By John Krolik
Special to The Examiner
In a possible Western Conference Finals preview, the Warriors came up short against the Phoenix Suns this week, falling 104-96 against a team who is now on an incredible 17-game winning streak. With Golden State hosting Phoenix for a rematch Friday night at Chase Center, let’s consider what we learned from the Warriors’ third loss of the season:
• Steph Curry struggled on Tuesday, shooting just 4-21 from the floor and 3-14 from beyond the arc. Phoenix’s defensive strategy was both exceedingly difficult and deceptively simple. They have so many long, active defenders capable of starting in front of Curry and contesting his shots they were simply able to switch nearly everything. That meant Steph was unable to get open off screens, punish slower players off the dribble or force the defense to panic and send two or three players at him on command.
Mikal Bridges, who has a 7’1” wingspan and played a game-high 41 minutes despite scoring a grand total of two points, spent the game as the primary defender on Curry, but his teammates were more than ready to switch onto Curry when the time came. Even DeAndre Ayton was able to do an admirable job when called upon to guard Curry, with the young 7-footer even managing to block one of Curry’s pull-up threes at one point.
As a result of all this, Steph had a hard time getting anything resembling a good look. Steph only needs a sliver of space to get his shot off from beyond the arc or near the basket. Phoenix wasn’t even giving him those slivers on Tuesday. His threes were rushed and too difficult for even Steph to make on a consistent basis. Every time he ventured inside the arc the Suns were able to put size between him and the basket without fouling. Curry shot 1-7 from two-point range on Tuesday, and only shot one free throw.
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• The Suns’ patient defense also allowed them to stick to the game plan on Draymond Green. Green’s extreme preference to pass and screen whether than shoot himself was something the Suns were able to constantly exploit, and the Suns constantly dared him to shoot while diving into passing lanes to keep him from having an open teammate to kick the ball to. Thanks to the Suns’ game plan, length, and quick hands, the de facto quarterback of the Warriors’ offense finished with five assists and five turnovers. The Warriors’ typically deadly motion offense based on quick passing was slowed down to a crawl.
• On the other side of the ball, the story was how much trouble Golden State had handling the Suns’ size, specifically specifically Atyon, the 2018 No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The 23-year old went to work on the Warriors’ undersized front line early and often, posting up shorter defenders and confidently draining hook shots, finishing a lob from one of his guards or punishing the Warriors on the offensive glass. Ayton finished with six offensive rebounds. On top of that, former Warrior JaVale McGee tossed in eight points on 4-4 shooting in just eight minutes of work. For the first time all season, it looked like the Warriors having James Wiseman get healthy and have an effective sophomore campaign looked like more of a necessity than a luxury.
• It remains a joy to watch Chris Paul play this game, even at the Warriors’ expense. Like Curry, Paul is both undersized and one of the best guards of his generation. But that’s almost where the similarities end. Curry constantly moves without the ball and runs at full speed in a search for separation from his defender; Paul prefers to work with the ball in his hands, and likes to use his body to shield the ball from defenders as he goes right into them. Curry is explosive, while Paul is methodical. On Tuesday night, the 36-year old Paul had a vintage performance. He controlled the offense and handed out 11 assists while only turning the ball over twice, his quick hands grabbed five steals for a Suns defense that forced an increasingly rushed Warrior offense into committing 22 turnovers on the night. He scored 15 points of his own, with a number of those coming on his signature pull-up from the right elbow. Steph is still having an MVP year, but he was the second-best point guard in the building on Tuesday.
• It would be hard to call this a “wait until Klay gets back game,” since an injury limited the Suns’ Devin Booker to just 15 minutes of on-court time and Jordan Poole was the Warriors’ bright spot, scoring 28 points on 9-15 shooting from the field and 6-12 shooting from beyond the arc on some extremely tough looks.
• It was just one game at the end of November, but it’s hard to ignore just how good the Suns looked Tuesday. Steph is too good to hold to 4-21 shooting every game, no matter how good the defense is. But the Suns’ combination of keeping defenders in Steph’s face, clogging the passing lanes when Draymond looked for teammates, exploiting the Warriors’ lack of size inside and the brilliance of the ageless Chris Paul was simply too much for Golden State to handle in Phoenix.
John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.