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Tracing the Suns' Arc to the Conference Finals


They're not so different, the Lakers and Suns. During the regular season, both teams outscored their opponents by about five points per 100 possessions. Each excelled at one end of the floor - offense in the Suns' case, defense in the Lakers' - enough to overcome general mediocrity and occasional disaster at the other. To roll deep in the playoffs, each team would need to ride its respective area of strength while getting its act together on the other side of the ball. Both have done just that en route to 8-2 playoff records and a spot on the Western Conference Finals guest list.

This is the second of my three-part statsy breakdown of the Suns. In part one yesterday, I dug into the teams' head-to-head matchups in the regular season and explored what those might portend for the series ahead. Part three will look at what to expect when the Laker offense is working against the Suns' D, and vice versa, when the series starts on Monday night. Today I'm getting all up in the Suns' first 10 playoff games to see how they got this far, what they've been doing well and poorly and who exactly has been driving their success.

Let's bash this coconut open and see what's inside.

So, these Phoenix Suns you speak of: how'd they get here?

By handily crushing the Portland Trail Blazers in round one and the San Antonio Spurs in round two. Their victory over Portland was about as one-sided as a six-game series gets. Phoenix outscored the Blazers by more than 10 points a game and by 0.12 points per possession (PPP), numbers you'd usually find in a sweep or maybe a 4-1 series win. When Portland snagged Game One by piling up 1.17 PPP, it looked like the Suns' leaky defense might be their undoing. It quickly improved, however, and in combination with the Suns' typically awesome offensive attack was too much for an injury-riddled Blazers team to handle.

Phoenix didn't skip a beat in the next round. What many people thought would be the most closely contested second-round series was shockingly uncompetitive, with the Suns outscoring the Spurs by 0.10 points per trip. The San Antonio D, which was top 10 during the regular season, was incapable of slowing the Phoenix points machine. The Suns scored 1.16 PPP in the series and never less than 1.12 PPP in any one game.

Through two rounds the Suns have scored 1.18 PPP to opponents' 1.07. Of the eight teams that participated in the second round, only the Orlando Magic have posted better offensive numbers. Only the Magic and Boston Celtics have allowed fewer points per possession.

Has the Suns' rotation changed much from the regular season?

No. The minutes given to their five core players - Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill and Channing Frye - have ticked up at the expense of the reserves, but the difference has been minimal. Phoenix had three blowout wins against the Blazers and one against the Spurs, which has spared Alvin Gentry from taking the whip to his top-line talent. This has been especially important to preserve the legs of the relatively ancient Nash and Hill.

The only real change to the rotation has been the absence of Robin Lopez, who hasn't yet played in the postseason because of a bulging disk. That's meant some ceremonial starts (though still not heavy minutes) for the epically bad Jarron Collins. With RoLo expected back for the WCFs, Laker fans won't likely get to enjoy Jarron's unique offensive stylings. Alas.

What has the Suns' offense done especially well?

Make threes. Are you shocked to hear this? In the regular season the Suns were one of the best three-point shooting teams in league history, making 41% of their attempts. They've maintained that accuracy, drilling 42% of the postseason threes, while cranking up the volume. About 26% of their field-goal attempts in the regular season were from behind the arc; in the playoffs that's up to 30%.

Richardson has been completely, batshit on fire from distance. He's averaging more than three made longballs a game at a better-than-50% clip. Nash, Frye, Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley are also all bombing away at accuracies in the high 30s or better. None of their outside shooters is in a slump.

What has the Suns' offense done poorly?

Very little. Turnovers, I guess. The Suns were a tad turnover-prone in the regular season, hocking the ball up on just under 14% of their possessions, which ranked 19th in the NBA. In the playoffs that's inched up to about 15%. Nash, Hill and Leandro Barbosa have all been a little sloppier with the orange roundie than we're accustomed to seeing. This is a legitimate concern for Phoenix, given that neither the Blazers nor the Spurs have defenses that typically force a great many turnovers.

What has the Suns' defense done especially well?

Rebound. For a playoff team, the Suns were kind of amazingly bad on the defensive boards this year, finishing next-to-last in the NBA in defensive rebounding rate. Portland and San Antonio were both above average on the offensive boards, so you'd expect them to have done real damage on second-chance opportunities against Phoenix, particularly with Lopez on the shelf. Not so, sexy readers. The Blazers pulled in 28% of their misses, which is decent but not outrageous. They needed to do much better to keep pace with the Suns' offense. (Granted, they were without two of their best offensive rebounders in Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla.) The Spurs got badly shut down on the offensive glass, collecting only 22% of their own misses.

Grant Hill and Channing Frye aren't guys we commonly associate with rebounding ferocity, but they've played a big role in holding playoff opponents to one-and-dones. Richardson has also stepped up his game in this respect. Those three guys, all essentially wing players, have combined for 16 defensive rebounds a game.

What has the Suns' defense done poorly?

They've committed a whole damn lot of fouls. In the regular season their foul proclivities were middle-of-the-road: opponents generated 0.30 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, right at the league average. Against the Blazers, that ratio shot up to 0.36, and against the Spurs it shaded up further to 0.37. Portland's a crew generally adept at getting to the stripe, but Brandon Roy is their chief foul-drawer, and he was severely limited in their playoff series with the Suns. Generating free throws likewise was not a big strength of the Spurs this year. Keep in mind, the Lakers have home-court advantage in the conference finals, so the Suns can look forward to ongoing whistle problems. They need to stop hacking.

Do you remember the old Sunny D commercials with those irritating little skaterats?

Of course. Those were awesome.

Do you think when the kids express their distaste for the "purple stuff," it's code for irrational hatred of the Lakers?

What? No. That's stupid.

Moving right along: who among Suns players has been stepping it up?

Jason Richardson. The man has been superfine. He's pouring in about 22 points a night in amazingly efficient fashion, making 51% of his threes with less than a turnover per game, while also averaging a steal and over six boards. It's been an incredible spike in production. In the playoffs he's posted a PER of 25.2 after hitting a decent-but-nothing-special regular season mark of 16.6. Richardson's scorching play has been maybe the single biggest individual cause of the Suns' playoff success, and it will be fascinating to see whether he can maintain it with Ron Artest on his ass. Kevin Durant will no doubt be happy to explain how enjoyable that experience is.

Who among the Suns has been stepping it, um, down?

Nobody's been terrible. Well, Collins has been, but he's always terrible. Focusing on players who matter, Frye is one who's been a bit off his game. Both his role in the Phoenix offense and his shooting accuracy have dropped, but not to embarrassing levels. The guy's still contributing. Nash's turnovers are up a touch, and Barbosa are Louis Amundson haven't been shooting at their normal accuracies. These are but marginal performance declines, though. You don't jam to an 8-2 playoff record the way the Suns have by seeing your core guys decide not to show up.

Follow Dex on Twitter here.

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