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Big picture: the Suns are right where they should be

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Down 2-1 isn’t ideal, but Phoenix is in the process of becoming a seasoned team.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Three Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The level of intensity playoff basketball provides cannot be replicated in practice or simulated during regular season games. For the Phoenix Suns, they are learning on the fly how to handle those weighted moments, growing with each possession, and navigating how to curb their emotions in real-time. It’s been a journey through the first 3 games of the postseason.

Entering the 2021 NBA Playoffs, Phoenix head coach Monty Williams had a 2-8 playoff record whereas Los Angeles head coach Frank Vogel was 47-35. The Suns roster had a combined 284 games of postseason experience, with Chris Paul (109) and Jae Crowder (72) accounting for 63% of those games played.

For perspective, LeBron James had 260 games played and the Los Angeles Lakers have combined for 701 games.

We knew coming into the series that the level of playoff experience was a clear disadvantage for the Suns. Every national pundit dismissed the Suns throughout the season due to this factor.

Game 3 was the “inexperience” game for Phoenix. Coach Williams didn’t make the proper (or nearly any) adjustments at the half. The team shot poorly on the road, front-rimming shot after shot throughout the duration of the game. Devin Booker, who ended the season in the top 5 relative to technical fouls, earned his first playoff tech and then was tossed with a flagrant foul 2.

Booker, who averaged 2.7 personal fouls in the regular season, has committed 13 (4.3 per game) through the first three games of the Western Conference First Round. Couple that with 14 turnovers (4.7 per game), and it is clear that he is allowing the Los Angeles Lakers to get under his skin.

He is not alone. The Suns averaged 19.1 personal fouls, and 12.0 turnovers in the regular season. Through three games, Phoenix is at 22.3 personal fouls and 14.7 turnovers. Their FG% has dropped from 49.0% to 45.2%.

The stress of the playoffs is weighing on Phoenix. Meanwhile, the seasoned Lakers squad is dancing on the sideline, mimicking each other on the court, and enjoying their time in the playoffs.

To see the Lakers celebrating while we’re pushing players in frustration? Nothing makes my blood boil more. Thankfully we’re had a couple of days to absorb the disaster that was Game 3. It was a discouraging event.

I calmed myself down in a way that I typically do: I lit a cigar, had a glass of Oban 14-year single malt Scotch, and delved into the Beatles catalog. I found myself listening to the Abbey Road B-side medley; 22:10 minutes of mish-mashed material that flows elegantly together under George Martin’s expert producing.

I came out the other side of this listening experience with perspective and composure. And maybe a little tipsy. Hey, we all have our own ways of unwinding, amiright? I apologize in advance for any obscure references to the album.

First and foremost, this is a seven game series. We knew a dud performance would be in the cards for the Suns. With a hampered Chris Paul, the stars aligned on Thursday night for the Lakers and they took advantage of the moment. They came down on the Suns like Maxwell’s silver hammer. Absorb the blow and move forward.

Phoenix has the opportunity to punch back in Game 4.

Of the 82 field goals attempted in Game 3, the Suns took 45 that were considered either open or wide open (defender outside of 4 feet of the shooter). They made 18 of them — 40.0 FG%. Compare that to this season, where the Suns averaged 49 FG% on open/wide open shots. My point? The shots have been there, the Suns have been open, they just haven’t knocked them down.

As this team goes through these experiences, they will gain confidence, in their brand of basketball and in each other. Each possession carries that weight and Phoenix now has three games as a unit under its belt. It isn’t a matter of immaturity on the Suns’ part. It’s a matter of belief in who they are as a team. Knock down a couple of early shots, and the Suns will begin to impose their will.

While the cigar smoke created a fog around and in my head, I drifted back to who we were as Suns fans two years ago and where we are today. In the natural progression of rebuilding your team and your franchise, the Phoenix Suns are right where they should be.

This isn’t me saying we are happy to be here. This is me saying we’re meeting our own expectations of what this team should be. Think back to the beginning of the regular season. Chris Paul’s addition put us on a trajectory that we believed would land us in the playoffs. Mission accomplished.

Two seasons ago the team won 19 games. Last season we just missed the playoffs. This season, they are are battling in the First Round. That is the natural progression of things. The Suns earned the #2 seed in the Western Conference, but remember that the team played nearly 90% of their payroll throughout the regular season while they faced roughly 70% of the opposition’s.

When we played the Lakers this past regular season, it was a microcosm of this theory. One game without Anthony Davis. One game without LeBron James. One game without them both. This was a continual narrative throughout the 2020-21 season: the Suns didn’t get the best punch from the opposition nightly.

Phoenix couldn't control who the opposing team chose to play or chose to sit. To their credit, they defeated whoever was thrown their way at a .708 clip. Fate decided to even the playing field by matching them up against the defending NBA Champions.

There is a typical and ironical sentiment about the landscape in which we arrived in the playoffs. It’s the Lakers. Chris Paul was hurt in Game 1. It’s just “so Suns”, isn’t it? Yeah, it is.

No matter what the result of this series may be, we must remember that Phoenix is right where they should be. This series and this process is revealing things about this team we didn’t know and some didn't expect (see: Deandre Ayton’s performance). The team is coming together, learning their strengths and weaknesses.

Los Angeles is taking them out of their game. That is what happens in postseason basketball. If they were to lose this series, they would still be right on track regarding their development as a franchise. The “inexperienced” moniker would no longer be relevant.

Do I believe this team has the capability to defeat the Lakers? I truly do. I have seen what this team is capable of and the cohesion that they play with. They play with toughness and grit. They play defense. They can shoot.

We have a long way to go, but here comes the Suns.