EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ gauntlet of high-end opponents begins at stretch run of tight West race

Mar 1, 2024, 5:21 PM

Devin Booker and Frank Vogel...

Devin Booker #1 and head coach Frank Vogel of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game against the Indiana Pacers at Footprint Center on January 21, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Pacers 117-110. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Following Saturday’s third game in nine days against the Houston Rockets, the Phoenix Suns will have 22 games left in the schedule.

Thirteen are against the best of the best in the NBA, a grouping of seven teams that are all at least 17 games over .500 entering play on Friday.

Phoenix has two games remaining against the Boston Celtics (46-12), Cleveland Cavaliers (38-20), Denver Nuggets (41-19) Los Angeles Clippers (37-20), Minnesota Timberwolves (42-17) and Oklahoma City Thunder (41-18), with one more coming versus the Milwaukee Bucks (39-21).

The other nine games include four opponents above .500. It’s a grueling stretch run to end the season, and it comes when Phoenix is competing to stay out of the play-in tournament.

Currently fifth in the Western Conference, the Suns at 35-24 will be in the mix alongside the 35-25 New Orleans Pelicans, 34-25 Dallas Mavericks, 33-25 Sacramento Kings, 33-28 Los Angeles Lakers and 31-27 Golden State Warriors. The Lakers, Mavericks and Warriors are all currently in strong form. The Pelicans since dropping five in a row across early November have been rock solid, going on just four total losing streaks since. Sacramento is the only team with some slight volatility to it at the moment.

How Phoenix stacks up against the true title contenders in the NBA will not only tell us how ready it is for the postseason but will also likely determine its fate between avoiding the tournament or not.

“I think that’s how it should be,” Suns guard Devin Booker said Thursday. “You want to play these games late in the season [against] teams that you might see and already kind of get in the flow of ramping it up and just getting a taste of what the playoffs is gonna feel like.”

There are two particularly taxing sections of the schedule. With OKC visiting on Sunday, it’s then Denver, the Toronto Raptors, Boston, Cleveland and Boston. And the last 10 games of the year are Denver, OKC, New Orleans, Cleveland, Minnesota, New Orleans, a Clippers back-to-back, Sacramento and Minnesota again.

Sunday’s Thunder matchup will be a great benchmark to show us how ready the Suns are for this. Obviously, the health of Bradley Beal (left hamstring injury management) looms over not only that game but the rest of the regular season. The Suns need him. Now. And the good news for them is he’s listed as probable for Saturday.

OKC has been every part of an elite basketball team this season. Third in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating, the Thunder are the only other team in the top five of both besides Boston (first and second, respectively).

They are led by MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and are incredibly efficient. Gilgeous-Alexander (31.2 points per game), Jalen Williams (19.3 PPG) and Chet Holmgren (17.2 PPG) all shoot 54% from the field.

All of OKC’s perimeter shooters are snipers, too for the exception of Josh Giddey (32.1 3P%), helping it lead the NBA in 3-point percentage (39.6%) and they also pace the league in free throw percentage (83.2%). The Thunder have seven players that attempt at least 2.5 3s a night and Giddey is the only one below 39%.

General manager Sam Presti nailed it again, assembling a ball-handling hydra predicated on basketball IQ, playmaking and versatility off the bounce. Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams are both stellar options leading the offense, and they aren’t even the best providers on the team. That’s Giddey. Holmgren, at 7-foot-1 no less, can do some things with his dribble, too. First-round pick Cason Wallace is a perfect 3-and-D supporting guard already and will do that stuff in time, too. OKC added veteran Gordon Hayward on the buyout market as well, a perfect match for its style of play.

It’s what modern basketball is all about and the Thunder were ahead of the curve.

The only, and by only I mean only reason OKC isn’t considered amongst the title favorites is experience. Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort are the lone holdovers from the playoff rotation during the Chris Paul year in the bubble. Gilgeous-Alexander (25 years old) and Dort (24) are the elder statesmen as well. Williams (22), Holmgren (21), Giddey (21) and Wallace (20) are all pups.

To compare it to the 2021 Suns that were postseason babies in their own right, for the exception of the recently acquired Hayward, there is no Jae Crowder or Paul on this team.

But the Thunder could absolutely still make the Finals this year. They are that talented and together as a team. It is a marquee sampler for what lies ahead for the Suns in these last six weeks.

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