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For the Phoenix Suns, appropriate fear has returned

The Phoenix Suns hubris is gone. All that remains is the need to prove themselves all over again.

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NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight is Opening Night of the 2022-23 season for the Phoenix Suns. Seems the best time to discuss the most necessary attribute, to me, for these Suns to succeed:

Appropriate Fear of their opponents.

Last year, during the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams shared a simple observation that ended up telling the whole story of the Suns demise.

As the Suns struggled through the first round, he said they were lacking an “appropriate fear” of their opponent after such a great run to the Finals the year before and the just-concluded record-setting regular season.

The year before, the Suns were built on and fueled by appropriate fear. Coming off a 10-year playoff drought, they faced the defending champ Lakers in round one, then the Conference Finals rep Denver Nuggets in round two, then the scary five-out Clippers in the Conference Finals and finally the greek-freak Bucks in the Finals. That Suns team feared for their playoff life in every single game of that Finals run.

But 2022 was different. No matter how hard they tried to shake it off, the Suns appeared to deep-down assume they’d be successful in the playoffs again, at least through the first two rounds. Their opponents were a lowly Pelicans squad who’d had to win two play-in games just for the right to face the league-leading Suns in round one. And then the Mavericks, who they’d beaten 9 of the last 10 times they’d faced off, including 6 straight. Against the Mavs, the Suns went up 2-0, then 3-2, then had home court advantage for Game 7. That fear never really took hold until it was too late, in the form of a jaw-dropping 30-point deficit at halftime.

Now they’ve had five months to stew over that playoff loss, and an “appropriate fear” appears to have returned.

Through Media Day and three weeks of preseason, none of the Suns players are talking championship this year. Heck, they’re having a hard time getting past their first game.

“There’s definitely an emotional component to it,” Monty Williams said of tonight’s game, a rematch against the Mavericks. “I’m not going to sit here and lie to you.”

Don’t get me wrong. The Suns definitely do NOT see Game 1 as anything really important. It’s something. It’s emotional. It’s necessary. But it’s not any kind of salve. There’s no real relief for that playoff failure until the next playoffs come around.

Just ask Mikal Bridges: is this a ‘revenge’ game of some sort?

“No,” Mikal Bridges said flatly. “I’d rather win the series than one game. Can’t get too much revenge off 0-1 or 1-0. I feel like if they lost, I feel like they’d rather win that series than the first game.”

During work days, the best I can do is listen live on the Zoom feed for media, but these guys live, eat and breathe the grind. Big thanks to the real beat writers Duane Rankin of, Kellan Olson of and Gerald Bourguet of who cover the Suns in person every day and share videos like this on twitter.

But it’s a game, nonetheless. And a chance to start a new chapter of Suns basketball.

“Obviously, we lost to them in Game 7, it was a bad Game 7,” Mikal said, with a shake of his head. “Obviously, we got attention on that. This is a new season. Last season was last season. I just excited for Game 1.”

Win or lose, “there’s 81 more games after that”, Devin Booker said on Monday. The Suns will need to grind out the season with enough wins to get a playoff spot. Hopefully one high enough to get the home court advantage at least once.

The Suns are predicted, by oddsmakers and random pundits, to be good again this year. They are expected to win 50+ games and get one of the top four playoff seeds in the West.

But no one thinks the Suns have a chance to win the championship.

Somehow, the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers have better odds to win the West than the Suns because they’re healthy now. But let’s look at the stats:

  • With healthy Kawhi, the Clippers are 2-1 in playoff series (13-11 record) over two playoff runs (he left their second-round series in 2021 with the Clippers tied 2-2 vs. the Jazz)
  • With healthy Jamal Murray, the Nuggets are 3-2 in playoff series (16-17 record) over two playoff runs
  • Meanwhile, the Suns are 4-2 in playoff series (21-14 record) over two playoff runs

How about this angle:

  • Total Conference Finals/NBA Finals wins for the healthy Clippers and Nuggets combined: 2
  • Total Conference Finals/NBA Finals wins for the Suns: 6

Why are the Nuggets and Clippers seen as bigger favorites? Shiny new toys.

The Suns for some reason, even among their own fans, now have the stigma of being “the new Jazz”, a regular season juggernaut that kept falling short in the playoffs. That comparison is, of course, entirely disrespectful of these Suns.

With Quinn Snyder, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell in place, the Jazz made the playoffs five straight seasons, but were a paltry 2-5 in playoff series those years (17-23 record).

  • Jazz: 2-5 series record, 17-23 games record
  • Suns: 4-2 series record, 21-14 games record

Not. The. Same.

Yet, that’s how the Suns are going to be perceived for the next several months. No matter what the Suns do in the regular season, one narrative will remain: a first or second-round out. And, frankly, the Suns deserve it. Until the playoffs roll around again next April, at least.

Let’s hope the appropriate fear of their opponents has returned.

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