PHOENIX SUNS

After magic at Disney, Phoenix Suns must end playoff drought the hard way

Aug 14, 2020, 9:22 AM | Updated: 10:14 pm
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns is congratulated by Devin Booker #1 after making a three-poin...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns is congratulated by Devin Booker #1 after making a three-point basket against the Washington Wizards in the second half of an NBA basketball game at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on July 31, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images)

The Suns return home with the consolation prize. No matter who wins the NBA championship in Orlando, they were the only team that went unbeaten in a bubble.

Now it’s time to raise the standards.

Now it’s time to make some magic outside of Disney World.

This is a momentous moment for the organization. They won real respect during the NBA’s re-start. They left as martyrs, one shot removed from a play-in game against Memphis. It will be easy to focus on these eight games and not the 65 that occurred before the pandemic shut down a sport.

There is reason for giddiness. Devin Booker is now a verified superstar, earning a blue checkmark next to his name. Mikal Bridges has grown tremendously. Cam Johnson looked like a different player. Cameron Payne was an instant hit, freeing up Jevon Carter to excel as a backup shooting guard.

The Suns had enough collective mojo to win all eight games on their schedule with zero contributions from Kelly Oubre Jr. and Aron Baynes, with a maddening string of performances from Deandre Ayton. Imagine if this franchise can ever light a fire inside the latter, a No. 1 overall pick who has been coddled by the organization at every step, a player who only proved how much you can’t count on him during the Orlando bubble. That’s how unpredictable his development has become.

After their last game on Thursday, the Suns acted like they had achieved serious milestones, proving how much doubt existed inside and outside the room. Charles Barkley gave a “shout out to my Phoenix Suns.” Booker said his team finally achieved respect from the referees. And head coach Monty Williams showered his team with praise in an emotional postgame speech.

“We’re not the Suns of old,” Williams said.

But here’s the caveat and the key to everything moving forward:

When the raw emotion runs dry, the Suns must take a scalpel to their 8-0 record in Orlando. Four of those wins came against teams resting key players for the postseason. One victory came against the talent-depleted Wizards.

The Suns showed the moxie and sincerity to pursue and achieve an audacious goal: beating every team on its eight-game schedule, coming this close to an actual playoff berth. They felt what it was like to be engaged and in the hunt yet dependent on the performance of others.

They watched Damian Lillard make a key shot that hit the back of the rim and bounced eight feet into the sky before falling true. They watched the Nets’ Caris LeVert settle for and miss a last-second shot that would’ve kept them alive.

I hope, in the midst of all the celebration, the Suns feel some pain. Some anger. A true dedication to never getting left out of the playoffs again.

The Suns left Orlando with good vibes and a heady sense of accomplishment. They will benefit tremendously from this experience, from a sense of inclusion and real belonging among the NBA’s elite teams.

But it guarantees nothing going forward. They will have to end their 10-year playoff drought the hard way, over the course of an 82-game season and not an eight-game reprieve. Their desire to restore glory to a fallen franchise must exceed our desire to watch it all happen.

That means the real work is only getting started. With real expectations and targets on their back.

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