were 4-1 and the Suns 1-3. The Warriors are 15-2 in the same stretch of time.
So clearly, the first thing we’ve learned is that Warriors-Suns is the overwhelming, downright prohibitive favorite for “what’s going to be the Western Conference Finals matchup this year.”
But what else have we learned?
Live by the Steph, Die by the Steph
Stephen Curry, ultimately, is the linchpin and determining factor when the Warriors lose. It’s not always true that he’s the top guy every time they win—Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Draymond Green, all have had their role to play in Golden State starting 19-3.
But in the loss to the Suns, Curry was 4-of-21 from the field. When the Warriors lost to Charlotte, Steph went 7-of-22. And when Golden State lost to Memphis, Steph needed 29 shots (11-of-29) to get his 36 points that night.
In the rematch, which the Warriors won? Steph was 8-of-20, but that included 6-of-11 for three. That’s good for an eFG% of .550 that makes up for the pure “40 percent from the field” number.
Come May, Golden State is going to need Steph to step up because when he has a bad enough game—or when the Suns defense contains him—Phoenix is the better team.
Deandre Ayton is the Key Matchup for Phoenix
In the Suns’ win, Ayton was plus-16, forcing the Warriors to go small and utterly humiliating Kevon Looney, who was minus-17 in just 17 minutes on the floor. And, once the Warriors went small, the increased focus on taking away Curry’s shooting sealed the deal.
In the Warriors’ answer, Ayton was minus-16, Looney was plus-7, and Draymond Green was plus-25. By forcing Ayton out of the game as a factor, Steph was able to get that 6-of-11 from 3 with all of his better looks in the game.
There’s a lesson for the whole league here, especially when the Warriors play the Utah Jazz for the first time on New Year’s Day and Jazz coach Quin Snyder gets to watch film from Tuesday’s game and apply it to Rudy Gobert.
But the big key we’ve seen is that if you can force Golden State’s focus down low and make them respect your big man, that’s when they’re the most beatable. In some way it’s not all that different from when Tristan Thompson played the series of his life in the 2016 NBA Finals and the Warriors didn’t have Kevin Durant yet.
The Second Game Was Skewed
Keep in mind that in Friday’s game, Phoenix was on the second game of a back-to-back. Golden State hadn’t played since Tuesday’s game and had three days to get ready for an opponent that had just beaten them.
But then again, Phoenix won the first game by six. Golden State won the second game by 22. Back-to-back or no back-to-back, that’s still a plus-16 point differential for the team that has the highest Net Rating (plus-13.0) in the league, the second-best offense, and the best defense, not to mention a team for which 14 of their last 15 wins have been by double digits and only one of their losses—Tuesday’s game—has been by more than four points.
Phoenix’s Net Rating is just plus-6.5. On paper, Golden State is a much better team. On the actual basketball court, they’ve split two games but the Warriors own the more convincing win on the scoreboard. And the instant counter for Suns fans is “back to back vs. two full days’ rest.”
So What Have We Learned?
Well, what we’ve mostly learned is that if everyone stays healthy and Klay Thompson integrates back into the Warriors’ lineup when he returns from injury, we could be headed for yet another case of “the real NBA Finals is what happens in the West” in a way we haven’t seen since Warriors-Rockets in 2018 or the old days of the Lakers and Spurs and whoever they were playing back in the Dark Ages for the right to thump some lousy team that won the East by default.
And perhaps most importantly, we saw Golden State play an actual legitimate contending team…and thump them by 22 on their home floor, lending yet more legitimacy to that 19-3 record of theirs.