It’s Game 21, and Game 21 matters only until Game 22, but the Phoenix Suns provided the first true moment of definition in the NBA season, a necessary shove and barge toward the front of a one-team queue that is probably all for the good … at least for anyone not accepting regular payments from the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors went to Phoenix with the best record in the league, one of only 20 teams ever to start a season 18-2. They had the marquee-est of marquee players in Stephen Curry, having a season so spectacularly well-rounded that he even gave technical fouls to officials. They had done 18-2 twice before, winning one championship and coming within a Kyrie Irving jump shot of a second, and they looked through the first quarter of this season like the safest wager to do all that again. But they needed a foil for definition as those other teams in 2015 and 2016 had in Cleveland, and LeBron James was too busy enduring the tortures of damned to be that.
Thus, Tuesday’s game in Phoenix was the first necessary moment of the season. The Suns, hiding in plain sight as the reigning Western Conference champion, started 1-3 and had to win 16 consecutive games just to be noticed at all in a prairie of injured and disappointing teams. The Warriors had risen to their place of pre-eminence, but the conference had also backed up toward them. They needed to be defined by their surroundings as well as they defined them. Hence, the Suns.
And hence maybe the best performance by a team all season. Phoenix won 104-96 by never letting the Warriors run away from them, or even run at all. The Warriors couldn’t force pace, find rhythm, create room for their offense and the ball movement required for it to operate. They used the third quarters of games as their personal stepstool but the Suns took a two-point lead into the third and held it through sheer pigheaded obstinacy. Stephen Curry missed 17 of 21 shots, was physically chased and disrupted just moving about the floor, largely by Mikal Bridges, had as many turnovers as assists (two each), and was rendered profoundly ordinary, which is as close to being dominated as he can be.
While it is easy to toss off Phoenix’s win as just what happens when Curry can’t make a shot, the Suns attacked him in particular the way most attitudinal teams tackle a great player—by making his teammates compensate for him. It takes special talents and combinations to pull that off, and most of the time it doesn’t work. But it’s a template, and a badly needed one for our enjoyment of the next 61 games and the 20-some-odd playoff games the two teams may earn. This Warriors team is actually the upstart here when you consider that the Suns have won 91 of their last 123 games, including all eight in the bubble in 2020, but that truth is obscured by Curry’s seemingly indomitable incandescence.
But the key word there is “seeming.” Phoenix found a way to neutralize both him and his teammates, the only team other than Charlotte to manage that all year. The difference is that Phoenix now has the same record Golden State has, and the Warriors have a natural equal for the first time since the LeBronnic Clevelands; the 2019 Raptors might be included, but the absence of Kevin Durant from that championship series makes a more frayed thread for the needle.
Thus, Tuesday’s game was in many ways a very useful exhibit because it gives a different context to what many folks had become comfortable in painting as a wire-to-wire job for Golden State, the reinflation of the giant Curry-shaped balloon being paraded down all the Broadways. Now we have two teams to obsess about, maybe a third if Brooklyn ever discovers the concept of full participation, and a fourth if Milwaukee is over its lousy start. Game 21 is way too early to know anything, and honestly, so is Game 41 and maybe even Game 61. Having the best regular-season record has led to having the best postseason record less than half the time in this century because the NBA isn’t a marathon but a marathon followed by a 10K over gravel.
But that’s June’s problem, and we’ve barely started December. Game 21 is all we have for now, so Warriors-Suns was really much more rewarding than we could have hoped, if only to give us a viable alternative to Warrior Watch.