It’s never too early to start looking at the Western Conference standings.
Not when you’ve been out of the playoffs for 10 seasons and never expected to be in this position. Not when your best player is hungry as hell and has waited too long for a chance to prove himself on the biggest stage in the NBA. Not when you are so close.
It may seem like you can’t look too closely into the playoff picture until the New Year, but for the Suns, that’s not true for a few reasons.
Tiebreakers are playing out already
Beating Minnesota twice in the first quarter of the year may be the best thing that happened to the Suns so far.
NBA tiebreaker rules mean that when any two teams are tied for a playoff spot, head-to-head record decides who moves up. The Suns play the Timberwolves another two times surprisingly, but they only need to win one of those games to win the head to head tiebreaker with Minnesota.
After a difficult loss to the Lakers the night before, Minnesota’s dismal effort in Phoenix led to a team meeting in the visiting locker room at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
“We talked to each other and addressed a few things,” forward Robert Covington told The Star Tribune. “Just got to move forward. Got another game Wednesday. Can’t let things linger. … we told each other we got to just get back to ourselves, back to the fun we were having in the beginning of the year.”
Fortunately for the Suns, they finally took advantage of a rest advantage. Against the Wizards and Celtics earlier in the year, the Suns couldn’t use those teams’ tired legs against them. They lost both of those games pretty clearly.
Just like Phoenix, the Timberwolves are facing questions about how real their start was. Most of that conversation centers around Andrew Wiggins, who was upset with the team’s lackadaisical effort against the Suns on Monday night.
“We’re losing games that are important and might come back to haunt us,” he said. “Just refocusing, not getting complacent. I feel like we were kind of content where we were, how we started the season.”
Players and coaches will say they’re not paying close attention yet, but don’t be fooled.
Oklahoma City overtook the Timberwolves in the standings this week and the Kings are nipping at their heels. The West is starting to look like everyone thought it would, and that makes every win this side of the Mississippi vital.
The Suns are regaining momentum they lost when injuries hit
All the talk of building a program and developing a scheme sort of flies out the door when winning games because such a drag. A four-game road trip challenged this team and they came out of it with two wins and were rewarded with Aron Baynes’ return to the floor on Monday.
With three games remaining until Deandre Ayton comes back, the Suns can chart a course forward again.
“It’s good for confidence when you can keep a team like that that has two guys who pretty much are All-Star caliber guys, keep them from taking over the game,” coach Monty Williams said of beating Minnesota.
The Suns’ star backcourt is back to figuring plays out on the fly and reading the coach’s mind. They are playing small with ease all of a sudden. They are still seventh in the NBA in offense.
Without overreacting to five games too much, what feels fair is to say they are right on track to integrate Ayton into a humming machine rather than the broken-down engine that slowed down in mid-November.
Resiliency is a season-long effort
Much was made at the beginning of the year about the fight of the Suns. They clawed their way back to battle down to the wire against good teams, and they found another gear when needed.
The same toughness is required to grind through 82 games and emerge a playoff team. So to see the Suns lose eight of 11 over the course of three weeks and respond by beating up on a playoff challenger was impressive.
It wasn’t like that in the past.
“It says a lot about our team,” Devin Booker said. “I’ve been in situations here in the past where those losses would pile up and be contagious, but through our wins and our losses, we come in here with the same mentality regardless of when we drop two in a row or won two in a row.”
The Suns will have to keep that same energy to even think about meaningful games in April.