A long long time ago, the Phoenix Suns used to appreciate big late season matchups as another step toward the intensity of upcoming playoff games. We are finally at that stage again in 2021.
Indeed, early-season matchups versus potential playoff opponents are interesting and give you bragging rights if you win but are never going to have that playoff-level competitive spirit. As the season progresses, the ‘big’ games against potential playoff opponents become much more serious, more heated in the moment.
That’s what the Suns experienced on Wednesday and Thursday night versus the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz (win) and No. 3 seed LA Clippers (loss). If the standings remain as they are, with the Suns the No. 2 seed, the Suns would face the Clippers in the second round and then the Jazz in the Conference Finals for the right to an NBA Finals berth.
One of the knocks against the Suns — echoed by Zach Lowe on his ‘The Lowe Post’ podcast with Doris Burke this week — is that rival teams coaches and executives are not worried about the Suns charging through the West to the Finals. They just don’t take the Suns title chances very seriously.
Let’s review two of those reasons, and see how the Suns fared this week versus the Jazz and the Clippers.
No playoff experience
A player’s ability to excel in the playoffs is never truly known until the moment arrives. There is just a different pressure to the situation that cannot be predicted by how they play in the regular season.
In the playoffs, physicality ramps up. Rotations are tighter. Close-outs are more spirited. The other team knows what you are going to do, they know your plays, so you can’t smoke-and-mirrors them with scheme that isn’t buoyed by stone-cold executioners of that scheme.
Four of the Suns top six players — Mikal Bridges (1st in minutes played), Devin Booker (2nd), Deandre Ayton (4th) and Cameron Johnson (6th) — have never sniffed a playoff game, and only one of them has even played more than three seasons of NBA basketball.
Will they wilt under the pressure of a playoff spotlight, at least in this ‘rookie’ year?
Let’s review their play on Wednesday and Thursday to find out.
Mikal Bridges - up and down
- vs. Utah he got himself into foul trouble immediately, and played a season low minutes (20) with an ugly stat line of 0 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 turnover, 5 personal fouls. Suns still got the win thanks to Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson and Torrey Craig picking up the wing minutes.
- vs. LA Clippers he responded well, stayed out of foul trouble, played 36 minutes with an excellent stat line of 20 points, 5 rebounds, and made 3 of 6 threes while the rest of the team made just 3 of 18 threes. Still, he didn’t have any wow plays and the Clippers got every perimeter shot they wanted.
Devin Booker - very good
- vs. Utah he had a rough first quarter (4 points vs. 5 turnovers) but then settled down for 31 points vs. 1 turnover the last 3+ quarters, including 7 points in overtime to help seal the win. Not very efficient (35 points on 31 shots) but made the big shots when needed.
- vs. LA Clippers Booker couldn’t be stopped without being fouled (13 FGA vs. 14 FT) for an efficient night of 24 points on just 13 shots.
Deandre Ayton - BIG TIME
- vs. Utah he had a great game with 18 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals, easily besting All-Star and 2-time DPOY Rudy Gobert; his defensive plays and offensive rebounds in the second half made a huge difference in the game; played season high 42 (of 53) minutes; Suns were +15 with him on floor, -19 off.
- vs. LA Clippers was very good again, with 18 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists and a block, and was the Suns best big man by far; Suns were +2 with him on floor, -12 off. While the Clippers feasted on outside shooting, they really struggled on drives into the paint with Ayton waiting.
Cameron Johnson - up and down
- vs. Utah did a great job taking Mikal’s minutes, played season high 37 minutes, had 11 points (3 of 5 threes), 8 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and a big-time block
- vs. LA Clippers was just kinda there; back to regular 20 minutes, made 2 of Suns 6 threes on the night, but otherwise did not make any impact, Suns were +8 with him off the floor in a 10-point loss
In summary, Johnson and Bridges took turns being very good/very bad while Ayton and Booker played well both nights.
The good thing is that the Suns have veteran depth on the wing with Crowder and Craig if the young guys don’t perform consistently in a playoff series. The Suns are in good shape here.
A very positive takeaway is that Deandre Ayton clearly steps up in big games. You can gripe all you want about his disinterest in dominating lesser teams, but the man truly makes his presence known in the biggest games.
Another positive takeaway is that while Devin Booker might sometimes try to do TOO much, he definitely gets up for big games too and will be the Suns best player on most nights.
These young guys definitely looked gassed by the fourth quarter of the biggest back-to-back of their careers, drained both physically and emotionally. But you can see that they won’t back down or wilt in a playoff series.
Chris Paul can’t carry a team to the Finals
One of the greatest point guards in NBA history, sure-thing first ballot Hall of Fame, 10,000 assists under his belt, best clutch player in the league the last few years, has never carried a team all the way to the Finals.
Paul has reached the playoffs 12 times in his career, but gotten past the second round only once. He’s developed a reputation of great regular season point guard who just doesn’t have another level in the playoffs.
The mid-career Clippers flameouts were infamous, but the Rockets years were marred by James Harden’s failures and Paul’s untimely injuries (hamstring in Conf. Finals) more than Paul’s failures on the court. And his appearance with OKC last year was spirited, but he just didn’t have the talent around him to best Harden’s Rockets.
This Suns team is more talented than the Paul’s Thunder of a year ago, though less talented — or at least less win-ready — than the Rockets or the Clippers were. In LA, he had prime Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and in Houston he had prime James Harden with a deep team of shooters.
Can Chris Paul will the Suns to the Finals for the first time in his career? If he does, it’s because Booker/Ayton/Bridges does indeed become the best supporting cast of his career.
The odds are stacked heavily against the Suns making it all the way to the NBA Finals this year, just as they are stacked against most teams. I mean, there’s a reason playoff upsets occur and there’s a reason that simulations don’t predict the same winner every time.
But you have to admit the Suns have a couple of major obstacles to overcome — Chris Paul’s ceiling, the team’s relative inexperience — if they are going to reach their third Finals in franchise history.