Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NBA and the rest of the world a year ago March, the Phoenix Suns were having something of a minor resurgence in the Valley. They weren’t playoff caliber or anything, but at least people weren’t laughing behind their backs anymore.
But since the NBA restarted in July 2020, your Phoenix Suns have posted more wins than any other team in the whole league. They have amassed 67 wins against only 23 losses between the Bubble, the 20-21 regular season and the 2021 playoffs.
Those 67 wins are three more than the next best team (Utah) since July 2020, even when you include Utah’s three Bubble playoff wins.
This big run came from humble beginnings.
Sadly, the Suns could indeed call a 26-39 record as of March 2020 a resurgence. Those 26 wins were already more than any Suns team had tallied in a full season in five years. With Ricky Rubio running the show the Suns were competitive indeed — 21st best record, 17th best offense and 19th best defense. Not quite playoff caliber, but a threat on any given night to blow your doors off.
That was a modest but exciting start to head coach Monty Williams’ tenure with the Suns. Remember Williams came to a team that had not won more than 24 games in any of the prior four years and was known for more embarrassing stories than signature wins.
Monty adopted the motto “everything you want is on the other side of hard” and coached these guys to focus on today. Not the past. Not the future. Today. Make the most out of every moment.
Five of Monty’s initial players were holdovers from the bad days who really did want to forget the past. The young core of Devin Booker (age 23), Deandre Ayton (20) and Mikal Bridges (22) had just led a 19-63 team in minutes played. Seven of the top 10 in minutes played that season were age 23 or younger and six players on the roster were lottery picks within the past four years. They had no All-Stars or even ‘prime vets’ to help buoy the youth and they finished with the 29th-best record, 29th best defense and 28th best offense.
In came new GM James Jones, new coach Monty Williams and ten new roster players selected to help maximize the talents of the Booker/Ayton/Bridges core. The 26-39 record (a 32-50 pace) was definitely a move in the right direction.
But if that was a small step in the right direction, Monty and company used the surprise invitation to The Bubble to take a giant Jordan-esque one footed dunk from the free throw line.
When the NBA resumed their season in a ‘Bubble’ in Orlando Florida — locked down to include only the minimum players and staff, plus daily COVID testing — the league initially planned to bring the fewest possible number of teams to make the effort relevant. The effort being to get players back into shape and then roll right into a full 16-team playoff format to crown a league champion. And, make a little TV money along the way.
The wrinkle was to maximize revenue too, and without ticket sales the revenue was only going to come from TV ratings. So the league compromised a little bit on safety. To drum up TV interest in the warm-up ‘seeding’ games, they invited a few extra teams and created a play-in tournament for the 8th and final seed in each conference. Suddenly the field was 22 teams and the Suns were invited to the Bubble despite being 12th in the West and 6 games out of the 8th seed. That’s because the 9th-seed Wizards were so far back in the East, and the play-in tournament needed them to make it work.
The Suns took full advantage of their opportunity and won every single game they could. Coach Williams created what he called a second training camp, tightened up their rotation, tweaked their schemes and re-worked the offense to maximize his roster’s abilities. They embraced the restrictions (no family, no friends, just teamwork), put their heads down, and became their own little family.
“I think we built the culture down there, honestly,” Devin Booker said this week to TNT after the Suns clinched their first Western Conference Finals berth in 11 years. “Coach Monty, when they gave us a chance to get into the Bubble, we were one of the last team’s record-wise. We just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, so, our gym was good, our workouts were really competitive, and we just went out there with nothing to lose for real.”
The Suns had an almost zero chance to make the playoffs, but they went 8-0 anyway and nearly made the play-in, tying the Grizzlies with a 34-39 total record but losing out on a tiebreaker. Monty Williams made a now-famous speech to his team after the game, telling his team that from now on they need to control their own destiny.
“We developed the culture,” Booker continued. “We developed a brotherhood amongst this team going into the offseason.”
The players all knew that success was here to stay, and GM James Jones made sure to keep the core of the team in place.
