After record regular season, Phoenix Suns aim to take it ‘all the way to the end’

A banner is up at Footprint Center as the Phoenix Suns prepare for postseason play. Their first game will be at home Sunday. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The Suns closed out the best regular season in franchise history with a 116-109 loss to the Sacramento Kings, but their focus in the season finale was getting to the playoffs healthy and rested.

Mission accomplished.

Now, the Suns await the outcome of the NBA’s play-in games to sort out their first round opponent. They open the playoffs Sunday but could face any of four teams: the Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs or New Orleans Pelicans.

The Timberwolves and Clippers play tonight with the winner advancing into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed against Memphis. The loser will face the winner of Wednesday night’s game between the Spurs and Pelicans, and the winner of that game will face the Suns in a first-round series.

Deandre Ayton and the Phoenix Suns feel confident heading into the postseason but still don’t know who their first opponent will be as they await the result of play-in games. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Suns coach Monty Williams said the Suns will prepare the same way they did last season when they finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference and advanced to the NBA Finals before falling to Milwaukee.

“We’re going to try and use the same template,” he said. “We can always pivot if we feel like we need to, but it’s almost set up identically, the same way it was last year.”

The Suns won 64 games in the regular season, beating the previous franchise record of 62 set by the Charles Barkley-led club of 1992-93 and matched by the 2004-05 Suns of Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion.

The Suns reached the NBA Finals in 1993 and fell in the Western Conference Finals in 2005. The 2021-22 Suns are anticipating another deep run with the goal of delivering the franchise’s first NBA title.

All of which made the regular-season finale a chance to rest the team’s starters, give reserves additional playing time and allow sixth-man Cameron Johnson to knock off some rust after returning late in the season from a quadriceps contusion.

Williams said it was “huge” to get Johnson some minutes against the Kings “just to keep his conditioning and all of that.”

“I almost put him back in there,” Williams said. “I mean, the competitive side of me wanted to get him back out there, but I thought we got exactly what we wanted to get out of him.”

Mikal Bridges was the only starter who even played against the Kings, and he was on the floor for only six minutes to keep his career ironman streak alive. He hasn’t missed a game in his four NBA seasons, and led the NBA this season in total minutes played.

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Williams joked that if he had played Bridges 47 minutes, the 6-foot-6 forward would have been wondering why he didn’t get to play all 48.

“Like, that’s Mikal,” Williams told reporters after the game. “Book (Devin Booker) is the same way. Those guys mumble more at me when they’re coming out of the game than any players I’ve ever coached.

“I love guys that want to play. I don’t want guys that are racing to the bench and hiding. I love the fact that all of our guys want to be on the floor.”

Given the opportunity to play added minutes, guard Landry Shamet scored a season-high 27 points against Sacramento, a potential breakout for a player who had an up-and-down season while averaging 8.3 points a game. He will be relied upon to spell Booker in the playoffs.

Shamet told reporters he believes the game will help him gain a rhythm entering the playoffs, and so will the team’s practices leading up to the post-season opener.

“Even though we lost the game tonight, there’s still things we’ll take away from it and look at, like from our second unit since that’s ultimately who played,” Shamet said.

The Suns added Shamet to backup Booker and provide another 3-point threat off the bench. He hit five 3-point shots against the Kings, his fourth game of five or more 3s since the second week of March.

“One thing we’ve always said to our guys is ‘Make or miss, you’ve got to let it fly,’” Williams said. “And he did that. I thought he was pretty good.”

Reserve center Bismack Biyambo said the Suns are prepared for the challenge of the playoffs, and for the atmosphere that comes with them.

“As an athlete, the playoffs should motivate you,” he said after the Sacramento game. “You can’t just play basketball to play basketball. And I think at this point, you look forward to this energy, the city, the fans. The level of focus rises.

“I think we’re all looking forward to that. But again, I think at this point it’s just understanding that we’re the No. 1 seed going into the playoffs, and we have a job to do – it’s to maintain that position all the way to the end.”

Kobe Blackwell koh-bee
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Kobe Blackwell expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Blackwell, who has interned with SLAM as a production assistant and reporter, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.