The first two weeks of the NBA season might as well be years ago at this point.
The Phoenix Suns played the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers then and there was little to no significance in those matchups.
That has changed a whole lot over the last three months.
The Jazz at 38-12 have the NBA’s best record, trailed by the 35-14 Suns as both teams have certified themselves as contenders in the Western Conference after there wouldn’t have been much confidence in that declaration when they initially faced off on Dec. 31.
They meet again on Wednesday in Phoenix as the top two dogs in the regular season, and once that game concludes, the Suns will travel to Los Angeles and face the third-seeded Clippers on Thursday.
The hype is real and should be. Sizing up some of the top competition before the postseason comes will be fresh in the mind.
“We want to win every game when we go out there,” Suns guard Devin Booker said Monday. “Obviously, those are two top teams in the West that I’m sure that we’ll see down the line at some point maybe so every game counts. I know we’re going to be locked in, we’re going to be ready, so it’s exciting.”
The Suns can also secure a tiebreaker in the standings over Utah with a victory, while a loss to Los Angeles after falling on Jan. 3 would give the Clippers that edge.
That makes both games meaningful in some way, but in terms of the grand scheme of things, Phoenix’s Chris Paul isn’t gonna draw a ton from it.
“I hate to say this but I don’t take too much into it win or lose,” he said Monday. “We play these games (and) we don’t know if a team is coming off four (games) in five (nights), we don’t know if a guy is sitting and resting and whatnot. I think everybody has the same mindset, though. It’s the next game on our schedule. We gonna go out and play our way to win the game. That’s all that matters.”
Like the Suns going 27-6 since hitting 8-8, the Jazz have exploded after reaching an early .500 threshold. They’ve won 34 of their last 42 games since beginning the year 4-4, and one of those four losses was to Phoenix.
That was a signature victory for the Suns because it showed the basic formula for major success through defense and their closers doing what they do.
Phoenix held the Jazz to 95 points, including 18 in the first quarter and only six assists for the first half, while doing enough offensively to mostly control the game throughout. A 16-point Suns lead with 4:22 left got hairy briefly before Booker scored seven points in two minutes to escape any danger.
As for the Clippers, that was a loss and wasn’t nearly as encouraging, either.
The Suns got smacked in the first half, down at one point by 31 points after turning the ball over 10 times in the opening 15 minutes while Los Angeles started 10-of-14 from three-point range and Phoenix began 3-of-17. The Suns clawed back to get it within a possession at 90 seconds left but came up short.
It was just one of those games where everything went wrong for the Suns and right for the opposition, so that makes Thursday even more enticing.
With this being quite the back-to-back, here are a couple stats to track from in each game that stand out from Cleaning the Glass, because, well, these are three great teams that do a lot of things right.
The Jazz, sporting the NBA’s second-best defense, are dead last in the amount of opponent’s possessions they force turnovers on. That’s turnover percentage, which the Suns rank fifth in offensively. Phoenix can’t give them the added benefit of turning the ball over.
In that defense, Utah allows 37.6% of its shots in the midrange, 29th leaguewide. That’s a great stat for the Jazz because denying shots at the rim and from deep is a key in today’s NBA, but Suns fans know of course that space between the two is where Booker and Paul own permanent residencies at.
In that Suns’ win against the Jazz earlier in the year, Phoenix shot 15-of-33 (45.4%) from the midrange, and on the year they are far and away tops in the NBA at 49.1% efficiency there.
On the other end of the coin, Phoenix opponents shoot 35.2% from three-point range, a top-3 mark. That’s where the Jazz excel, at a second-best 40.2%, and leading the league in 45.2% of their total attempts coming from three-point range has played a large part in their ability to blow teams out.
With the Clippers, keep an eye on how they get inside offensively. They rank 29th in the percentage of their attempts that come at the rim and 27th at points in the paint per game. Even with a top-5 defense, the Suns are middle of the pack in both opponents’ attempts at the basket and their efficiency there.
Los Angeles’ offensive firepower has a lot to do with the NBA’s best three-point percentage at 42.0%. That’s padded by generating the second-most corner 3s and shooting a terrific 47.3% on ’em. And guess what, the Suns are third in the league at the amount of attempts for opponents from the corner. In the Suns loss, the Clippers were 4-of-5 in the corners.