Fitting that Devin Booker returned from health and safety protocols in time to lead the Phoenix Suns to their playoffs-clinching victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday night.
Shocking that it happened on May 9th, a full five weeks before the end of the regular season.
Even more shocking is that no other NBA team has a hope to claim that ‘victory’ for at least two more weeks, if not longer.
With a 53-13 record (8 more wins than the next closest NBA team), the Phoenix Suns are guaranteed a top-six seed in the 2022 playoffs even if they lose all 16 of their remaining regular season games. You read that right. The Suns could forfeit their remaining games (let’s say, to bubble wrap everyone for health reasons) and still make the playoffs as no worse than the 6th seed in the West.
That worst case scenario is still pretty damn good for a team that missed the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 years. They don’t have to worry about any lotteries or play-in tournaments. Faster than any other NBA team, the Suns have assured themselves of, at minimum, a 7-game playoff series.
Quite the turnaround for Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges — all members of that 2019 team that was the worst team in the West.
They are all still here, still three of the Suns five starters, coming off a 2021 Finals run, contributing mightily to Wednesday night’s win over the East-leading Miami Heat to set another franchise first: earliest clinching of a 6th seed in the Suns 54-year franchise history.
“We came a long way for sure,” Booker said with a smile, on Wednesday night after the Miami win.
Some perspective is in order. Here’s a blurb in SI.com from late March, 2019 — that’s really only three years ago, folks — on the woeful Suns’ silver linings heading into the summer of 2019.
The Suns were a joke. Booker was a joke.
He was only 22, but already about to finish his fourth season with more losses than any other NBA player experienced from 2016-2019.
“I hope someday we’ll see the beauty in all this,” he said, introspectively, that spring in 2019.
The beauty began to show quite soon after that, thanks to the hiring of GM James Jones and head coach Monty Williams and their steadfast belief in Book’s bright future.
That first year together, the 34 wins (in just 72 games) was a breath of fresh air, more wins than the Suns had tallied since before Booker came to the league. They capped off the season in grand fashion with 8 straight wins and an ‘All Bubble Team’ nod for Booker.
They left 34 wins in the dust. The next year they got 51 wins (again, in just 72 games), a 2nd seed in the West, and an unexpected Finals run.
Now they have 53 wins so far, against only 13 losses and a full 8 wins ahead of their pace from last year. Last Friday, forward Jae Crowder marveled at the improvement.
“That’s crazy because last year I thought we were kicking butt,” Crowder said with a grin. “With 51 wins (in the 2021-22 72-game regular season), I thought we were playing at a high, high level going into the playoffs, but we’ve blown the doors off right.”
Now, Book has more wins than any other NBA player since July 2020, more wins than any other NBA player in the 2020-21 season and so far more wins than any other NBA player in the 2021-22 season.
On Wednesday, he posted an incredibly good line — 23 points (on 12 shots), 9 assists, 8 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks — after a week away for testing positive for COVID-19, and the Suns blew out the East-leading Miami Heat. He’s still missing his All-Star co-star in Chris Paul, yet the Suns remain the league’s best team anyway.
The Suns wanted a lot of firsts this year. They have now logged the longest winning streak in team history (18), the best record in team history through ‘x’ games for a month straight, and now the earliest playoff clinch of the 6th seed or higher in team history.
Big kudos to Book for being one of us.
We all suffered that long playoff drought. We all felt crapped-on like furniture in McDonough’s office.
We all hoped for beauty to come from all that losing.
And now we all get to appreciate being fans of the best team in the NBA, led by Devin Booker — now the ripe old age of 25 — who could very well go down as the Suns G.O.A.T.
The 2022 Playoffs will begin in about five weeks, starting what the Suns hope is a long playoff run for the second year in a row, except with a different final ending.
“We still have things to work on,” Booker said. “We know what our main goal is.”
After 66 of 82 games played, the Suns are the only team in the league with even a top FIVE offense, defense and net rating (Suns are 4th, 2nd and 1st, respectively). Only three other teams are even top TEN in all three efficiency ratings.
“We’re still growing,” Jae Crowder says. “We feel like we still have improvement, that’s the scary part. We feel like we haven’t peaked and that’s the great part about our team.”