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2021 NBA Finals - Milwaukee Bucks v. Phoenix Suns

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Expectations broke the Phoenix Suns

The 2022 Phoenix Suns fell from the sky in dramatic fashion

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Personally, I blame Charles Barkley.

The Chuckster was riding the Phoenix Suns’ bandwagon hard this postseason, parking that ample derriere on the Conestoga alongside thousands of Suns fans hoping for a better ending than 2021. The problem, however, is that Barkley’s endorsement is the equivalent of the Curse of the Bambino, the Curse of the Goat, the SI Curse, and the Madden Curse all rolled into one, then double-dipped in the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb for good measure.

I kid…mostly. But Sunday’s Game 7 against the Dallas Mavericks was as enjoyable as a springtime Saturday in 1986 Chernobyl, and now everyone’s waking up Monday morning casting about for scapegoats and asking, “What happened?”

Where did the team that won a franchise-record 64 games disappear to? Were they taken by an international crime syndicate? Can Liam Neeson help? Because these fifteen doppelgangers bore nothing but a passing physical resemblance to the Suns from the regular season. Once the playoffs started, the mask dropped, and this team looked eminently beatable. Needing six games to beat a 36-46 New Orleans Pelicans team proved to be but a mere toilet water aperitif to the septic system bouillabaisse that was to come.

The road warriors — winners of a franchise-record 33 games away from Phoenix this season — mustered a meager 2-4 road record in the 2022 playoffs and went 0-3 in Dallas. The team that bragged about its “us-against-the-word” mentality when it hit the road watched its Mad-Max-style steamroller sputter to a standstill. How does that happen?

How does head coach Monty Williams, the NBA’s Coach of the Year, go from saying this about his team after Game 4: “I thought our 1st half defense was about as bad as it’s been all year.”

To saying this after Game 6: “We were about as unorganized on offense tonight that we’ve ever been.”

And then saying this following Game 7: “We basically played the worst game of the season tonight.”

How does that sequence happen? Against a team of one superstar and 14 role players? Against a team the Suns hadn’t lost to since 2019 and swept this season?

Perhaps it’s possible the Suns’ NBA-best record was never an accurate indicator of this team’s strength. Certainly, no team took the regular season more seriously than the Suns. They wanted to send a message after coming up short in the Finals: We’re back and better than ever. Well, congrats. By contrast, the Golden State Warriors, who were running neck-and-neck with the Suns through the first half of the season and who know a thing or two about a dominant regular season fizzling out (see: 2016), sent their own message, then spent the second half of the season getting right for the postseason while drifting back in the standings. The Warriors are headed to the Western Conference Finals this week; the Suns are headed to parts unknown.

Was it undisclosed injuries that led Phoenix to choke hard enough to flummox Henry Heimlich? Fatigue? Williams seemed to concur the latter may have played a role.

“I probably rode these guys too much this year, from a minutes standpoint, from expectations standpoint,” Williams admitted postgame.

The Suns did have a shortened break from their July Finals to the start of the season. Devin Booker and JaVale McGee were playing Olympic basketball into August. Does that explain why Booker and Chris Paul had exactly zero made field goals in the first half of Game 7? Is that the explanation for the National Weather Service’s downgrade of Cameron Payne from haboob to zephyr? Or the way Paul morphed back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight on his 37th birthday?

There are other theories one can bandy about like a conspiracist on Facebook if so inclined. Did they buy their own hype? Were they too reliant on home court solving all their problems? Was the fix in? Too much Scott Foster? Not enough? Maybe Deandre Ayton played too much NBA 2K. Maybe Frank Kaminsky was the one holding it all together the whole time. Maybe it’s all Kendall Jenner’s fault.

In actuality, there likely isn’t a unified field theory that explains perfectly the Suns’ collapse. But personally, I believe the Suns finally broke under expectations. Their body language was abysmal, their effort level wanting. Too many botched layups, too many blown defensive assignments. Things this team doesn’t do. Didn’t used to, anyway. But from the moment the playoffs started, even when this team won, they didn’t look quite right.

When the wind was at their backs, the sailing was smooth, but when either New Orleans or Dallas challenged the Suns this postseason, they struggled to fill their jib. As recently as Apr. 8, that wasn’t true of this team. That was the night Phoenix stormed from a 17-point hole entering the 3rd quarter against the Utah Jazz to win by six. They believed they would win. And they made it look easy. The Suns in the playoffs didn’t make anything look easy.

Expectations are weighty things. The Los Angeles Lakers broke under them this year. Brooklyn knuckled under, too. The Suns never ran from expectations; Booker even dubbed this playoff run the “revenge tour” after last year’s disappointment (fatefully christening it after Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals). But that doesn’t mean doubts don’t begin to creep once things get sideways.

Maybe the Suns, behind all the bluster and tunnel theatrics and bench celebrations, underneath all the talk about embracing the moment and the importance of home court, were lying to themselves above all.

This team looked fragile, like it was playing not to win but to not lose. Not to avenge their loss in the Finals but merely to avoid repeating it. To back into a championship, so to speak. It looked like memories of their blown 2-0 lead against the Milwaukee Bucks haunted them. The Giannis block. The Holiday steal. The Giannis slam. The pitiless way momentum can strain through one’s fingers and leave you sitting at home, watching ESPN with a box of tissues and a tub of rocky road, in no time flat.

Sure, there were moments in these playoffs where the Suns exuded that confidence, and with it joy, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, but it hardly suffused this team. Last year’s run had a magic to it. They played loose. Easy breezy. Everything seemed to break in their favor. Can you envision the Valley Oop play from last year’s Clippers’ series working this go-round? I can’t. This year’s playoffs…felt like work.

So blame whoever or whatever you want for the Suns washing out of the playoffs. I won’t stop ya. It doesn’t change the fact this season ended before the Draft Lottery’s ping-pong balls were even drawn. Besides, you’ll be right no matter what because when you get rolled by historic margins in a Game 7 at home, the fault rests with everyone.

But let’s also be fair. Dallas deserved to win. Luka Doncic is ascendant, Jason Kidd put in his claim for Most Improved Coach, and the Mavericks as a whole are basically the “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard” poster made flesh. Dallas earned its ticket to the conference finals fair and square.

And Phoenix? It earned what it got, too.

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