Suns out of gutter, now looking up at the stars

Whether their 2019-20 season ends after their final seed game, the Western Conference Play-In or the playoffs, the Phoenix Suns have built a platform upon which they can build.

Thursday night’s live NBA games on Sky Sports

  • Mavericks @ Suns | Sky Sports Arena | Thursday 9pm
  • Trail Blazers @ Nets | Sky Sports Arena | Friday 2am

Coming up on a year ago now, back when this NBA season first started, the Phoenix Suns got out to a hot start. They won seven of their first 11 games, including victories over the LA Clippers and the Philadelphia 76ers, with the four losses coming against quality playoff opponents, two of which they lost only by a single point.

After so many years in the doldrums, this was a truly high point in relative terms for a Suns fanbase that had become accustomed to being a laughing stock in the competitive Western Conference.

Relive Devin Booker's epic game-winning buzzer beater as the Phoenix Suns upset the Los Angeles Clippers.


Relive Devin Booker’s epic game-winning buzzer beater as the Phoenix Suns upset the LA Clippers

At that time, we took a look at the Suns and found when they were at full strength, they were just about the quality of a playoff team. What would hold them back would be significant absences to any of their key players, as these would expose the lack of depth within the roster.

Ultimately, that is what happened; with Deandre Ayton and Aron Baynes missing significant time in the frontcourt, along with Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr being in and out of the backcourt, rare was the stretch in which the Suns could put their best line-up on the floor.

It showed in the results. Of the 54 games they played between that 7-4 start and the season’s suspension in March, they lost 35 of them. Same old, same old, and they had once again slipped to 13th in the West.

Nevertheless, the Suns made it into the bubble anyway, and as you already know, have been truly excellent within it. The Suns have won all seven of their games since the season’s restart, bringing themselves up to 33-39 on the season and establishing themselves as the form team heading into the Western Conference Play-In.

Devin Booker NBA


Devin Booker hit 35 points for the Phoenix Suns, helping them beat the Philadelphia 76ers

One more win, against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night, live on Sky Sports Arena at 9pm will be good enough, if either the Portland Trail Blazers or Memphis Grizzlies lose their respective final seeding game.

The Suns have found form because of a return to a good run of health, with only Oubre Jr missing from the stretch run among rotation players, but more importantly, because of the improvements they have made within themselves.

Of no one is this more true than star guard Devin Booker. Back when the Suns were so far adrift from the low playoff seeds that it seems as though they had nothing to play for, one argument for the Suns going into the bubble was the opportunity for the young star leading the young team in getting good experience of playing together and playing meaningful games against quality opposition; the anticipation was of productive losses.

Instead, it has been a fortnight of productive wins. No one on the Suns team has taken as much advantage of this (or been as responsible for it) as much as Booker.

Devin Booker teases the Thunder defense
Booker teases the Thunder defense

After being snubbed for selection to the All-Star Game in February, Booker has responded by setting a Phoenix franchise record for the most 30-point games of anyone in history. Averaging 26.6 points, 6.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game on the season, he has upped that to a hefty 31.0 points per game average in the bubble, and when the outside shot has not been falling, he has been playing a star’s all-around game anyway.

Booker has been grinding his way to the free throw line, getting his team-mates involved and never backing down. He keeps getting incrementally yet discernibly better.

The Suns’ bubble success cannot just be said to be due solely to their schedule. It is true to say some teams have rested starters against them, but it is also true they beat a full-strength Clippers team (again), and they have often been winning by convincing margins, beating the 76ers and the Oklahoma City Thunder by a combined 30 points over their last two games.

It is weird to say they are good right now, but it is also the fair thing to do. They continue to pass every test.


The Phoenix Suns had family members announce the team’s starting line-up via video leaving the players visibly emotional before they took on the Philadelphia 76ers

The unlikely addition of Cameron Payne has been a surprisingly key reason of why. In his seven games for his new team thus far, Payne has averaged 10.3 points and 3.1 assists per game, providing some much-needed ball-handling assistance behind the pairing of Booker and Rubio.

Payne has looked completely refreshed after a reset-trip to the G-League, knowing how to attack off the bounce once more and getting back to the aggression that best defined his game in college. If successful reclamation projects like he (and, to an extent, Oubre) become the norm and the Suns are going to be the kind of team where players can find themselves again, rather than get lost like they used to, then the future is bright.

Whether or not the Suns make the playoffs this season, the timeline towards consistently being one going forward has sped up with the improved play of Ayton, Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges.

Johnson, the much-derided 2019 draft pick, has at least been exactly as advertised, a high-volume high-efficiency three-point shooter from the frontcourt who plays a heady all-around game.

Mikal Bridges #25 of the Phoenix Suns looks to drive against Dorian Finney-Smith #10 of the Dallas Mavericks during the second half at Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 2, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Mikal Bridges looks to drive against Dorian Finney-Smith of the Dallas Mavericks

Bridges has emerged as a two-way player himself, an athletic defender who is doing a better job of getting to the rim with or without the ball, and finishing once there, than he did as a rookie.

While it is not being without error, Ayton is averaging 18.4 points and 11.5 rebounds per game on the season with – most importantly – improved defense.

DeAndre Ayton dunks an alley-oop pass against the Indiana Pacers
Ayton dunks an alley-oop pass against the Indiana Pacers

Ayton is still the key to this Suns team going forward, and his progress has been a bit slower. At this early juncture in his career, although the defensive awareness has improved, he is still limited to playing in the paint on that end and has a tendency to wilt against physical opposition.

Offensively, he is inconsistent and overvalues the jumper, and again could stand to be more physical. As of this moment, he is a bag of tools that is extremely productive on a per-minute basic counting statistic basis, yet he needs much more work to achieve maximum potential.

Relive Devin Booker's epic game-winning buzzer beater as the Phoenix Suns upset the Los Angeles Clippers.


Relive Devin Booker’s epic game-winning buzzer beater as the Phoenix Suns upset the LA Clippers

Nonetheless, progress is being made with him. And that is the key takeaway from the Suns season as a whole. The younger players are improving, young veterans such as Oubre and Dario Saric have got better as the season has gone on as well, older veterans such as Rubio and Baynes have been better than anticipated, and Booker has made greater strides than his basic averages suggests.

By their own standards when compared to recent seasons, the Suns are doing very well; by the standards of anybody, they are still doing well. Seven wins from seven games in the bubble, the hottest team in the NBA at the most important time and armed with rotation full of players that all other teams would happily pick from.

Whatever happens over the next few weeks, that is a good platform to build from.

All this may only result in a first-round drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, yet, considering where the Suns have been for so long, that will still represent an excellent result for the team.

No longer are they in the gutter and they are certainly looking at the stars.

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