DAN BICKLEY

The Suns’ success dusts off issues only playoff teams experience

Feb 25, 2021, 11:23 AM
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) has words with Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, right, duri...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) has words with Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Phoenix. Booker was given a technical foul for the confrontation. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

Winning teams bring new problems. Suns fans are beginning to remember what they forgot during a 10-year playoff drought.

To wit:

In the span of 30 hours, Devin Booker was an All-Star Game snub; was called the “most disrespected” player in the league by LeBron James; made the All-Star Game as injury replacement for the second consecutive year, becoming the martyr king of the NBA; and then the Suns lost at home to the Hornets, on a night when Booker was issued a questionable technical foul and missed a game-tying shot on a play where he was clearly fouled.

That’s a lot to digest. Get your popcorn and your antacid. There’s a lot more of this coming in the next 41 games.

New issue 1: Having a real playoff team rekindles the nightmare of NBA officiating, when games of enhanced magnitude are decided by men who whistle while they work. It’s an infuriating dynamic, especially in cities that believe they’ve been unfairly persecuted by the league.

We are one of those cities. We’ve seen injustice with our eyes. We’ve heard about it for decades from team broadcasters. Nobody seems to remember that one of the fishiest free throw displays in playoff history came in Phoenix, during a Game 7 when the Suns attempted 64 free throws, securing a high-powered NBA Finals matchup between Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan.

Officiating doesn’t mean a thing when you’re barely winning 20 games a year. That has changed dramatically in the Valley.

New issue 2: Booker’s reputation is hard to quantify and even harder to figure. It’s also a near certainty that Mavericks star Luka Doncic would’ve received the call that Booker did not at the end of Wednesday’s game.

This problem will evaporate over time. As the Suns continue to win and ascend, the ignorant and the analytic-minded will understand what they’ve been missing.

But sometimes, Booker doesn’t help himself, allowing his fury to get the best of him. The Hornets did a great job of getting under his skin, on a night when he was clearly on edge from the All-Star Game fiasco. Maybe Booker should spend a little part of his pre-game routine schmoozing with the official, just like Paul does. Couldn’t hurt.

New issue 3: For most of his tenure in Arizona, Monty Williams has been coaching from a pedestal. He deserves a lot of credit for helping create a new culture in Phoenix, for keeping a Zen-like presence inside an organization that defined dysfunction for nearly a decade.

The bar was also very low after our dalliances with inexperienced head coaches like Lindsey Hunter, Earl Watson and Igor Kokoskov.

But coaching decisions that backfire take on absurd importance with contending teams. Williams needs to get his rotations right. And he is going to have to address the new defensive issues that come with Deandre Ayton guarding players on the perimeter.

In totality, Ayton remains a highly frustrating player. His potential remains limitless, but his suspect hands and his maddening passivity threaten to doom this team in high-leverage situations. But that’s not new.

What must be addressed right now is how Ayton is being exposed and exploited by smaller, quicker players, leading to many uncontested dunks and layups. And judging by Wednesday’s loss, the Suns head coach still hasn’t solved the problem of complacency.

New issue 4: The release of the NBA’s second-half schedule felt like a football event, where NFL fans pore over details and road trips and any signs of inequity. Alas, the Suns don’t have it easy in the second batch of games in 2021.

Twice, they play the Jazz and Clippers in successive games. From April 19-30, the Suns will face Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Los Angeles (Clippers) and Utah. Twelve of their final 16 games are on the road. They will earn their playoff spot in 2021.

New issue 5: General Manager James Jones is in the midst of a masterpiece. He convinced owner Robert Sarver to spend big on an experienced head coach. He added Chris Paul and Jae Crowder to a roster that featured Booker and Mikal Bridges. Now comes his final stroke:

The trade deadline is March 25. Will Jones secure another frontcourt piece, maybe an experienced big man who can fortify this team from Ayton’s erratic, unreliable performances? Can the GM put this team over the top?

Stay tuned. Not that you need a reminder.

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The Suns’ success dusts off issues only playoff teams experience