Playoffs or not, the Phoenix Suns made the most of the NBA bubble

Win or lose, play-in spot or not, the Phoenix Suns made the most of the NBA bubble.

Just as they have for the past nine years, the Phoenix Suns finished their season outside of the playoff picture. They finished 10th in the Western Conference, five games below .500, and will see their playoff drought extend to 10 years running.

And yet, based on how this young team performed during the NBA restart, you’d think they had just capped off a 50-win season. It’s a testament to how bad things have been in Phoenix since Steve Nash left, but also of the first signs of hope materializing into something more tangible.

“Just from the years past and what’s been going on in this organization since I’ve been here, not getting in the win column like we would like to, it takes a toll on you,” Devin Booker said. “You develop a reputation that you don’t want, and I think here we changed the narrative. We changed how people think of us, from the NBA to the refs to different teams to everybody. Every time somebody plays the Phoenix Suns, they know it’s gonna be a tough matchup.”

Heading into Thursday’s eventual double-digit win over the Dallas Mavericks, the Suns had a real chance to exorcise some outstanding demons. A win, along with a loss from the Memphis Grizzlies and/or Portland Trail Blazers, would put them in the play-in scenario with a chance to end that pesky playoff drought.

A big game from Deandre Ayton would be a small dose of redemption for both Ayton (after missing his coronavirus test a few games ago) and the Suns (after drafting him over budding MVP candidate Luka Doncic).

And perhaps most important of all, a play-in game would give Devin Booker the continued opportunity to show out on the national stage as a true winner, which he took advantage of as soon as the team touched down in Orlando.

The Suns got the win on Thursday, improving to a perfect 8-0 in these seeding games. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies and Blazers picked up wins too, ending Phoenix’s season despite this young group doing everything in its power to make a real run at the play-in scenario.

The Brooklyn Nets had a chance to take down Portland at the buzzer, but in typical, heartbreaking fashion that Suns fans are all-too familiar with, Caris LeVert’s step-back jumper bounced off the iron, giving Rip City the win and denying the Suns the chance to continue their magical run.

It’s a bummer their undefeated streak ended in disappointment. It’s a bummer we won’t get a duel between Booker and Damian Lillard, the two best players in Orlando. And it’s a bummer the Suns, who led all 22 bubble teams in point differential, were playing far better basketball than the Grizzlies and posted a better overall point differential than Memphis and Portland, are now going home.

And yet, head coach Monty Williams’ message to his team in the locker room and to reporters after the Suns’ game hours before Brooklyn’s defeat was as consistent and positive as ever.

“I think we’ve gained the respect of the league, and that’s huge,” he said. “There was some sentiment before this that we didn’t belong, and I think we changed that sentiment. It’s huge for all of our guys who improved this year — Book becoming an All-Star and I believe an All-NBA player, all of our young guys growing.”

Booker in particular had the most to gain from the NBA bubble. A playoff run was nearly impossible from the start, but the 23-year-old shooting guard relished his opportunity to silence uninformed critics who called him an “empty calories” scorer, a “good stats, bad team” guy or a player who didn’t truly impact winning — you know, the ones who didn’t notice the five head coaches, two general managers and 70-plus teammates Phoenix cycled through during his first five seasons in the league.

Eight bubble games is a small sample size, but 8-0 isn’t some fluke devoid of context either. And if not for Lillard going absolutely nuclear over his last three seeding games, Devin Booker would’ve been the frontrunner for the league’s Player of the Seeding Games award.

Averaging 30.5 points, 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds in just 33.9 minutes per game, the first-time All-Star posted a true shooting percentage of 62.7, was a plus-86 overall and was the best player on the bubble’s best team. From his automatic scoring to his impressive playmaking to the unforgettable buzzer-beater he hit against the LA Clippers, Book finally got the chance to shine in the first meaningful games of his career. That doesn’t change now that the playoffs are officially out.

