Phoenix Suns carry postseason burden that requires atonement

Nov 2, 2022, 5:00 PM | Updated: 10:04 pm
General manager James Jones of the Phoenix Suns looks on after the game against the Miami Heat at F...

Stoically, they have maintained their silence. Steadfastly, they have given no explanations for their astonishing collapse in last year’s postseason.

The Phoenix Suns are saying what they must without speaking. Their demeanor is fascinating.

At 6-1, the Suns are once again atop the Western Conference. A few days into November, and they have already bagged a handful of quality wins: Mavericks, Clippers, Warriors, Pelicans, and Timberwolves. They are new yet familiar, different but same.

They are causing predictable reverberations across the NBA. Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue emphasized that the Suns are the better team for now. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr marveled at how buttoned up the Suns seemed for an early-season game. They are being framed yet again as a try-hard team that dares to care about regular season basketball. And ultimately, a team ill-constructed for the perils of a postseason, when the sport becomes something completely different.

The Suns have earned the suspicions and their skeptics. Their collapse against the Mavericks – losing by 27 points on the road in Game 6 after clowning Luka Doncic in Game 5, and trailing by 30 points at halftime of Game 7 – is a burden they all must carry. A burden that requires atonement.

But this year’s team has come out swinging. They are somehow better, even though JaVale McGee left via free agency, Jae Crowder is holding out for a trade and Chris Paul is fifth on the team in scoring. They are a team elevating on the final ascension of Devin Booker into a perennial MVP candidate; the leveling up of Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton; and a quantum leap from Cam Johnson.

The team has traded in some of its goofiness for a harder shell. They can no longer preen too much, dance too much or conduct elaborate profane pregame rituals in the tunnel. Not after the shameful way they exited last year’s postseason.

Even head coach Monty Williams seems tougher around the edges, as evidenced by his new look and his brusque handling of Ayton in the preseason. Also, his willingness to sit Paul on the bench, even in critical situations. His hand feels heavier this year, which is good. And there seems to be some much-needed emotional maturity growing inside this team.

By the end of last year’s postseason, I was appalled at how consumed the Suns had become with NBA officials. When the pressure became unbearable, they battled the referees instead of the opponent, hunting for fouls, grimacing in mock pain and hitting the floor instead of holding the line with real defense.

This year, they seem to carry real experience. Especially Booker, who showed ruthless control in his trash-talking battle with Klay Thompson, forcing the Warriors star to lose his mind and get ejected for the first time in his career.

Many will doubt their staying power, a small team with an unproven bench that might get devoured in a chessboard playoff series. But we all know general manager James Jones has a different kind of vision, and so far, his plan is working.

The impressive start has also given Jones tremendous leverage. He can trade Crowder on his terms and his timetable. Johnson’s breakout performance on Tuesday showed just how complete this team might be in a best-case scenario. And with his young core continuing to soar in perception and value, Jones might have all the pieces he needs to acquire Kevin Durant somewhere down the road.

If he wants. At his choosing. The way he likes it.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7.

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