With the 2022 trade deadline just six days away, here are 10 things I like and dislike from across the NBA this week, including the Suns' understated hyper-precision, a tantalizing rookie in Madison Square Garden, fake-claiming assists on airballs, and a plea to maybe, once in a while, pass to Karl-Anthony Towns.
1. The Suns are the NBA's new "pound the rock" team
The San Antonio Spurs long ago adopted as their credo the famous Jacob Riis observation about stonecutters pounding one rock over and over, but the current Phoenix Suns are the true heirs to that "pound the rock" philosophy.
The Suns don't change their approach if they are way behind or way ahead. They don't get desperate, amp up the tempo, or chase home run plays. No one commandeers the offense, or steps out of their role. They just make the right play again and again, possession after possession, trusting that good basketball wins out.
The only people who hold the ball are Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Cameron Payne. They don't hold it just to hold it. They survey with purpose -- orchestrating pick-and-rolls, or exploiting mismatches. Everyone else plays off of those guys. They do so unselfishly. They make quick-hitting plays for one another, with constant care for the broader ecosystem. Players hunt points only when the clock, situation, and matchups dictate they should. It is calculated, beautiful basketball:
Booker lords over Kyrie Irving, hoping the Brooklyn Nets send help. When they do, Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder change places. Bridges hits Crowder with an instant extra pass. Crowder catches on the move, a sneaky bit of footwork that helps him blow by his man. The millisecond Crowder spots help converging, he pings the ball back to Bridges. In four seconds, two role players make three or four subtle plays to keep the machine humming.
There is nothing remarkable about that possession for the Suns, and that's the point. They maximize every second. In that same game, Paul corralled a loose ball and noticed one Nets player had fallen down behind the play. Paul waved at Deandre Ayton to sprint, knowing the Suns had a temporary 5-on-4. Ayton revved up; Phoenix snatched an open triple with the Nets scrambling.
Smart players improvise ways to bail out stalled possessions. If the main action goes nowhere, you can count on one or two Suns to cut or screen in some unexpected way that injects new life. Bridges is especially good at setting random ball screens -- and then slipping hard out of them in ways that surprise defenses. (He's also dabbling in quick-seal post-ups when he has a size mismatch.)
They defend with the same collective hyper-precision:
Consecutive ball screens for James Harden require a half-dozen small decisions: one switch, then standard pick-and-roll defense, the right level of help behind it, and one last veer into the passing lane from Crowder -- a choice he can make only if he has faith in Ayton to cover him.
One hiccup can undo everything. The Suns nail all those decisions.
The Suns aren't the most exciting, high-flying team. They are relentless in their understated brilliance, pounding the rock until it busts open.