On October 27, the Phoenix Suns lost a home game to the Sacramento Kings. They dropped to 1-3 on the season and sparked early murmurings about the legitimacy of a Finals run that ended just three months earlier.
Since that date, Phoenix is 17-0. There are only 16 teams in NBA history that had longer winning streaks. And if the Suns extend their own to 18 games, they'll have a franchise record.
Their latest victim, a Golden State Warriors team that entered Tuesday's game at 18-2, suffered a similar fate as the previous 16 opponents floating in the wake. Despite having the league's best defense, Golden State looked as susceptible as the rest to a well-balanced attack that saw five players reach double figures (and two more combine for 17).
Even after Devin Booker left the game with a hamstring injury after just 15 minutes of action, Chris Paul's steady hand at the wheel for most possessions yielded open looks all over the floor. Whether it was Deandre Ayton inside, Jae Crowder or Cameron Johnson outside, or CP3 in between, Paul was manufacturing good looks all night. Even when he wasn't, he had some nonsense like this to fall back on:
That sort of spread-the-wealth offense is the first of three reasons Phoenix has been able to run off 17 straight wins.
Ayton led the Suns with 24 points Tuesday, making him the sixth player to be the high scorer in a single game during the streak. In the same stretch, six players are averaging double figures, with four more between 7.6 and 9.8 points per game.
Granted, injury absences from Ayton and Frank Kaminsky have allowed others to join that group, but even that might be another point in support of the Suns' depth and balance. Early in the streak, when Ayton was out, Kaminsky was providing surprise contributions. He dropped 31 on the Portland Trail Blazers on November 10. After his return, it was Ayton producing inside.
Cliches don't achieve cliche status without some truth to them, and having a roster capable of "next man up" production has been a critical component of Phoenix's success.
A dynamic first option like Booker, who's averaging 23.6 points and shooting 42.0 percent from three during the streak, is important. His ability to put stress on a defense at all three levels shouldn't be understated. But his absence for most of Tuesday's win over Golden State demonstrated what may be a bigger strength (at least in the regular season).
The middle of an 82-game campaign can feel like a slog, and having enough bodies and talent to survive some adversity can push you through that slog. Having that and players who are willing to share with each other can take a team to the next level, which is where the Suns are.
Another undeniable reason for Phoenix's success, high-end individual defenders and cohesiveness as a team, was on display Tuesday.
Stephen Curry entered the game averaging 28.6 points on a 64.5 true shooting percentage nearly 10 points above the league average. Thanks in large part to the stellar on-ball defense of Mikal Bridges, Curry finished Tuesday's game with 12 points on 4-of-21 shooting.
Good awareness and lateral quickness are important ingredients in the concoction that makes up Bridges' defense, but length is what kicks it up a notch. With a 7'1" wingspan, Bridges is able to bottle up smaller players like Curry on the outside. Even on the occasions when Curry's relentless off-ball movement got him a catch, Bridges was able to eliminate the gap in a heartbeat with those go-go-gadget arms.
As ESPN's Tim MacMahon put it, Bridges' 1-of-4 night was "one of the most impactful two-point performances you’ll ever see."
If these two teams meet in a playoff series, Phoenix might have the best option in the conference to guard Curry.
Bridges isn't single-handedly responsible for the second-best defense in the NBA over the course of this winning streak, though.
Interchangeable wing defense from him, Johnson, Crowder and Booker give the Suns plenty of versatility on the outside. Signing JaVale McGee to back up Ayton allowed the team to have a traditional rim protector for 48 minutes. And the ever-irritating point-of-attack defense of CP3 can still rattle opposing 1s and muck up plenty of possessions.
On Tuesday, Paul had five steals, bringing his season average to 2.1. If that mark holds, it'll be the highest ever for a player in an age-36 (or older) season.
And, in a way, that brings us to the third and most important reason. Paul, generously listed at 6'0" and heading into his late-30s, should not be able to dominate games the way he did Tuesday night (and throughout this streak). Or, at least, we haven't really seen anyone do this yet.
At any point in a game, he can seemingly seize complete control of a possession, dictate where everyone will go, when they'll get there and find the best option for a potential assist. And it doesn't seem to matter how high-leverage those possessions are.
In 29 "clutch" minutes this season (defined by the league as the final five minutes of games within five points), Paul has 31 points and 12 assists on 7-of-11 shooting from the field and 16-of-17 shooting from the line.
With a supporting cast that may be as versatile as any Paul has had, a return trip to the Finals is very much in play.
A lot can change between now and then, but the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets are crippled by injuries. The Los Angeles Lakers are a mess. Multiple early playoff exits for the Utah Jazz make it hard to imagine them playing in the postseason without the proverbial monkey on their back. And the Warriors, though they were without Klay Thompson and James Wiseman, showed a couple of exploitable problems Tuesday.
As good as Draymond Green and Kevon Looney are defensively, Ayton is the kind of big who can go around the latter and bury the former under the rim on post-ups and seals. And, as previously discussed, the Suns have tons of options, including Bridges, to throw at Curry.
There was a lot of talk about the injuries to Anthony Davis, Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard that somehow seemed to line up perfectly during the Suns' 2021 postseason. And it was (and is) fair to point out those absences.
But this team looks better than that one. It's playoff-tested. And a year of continuity and chemistry developed between Paul, Booker, Ayton, Bridges and the rest of the roster was impossible to miss throughout, as Booker put it, "No loss November."