Jones kept seven of the top eight players from the 8-0 Bubble, which included re-signing Jevon Carter and Dario Saric and guaranteeing Cameron Payne’s contract. Then he spent the short off-season upgrading the rest of the roster, including bringing in two new starters. He upgraded Ricky Rubio to 10-time All-Star Chris Paul and replaced Kelly Oubre Jr. with free agent Jae Crowder. Then he rounded out the back end of the roster with good locker room influences like E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway.
“The addition of Chris, Jae, and a lot of other guys fell right into what we’re doing now,” Booker said.
The Suns took a little while to get comfortable, starting with an 8-8 record, but from that point on they were a league-best 43-17 record to finish 2nd overall in the West and the league (Utah finished 52-20 overall).
League insiders and outsiders were skeptical that the Suns could continue their success in the playoffs, even picking them to lose to a hobbled Lakers team in round one, but the Suns have smashed that skepticism like The Incredible Hulk smashed Loki in one of those Marvel movies.
The Suns beat the defending champ Lakers four games to two then swept the Denver Nuggets (4-0), and now get a week off to wait for their next opponent to emerge from the Clippers/Jazz series. The Suns have played stifling defense in both rounds and broke out offensively in the second round against a Nuggets team that tried everything but failed every time.
How have the Suns been so successful?
“Keeping your composure,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said to TNT. “The game’s gonna be physical, the game’s gonna be high intensity. Just staying with it the whole 48 minutes. That’s the way our team’s been playing the whole season and I think it wears a lot of teams down when we play like that.”
Ah yes, Devin Booker. The same Devin Booker who suffered through four seasons of utter futility and embarrassment before the Monty bump in year five turned on the afterburners in year six.
If any Suns player mirrors the team’s rise like a Phoenix out of its own ashes, it’s Devin Armani Booker. He suffered the slander and now is one of only two players in league history (the other is LeBron) to amass as many points, assists and rebounds in his first playoff exposure.
The Phoenix Suns have now won their 4th straight playoff game by at least 13 points. They accomplish this for the 1st time in franchise history (14th ever).— Greg Harvey (@BetweenTheNums) June 10, 2021
Devin Booker is just the 2nd player to have 200+ PTS, 40+ REB, & 40+ AST in his 1st 8 career playoff games (LeBron James) pic.twitter.com/QazNBT2ftd
Booker has scored 30+ points in five different playoff games, but even more impressive is that he poured in 81 points on 55% shooting in his first two closeout game opportunities (47 vs. Lakers in game 6, then 34 vs. Denver in game four). He also grabbed 22 rebounds in those games and dished 8 assists from the off-guard position. The Suns won both games.
“I feel really good, man,” Booker said with a big smile to the TNT guys after that second closeout game performance. “I’ve been waiting on this for a really long time. Just playoff basketball in general. A lot of people have been saying I haven’t been playing any meaningful basketball and I’m not ready for that, and you know, this is my time to prove it. I’m having fun with it. the whole team’s having fun with it. Having great leaders like CP, Jae Crowder and coach Monty around here helps out a lot.”
Devin Booker has been consistently brilliant over the years, and adding better players around him has made his contributions even more relevant to the bottom line. The best player he’s ever had a chance to play with is Chris Paul, a sure-fire Hall of Famer who earned his 11th All-Star bid this season with the Suns and helped solidify the culture that Monty Williams instilled.
“It’s hard to put that in perspective man,” Booker said to TNT of Chris Paul’s impact on him as a player. “I’m gonna have to look back on it. When people ask me about Chris, it’s more how he handles himself off the court. Seeing his routine, seeing how he goes about his business, seeing how he takes care of his body. He’s been in this thing for a really long time, he’s done a lot of things all of us want to reach. So having him in the back court with me, having him on a day to day basis, just on the planes, picking his brain, and just being a sponge to him honestly, has helped my game tremendously.”
Booker did not have his best individual season in terms of raw or advanced numbers, but he became a more mature leader and learned from Chris Paul how to influence the game in the right way at the right time.
Now the Phoenix Suns have their best shot at a championship in their 54-year history. They may not be favored by the oddsmakers in the Conference Finals or Finals, but no one wants to face the Suns in this playoff run. And there are no Finals-gilded teams waiting to stomp down the upstarts like in previous Suns playoff runs.
This magical year could have a storybook ending that no one in their right mind could have predicted, and it all started in the Bubble.