EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns keep backing up label of best team in world, beat Denver for 60th win

Mar 24, 2022, 11:13 PM | Updated: 11:16 pm

Devin Booker (1) of the Phoenix Suns lets out a primal roar after he grabbed an offensive rebound f...

Devin Booker (1) of the Phoenix Suns lets out a primal roar after he grabbed an offensive rebound for a putback, while drawing a foul shot against the Denver Nuggets during the third quarter on Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns are evolving before our very eyes.

The team that danced on the floor while eliminating LeBron James before making two players snap in consecutive series to commit Flagrant 2’s and get ejected in series-clinching games has found a new level of bravado.

Reserve center JaVale McGee ends the Suns’ pregame huddle before coming onto the court by leading a group declaration that the Suns are the best team in the world.

And they know they are. Better yet, they play like they know they are.

If you want to be glass-half-full, call it confidence. If you want to be neutral, call it swagger. If you want to be glass-half-empty, call it cockiness.

Whatever you label it as, it’s a weapon and the Suns couldn’t have won the two basketball games they just did in the last two days without it.

The second was a 140-130 win in Denver over the Nuggets, a victory on Thursday following up a mental beatdown of the Timberwolves in Minnesota the previous night.

It comes at a momentous time in the season, win No. 60 to lock up the league’s top record and homecourt for the entire postseason.

For guard Devin Booker, we have seen nights where his temper got the best of him. But like forward Cam Johnson did in a March 4 win versus the New York Knicks, a game in which Johnson said he had never been angrier before while shooting a basketball en route to a career-high 38 points, Booker’s rage was put to good use.

“When the blood is up to here, he finds another reservoir of energy,” head coach Monty Williams said while motioning his hand to indicate that next tier Booker’s emotions get to.

It was clear from the jump that Booker was upset about something, playing with an extra uptick of the normal ferocity we see from his game.

AZCentral’s Duane Rankin caught it during pregame intros, that the Nuggets had shown a headshot of Los Angeles Clippers forward Amir Coffey in place of Booker.

Surely that wasn’t what set him off?

Turns out, it was.

“Yeah, that was disrespectful,” Booker said. “I was laughing. I know that was purposefully done.”

Booker’s point totals by quarter went 17, seven, 19 and six for a season-high 49 points on 16-of-25 shooting.

“One of the best performances I’ve seen him have since I’ve been here because of the variables and the obstacles we had,” Williams said of Booker, who added 10 assists and three steals.

Denver played a great, physical game and pushed the pace against a Suns team facing the second game of a back-to-back on the road at high altitude. But Booker led a charge offensively to mirror team shooting percentages that each ended up at nearly 60%.

Phoenix matched that strong Nuggets effort through three quarters thanks in large part to Booker, and that’s where we got to what Booker calls the weardown effect, a type of result we’ve come to know from this group where the opposition can only hang with them for so long.

And whatever the equivalent is for a brain child in basketball terms, the ruthless tenacity Booker and Chris Paul play with has been implanted into the Suns’ DNA as a whole. So it was fitting for this game to be Paul’s first back in 16 since fracturing his right thumb.

Paul started off slow, a predictable tempo to get himself right during his first real NBA run in over a month. He admitted his legs felt heavy at first before the normal adrenaline of a game took over and helped from there.

He did so while setting up his teammates, as always, dishing out seven of his 13 assists in the first half before scoring 15 of his 17 points in the second half.

“Just speaks to the level of greatness he has,” Williams said.

Paul admitted he’s still got some unfinished steps in the entire process of truly getting back to being himself but sure didn’t look the part.

At 5:31 left, Paul was at 28 minutes, a total already too high to Williams’ liking, so Cam Payne checked back in.

From there in a one-point game, Phoenix went on an 11-6 run without their crunch time leader that included two Payne buckets and an assist.

On the second field goal, Paul was walking to the scorer’s table to check in before seeing Payne hit that shot, and then told Williams that Payne should keep going.

From there with Paul now back in, the Suns effectively sealed things by scoring on three straight possessions that were all assisted by Booker, the last two coming off extra defensive attention on the All-Star shooting guard. Phoenix has seen a Booker with his point totals in the 30s and 40s be double-teamed by defenses and around teammates unable to make it pay but those days are long gone.

Mikal Bridges jammed home an and-one off a great play design by Williams, Jae Crowder drilled a 3 and Bridges sunk another. Williams said postgame Bridges is “seeking” the ball out now on offense. If that aforementioned confidence and swagger has helped anyone the most, it’s Bridges, who has had an extra edge to his game this year and contributed 22 points (8-of-9).

The Suns were now up nine with two minutes to go and once again had sucked up all the energy out of their opponent’s building from a crowd that mostly can’t stand them.

I’m sure the Suns 1) know that and 2) love that.

That is one of the many, many ways this team continues to motivate itself during a stretch when different squads would be attempting to maintain their bodies after a grueling Finals run the year prior on a shortened schedule.

The Suns, however, are hungry, fueled by competitiveness that has them well on their way to becoming the best team not only in the world, but in franchise history too.

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