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Last season around this time, the Phoenix Suns jumped out to a 5-2 start and owned the second-best net rating in the NBA. It prompted me to write that the Suns looked like playoff contenders, a gutsy statement considering Phoenix hasn't made the postseason in a decade. The Suns then proceeded to go 21-37 after that hot start, before entering the NBA bubble and finishing with a perfect 8-0 record in Orlando. No playoffs, but a ton of promise going forward. 

Fast forward to the 2020-21 season, and Phoenix is out to another similar start. The Suns are 6-2, sit atop the Western Conference standings with the Lakers and have the fifth-best net rating (7.4) in the NBA. Surprisingly, Phoenix's success isn't because Devin Booker has put up ridiculous numbers on a nightly basis. In fact, in the win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Booker put up just eight points, marking the first game in his career as a starter that the Suns have won a game in which he scored fewer than 10 points, per Stathead. 

Instead, the Suns are winning with a balanced attack from their role players. In the six games Phoenix won, several role players stepped up to the plate and shared the offensive load with Booker. In their season-opening win over the Dallas Mavericks, it was Mikal Bridges going 4 of 7 from 3-point range and finishing the game with 18 points that helped keep Luka Doncic and Co. at bay.

Against the Kings, Jae Crowder added 17 points to Booker and Chris Paul's 20-point performances to leave Sacramento with a win. Cameron Johnson poured in 18 points off the bench in a victory over the Pelicans, and in a down-to-the-wire win over the Nuggets, four of the Suns' five starters scored in double figures, with Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton all hitting the 20-point mark. 

Phoenix has benefited from the natural growth of players like Bridges and Johnson, both of whom have blossomed in the first eight games of the season. Bridges is growing into that 3-and-D role many envisioned for him coming into the league. He's knocking down 3s at a career-high 45.8 percent clip to start the season, which ranks fourth in the league for players attempting six or more 3s a game, and has been an absolute terror on defense. Bridges uses his go go gadget arms to be a disruptor on that end of the floor, and picking up tough assignments in checking guys like Doncic, Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray:

Meanwhile, Johnson's transforming into a dude who is basically automatic from deep. He ranks 10th in the league in 3-point percentage (42.0) amongst players who attempt six or more 3s a game, and generates 1.46 points per possession on spot-up shots, which ranks in the 91st percentile in the NBA, per Synergy Sports Technology. However, 49 of his 50 attempts from 3-point range have come on wide-open looks, per NBA Advanced Stats. 

As defenses adjust to account for Johnson's high shooting percentage, he'll either be ran off the line and forced to make a play, or be forced to knock down tougher shots. In the few times that has happened this season, though, Johnson has shown some good poise when he has to put the ball on the floor and making plays for his teammates:

Even with Booker averaging near career lows in points (21.5), assists (4.6), field goal attempts (15.6), touches per game (56.1) and Chris Paul not hitting at the same rate as he has in past years from midrange (45.9 percent), the Suns have still managed to pull out wins on the strength of their depth. 

However, this isn't dissimilar from how the Suns started last season. A season ago, it was Kelly Oubre Jr., Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes who showed their worth in Phoenix's hot start. This time around, though, things feel different in Phoenix. 

"It's just a whole different group, but same culture," Devin Booker told CBS Sports during a postgame press conference after the win over the Toronto Raptors Wednesday night. "We have veterans that have been in those situations we've been trying to get to, and I don't think their minds work any other way than top basketball. That's the culture around here, you feel it from every direction. From the players, coaching staff and the trainers. Everybody's locked in and wants to win basketball games. Even on nights like tonight where we get wins, we're still trying to find ways to get better. I feel like we're trending in the right direction."

It's no secret that Phoenix has been in desperate need of vocal veteran leadership in its locker room for the past five years, which is part of the reason why the team traded for Paul and signed Crowder. But that's not the only thing different about this Suns start. Paul and Crowder's defensive minds have seeped into the Suns identity this season, making them one of the best in the league on that end of the floor. For a franchise that is used to giving up 120 points a night, that's a foreign concept.

"We want to be the No. 1 defensive team in the league ... that's our goal this year," Jae Crowder said to media members ahead of Phoenix's win over the Raptors.

So far, the Suns aren't far off from that goal. Phoenix allows the fewest points per game through eight games (102.4), and rank sixth in the league in defensive rating (105.3). Crowder and Paul's presence has elevated the Suns defense as a whole, lighting a fire under players like Ayton, who has taken a huge leap forward in his defensive game.

"I really don't care about offense. I'm just the anchor for the defense," Ayton said postgame after the Suns' gritty win over the Denver Nuggets. "Our defense is winning games. That's what the Suns need to have. When we get punched in the mouth, what do we do? How do we answer back?"

On several occasions this season, Ayton has looked much improved on defense, whether that be switch defense, getting out on the wing and defending or creating a brick wall around the basket to force opponents into bad shots or mental mistakes:

The combination of Ayton, Crowder, Paul and the pesky Bridges has given Phoenix a legitimately scary defensive squad. Stifling opponents nearly every trip down the floor and working as one cohesive unit: 

This group of guys on defense, coupled with the endless number of weapons Phoenix has on offense, is why the Suns' start to the season feels a little more real this time around. The offense was there last season, and the growth of players like Bridges and Johnson have only added to that. But the defensive identity this team has created so early in the season makes this not feel like a flash in the pan. The Suns are serious, and it's time for everyone to take notice.