“I’m proud of this group regardless,” Booker said. “We could’ve had a different approach to this bubble, to this opportunity but we didn’t. We stayed locked in throughout, through the ups and downs, we held each other accountable. I just think we took tremendous strides in so many different ways, other than just basketball too — just becoming closer as a unit, as a team.”

Williams agreed this bubble experience has been one of the best highlights of his head coaching career, if not the best. The team bonding, the level of focus and buy-in, the diligence paying off in the form of a perfect 8-0 record — those kinds of results are rare in such an unconventional situation, especially for a young team full of new faces who had players in and out of the rotation all year due to injuries (and suspension, in Ayton’s case).

“The atmosphere was something that I felt like we needed to improve our standing in the league,” Williams said. “To be able to come out and play against the best teams in the NBA and win every game says a lot about our players and how hard they played. I told you guys from day one, outside of the teams that are gonna have a chance to win a championship, we probably had the most to gain from this experience.”

Over the last three weeks, Williams’ message to his team was remarkably consistent: Control what you can control, always focus on “doing the next right thing” and maximize every moment of this opportunity as a team that embraced its bubble invite with humility.

Monty’s influence on those fronts trickled from Booker all the way down through the roster, and the results of this team-wide, coming-of-age moment were hard to ignore.

Mikal Bridges was a revelation, proving himself as a smothering defender with All-Defensive Team honors in his future who simultaneously averaged 12.8 points per game on 40 percent shooting from deep. Cameron Johnson’s progress provided a similar epiphany as he thrived with the starters, spread the floor effectively, attacked off the bounce and defended at a surprisingly stout level. Even as a rookie, it’s hard to picture him going back to a bench role now.

Ricky Rubio continued to be the straw stirring this Booker-based cocktail; Dario Saric accepted (and thrived) in a sixth man role that allowed him to create on offense and capably man the 5-spot; and Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter were relentless lightning bugs, igniting from 3 on one end and constantly buzzing and chirping on the other end to anchor a suddenly reliable bench unit.

Williams is a shoo-in for the league’s Coach of Seeding Games award, Booker should finish second in Bubble MVP voting and snag a spot on the All-Bubble First Team, and overall, the Suns were the story of the NBA restart as Orlando’s only undefeated team.

The only bubble disappointment among Phoenix’s core players was Ayton, who nearly missed a game after failing to take his daily COVID-19 test and sleepwalked through most of the seeding games, but even in his sleep he put up good numbers. That the Suns were able to accomplish all this without Kelly Oubre Jr. or Aron Baynes ever touching the floor is nothing short of unbelievable.

“We’ve raised the bar, and now I have another reference point for these guys,” Williams explained. “Every one of our games was a Game 7, and our guys brought it every single night. We didn’t make it rigid, we didn’t make it really hard for them, we just asked them to do a few things and let the chips fall. It takes time to get to a point like this, and I’m not saying we’re there, but where we are right now, it’s pretty cool for this young team.”

Despite novelty accomplishments like leading the league in assists, or posting the highest free-throw percentage in NBA history, the Suns still have a long way to go. The bubble felt like real, sustainable growth, but it was only one eight-game stretch in an environment we’re unlikely to see again post-coronavirus. There are roster questions to address with Baynes, Saric (restricted) and Carter (restricted) all hitting free agency, not to mention rotation questions when it comes to that sorting out roles for that Oubre-Bridges-Cam Johnson trio.

The team itself was flawed throughout the season. There’s a reason they were the first team in NBA history to end the season on an eight-game win streak and still miss the postseason: They also lost several close, must-win contests, including three one-point games, tied for most in the association.

Williams admitted he’ll never feel “satisfied” until he wins a championship, so even after this potential breakthrough, the real test will begin once next season starts and opponents are on the lookout for this plucky bunch.

But given the way Booker blossomed under the spotlight, the way his teammates followed suit, the way this young group shed bad habits like blowing leads and the way Williams’ influence percolated from top to bottom, the culture in Phoenix is finally changing.

“This is probably the brightest spot of my career thus far also,” Booker said. “But we just want to build on it.”

Next: Picks for NBA All-Bubble Teams and Bubble MVP
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