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Three reasons the Suns beat Warriors — and are legit contenders

It was no fluke.

Unquestionably, the Suns got some breaks on the way to the NBA Finals last season — every team does — but they earned their trip last summer. They brought back largely the same very talented, balanced roster this season, but there were doubters. Few picked them to make it back to the Finals, but more of us should have. The Suns may not roll out a top-five player in the league every night, but they do roll out a versatile, high IQ team with a couple of All-NBA level players and few weaknesses. It’s a team that finds ways to win.

That’s what the Suns did Tuesday night against the Warriors — they found ways to win, 104-96. Here are the three keys to Phoenix beating Golden State — and it’s three reasons the Suns can return to the NBA Finals this year.

Defense. Defense. Defense.

The Phoenix Suns came into this game with the third-ranked defense in the NBA — Tuesday they used it to hold Stephen Curry and the second-best offense to a 100 offensive rating for the night (12.4 below their season average). The active Suns’ defenders forced the Warriors into 23 turnovers — 24% of Golden State possessions. Turn the ball over almost one-in-four trips down the court and you’re likely to lose.

Phoenix threw its All-Defensive Team-level defender in Mikal Bridges at Curry — along with a lot of other players in the form of double- and triple-teams — and it held Curry to 4-of-21 shooting overall and 3-of-14 from 3.

“Steph missed some shots, but I think the respect Mikal has for Steph and our team defense [worked],” Suns coach Monty Williams said postgame. “We showed him bodies tonight, we tried to make it as tough on him as we could.”

The Suns were active and focused on defense all night, had Deandre Ayton protecting the rim, and became the first team to hold the Warriors under 100 points this season.

That defense can carry into the postseason. It’s for real.

The Suns are Clutch

The Suns came into this game 8-1 in clutch games — within five points in the final five minutes — with an insane +47.8 net rating in those minutes.

They were better than that in this game. The Suns had a +59 net rating in the final 5:19 against the Warriors Tuesday. Golden State shot 2-of-8 in those minutes (both buckets in the final :44 seconds, when the game was already decided), Phoenix hit 5-7.

Chris Paul’s teams are historically good in the clutch. It’s a combination of factors: He makes smart decisions, he rarely turns the ball over, and he can create space and knock down midrange jumpers.

Some fans tend only to think of some of CP3’s handful of epic playoff clutch meltdowns, but those are the outliers, not the norm (even in the postseason, but especially compared to the regular season). In this game, he had a bucket, three assists and a steal in the final five minutes, plus found open shooters and controlled the flow of the game. He is the best floor general in the game — arguably the best ever — and he took over the end of this game like he has so many others.

We know what CP3 does translates to the postseason because we saw him do it with this same team a season ago.

Depth and Versatility

The Suns lost Devin Booker to a hamstring injury in the first half Tuesday — the team’s leading scorer at 23.9 points a game was out.

In stepped Landry Shamet, with a bit of help from Chris Paul and some shooting from players such as Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson. It seems every game some other Suns role player is stepping up, making a key play. The Suns’ bench got better this offseason with the addition of Shammet and JaVale McGee (who backs up Ayton), but it’s the quality of player.

And their versatility. Want to play fast? The Suns will slow a team down. Want to grind it out, the Suns speed you up. Phoenix can play big, play small, play inside or bomb threes. Whatever an opponent wants to do, the Suns can force them out of it and beat them with another style. The Suns’ system may be their biggest strength, and that goes back to coach Monty Williams (who deserves credit for keeping his team focused through the Robert Sarver investigation, not letting it become a distraction).

That versatility and bench will be put to the test Sunday when the Suns and Warriors have a rematch. But they are also among the reasons the Suns can win again, and will be around when we are deep into the NBA playoffs.