EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns’ flaws piled up well before flop in Game 7

May 15, 2022, 9:31 PM | Updated: 10:13 pm

PHOENIX — Mess around and find out.

Usually, there’s more alliteration that goes with that saying. But the 2021-22 Phoenix Suns messed around to find out that what they carried into these playoffs after making the NBA Finals a year ago wasn’t good enough. It just came a little sooner than expected.

This isn’t about delegitimizing the Suns’ run to the Finals a year ago. That team came with an edge and deserved everything it earned.

The story is now about how this year’s squad put together 82 games to set up even higher expectations. It was a bar so high that Phoenix instead got clotheslined by it on Sunday.

The 123-90 victory by Dallas in a Game 7 at Footprint Center had the Suns getting booed off the court by halftime, after Mavericks star Luka Doncic already had 27 points to match the entire Phoenix team that trailed by 30.

The Suns messed around for six games and found out they weren’t that team on a revenge tour that they thought they were.

“It’s not just tonight, either,” Phoenix forward Cam Johnson said. “We had some performances this series we all feel like we could have gone back and fixed. Felt like we shouldn’t even have been in this position.

“Regular season at this point only means that this last game was in our building,” he added. “When you have success in the regular season, you’ve proven to yourself and proven to other people you’re capable. … We didn’t bring that tonight, and talking about tonight specifically, there’s just so many areas where we could’ve, should’ve been better.”

Regardless of the huge flop in Game 7, things were setting up to doom Phoenix before the shocking result Sunday.

Blame can be put in many places.

Head coach Monty Williams made seemingly too few adjustments, opting to allow soft-switching to take his best defender, Mikal Bridges, off Doncic too easily over seven games. Meanwhile, Dallas saved its best defensive performance for last, adding a blitz-heavy scheme to cloud Devin Booker’s vision after taking Chris Paul out of the series starting in Game 3.

“I mean, that’s me,” Williams said. “I’m the guy that’s responsible to have us ready. We were prepared all season long. That’s it. We did not have the rhythm that we had (in the regular season) for whatever reason … and we played against really good teams.”

While Williams tried to heap blame on himself, it was about the players, too.

“At the end of the day, he can’t make shots, he can’t play,” Paul said. “They just executed better than we did. Put two (players on Booker), picking us fullcourt all game long. Defensively … we never caught up to the ball. We just never made the game competitive.”

It wasn’t a one-off, though.

How many times in the last 13 games against the New Orleans Pelicans and Mavericks was Phoenix’s effort a talking point afterward?

Whether they lost by 33 or three on Sunday, could you say this Suns team looked ready to contend for an NBA title?

Some of those “effort” issues were really personnel flaws.

Phoenix couldn’t shoot even when invited. It lost the three-point line in the series by 99 points over the seven-game Dallas series, an average of 14 points per game. The Mavs spaced the Suns out, forcing the center-loving Suns away from their regular bench groupings.

It was a win for the analytics crowd as Dallas coach Jason Kidd schemed ways to contest Booker and Paul’s mid-range potency.

“They were a top-10 defense this year. I told Jason, ‘You got us,'” Williams said.

Some of that is just about shots not falling — true.

But the offense looked broken, especially on Sunday when Phoenix got out of its offense and went foul-hunting — five times by this witness’s count — within the first six minutes of the game.

Relatedly, there’s blame to send to the front office led by general manager James Jones.

Dallas dared Jae Crowder to have at it the entire series and treated Phoenix’s starting lineup like it couldn’t shoot threes.

The Suns also did not have the ball handlers to cope with Booker being aggressively attacked, Paul negated (due to injury or otherwise) and backup point guard Cam Payne playing poorly and then eliminated from the rotation entirely.

Things just never clicked this playoff run.

Phoenix only got this far because it had really good players bail the team out too often. It was a red flag early in the Pelicans series, and there was certainly zero bailing out going on in Game 7 of the Mavs series. Williams admitted he put too much on the Suns’ star guards.

It’s easy to blurt all these issues out in retrospect. And for sure, teams can’t roster-fix as flaws crop up in the playoffs.

We just slowly saw it coming, like a rolling lava flow.

All those issues get magnified with the big swing-and-miss at meeting expectations.

Deandre Ayton’s contract, Paul’s future role and the role player ecology around a Booker-centric core are all more legitimate concerns than anticipated after the past 13 games.

The Suns messed around and found out — found out that the Finals berth a year back was that rare of an opportunity, one that doesn’t just happen even if you have the same good, smart people committed to doing it again. They also found out that two other teams found ways to poke holes in their formula.

Phoenix’s players and coaches will rightfully say that they will take things learned from this year and apply it to 2022-23, like they did last year after losing in six Finals games against the Milwaukee Bucks.

“I’m not going to throw (the regular season) out just because we had a bad night,” Williams said. “We were the best team in the league all season long. We made it to the second round and lost in a Game 7 — that’s not a bad team. We’re a really good team.

“We had an off night, probably had an inconsistent two weeks if I’m being directly honest. But I’m proud of what we accomplished. These guys are the new standard of Suns basketball, and that’s something to be proud of, and the pressure and expectations is what you want.”

And now he and Jones have the challenge of meeting them now that their early success reset them.

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