PHOENIX – Entering the 2022 postseason, the Phoenix Suns were confident. With 64 regular-season wins, the most in franchise history, and sitting atop the Western Conference for the first time since 2005, savvy experts forecasted smooth sailing to back-to-back Finals appearances for the Suns.
However, as history has so cruelly shown, the postseason in the Valley is a foggy experience.
The Suns blew a 2-0 series lead to the Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals, losing Game 7 on Phoenix’s home court in embarrassing fashion, 123-90. With expectations hanging high, the Suns falling extremely short made it much harder to brace for the harsh crash into reality.
The Game 7 loss was heartbreaking but not new for the Suns. Soul-crushing defeats, blown series leads and inexcusable performances have become a staple in Arizona. In the previous year, the Suns were up 2-0 against the Milwaukee Bucks with a chance to win their first Larry O’Brien trophy, but those dreams were quickly shot down when the Suns dropped four straight. The physical demand to reach that point is astronomical, but the mental toll might be the hardest to bear.
“You want to try your best to win four games, then four more, then four more, and then four more. I think that’s the beauty of our sport,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s a challenging journey. I’ll never forget how tired I was after Game 6 in Milwaukee on that plane. How tired I was two weeks later, the emotional side, it had nothing to do with one or two teams.
“It’s a tough, tough burden.”
It was the franchise’s first Finals berth since 1993, when it had experienced the agony of defeat once again thanks to a last-second go-ahead 3-pointer by John Paxson. The years between those two appearances are filled with much of the same disappointing playoff outings and a decade straight of loitering in the lottery that have caused fans to pull at their hair and continue the redundant proclamation that next year will be the year.
So while the Suns are primed for another postseason run, the excitement around Phoenix is high but has a slight sense of hesitation behind it. For the first time since 2005-2008, Phoenix has made the postseason for its third straight year, which began at the end of a 10-year playoff drought.
However, the 2022-23 season isn’t like the previous two, as the first few months were marred by injuries suffered by Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton and others, causing a sluggish start. Once healthy and after acquiring 13-time All-Star Kevin Durant midseason, the team resumed its superb play.
Since Jan. 19, the Suns tied for the third-best record in the association at 24-13.
“This is a great structure, a great foundation,” Durant said. “I think everyone in here wants to be a great ball player, a great teammate, and want to go out there and win basketball games.”
The name recognition with players like Booker and Durant would make one believe their scoring prowess is the reason for their success, but it’s the opposite. Phoenix has recorded the fourth-best defensive rating in the league with 112.5 since Jan. 19. Booker and Durant deserved a bulk of the credit for stepping up on the defensive end, but Williams thinks his role players understand the “meat and potatoes” of what he wants to do and have stepped up massively.
“The one thing that stands out to me is that everybody on the bench is adaptive,” Williams said. “They have an expectation that they’re going to be solid, a higher expectation that they can win you a game. We’ve seen that this year, guys playing games, and then when they step on the floor, whether it’s a stop or two or three shots that changed the game. I think that’s something that we’ve learned, and there’s some versatility there.
“As far as the bigger guys, we have men on the bench now (with) Ish (Wainwright), TJ (Warren), and Torrey (Craig). Those guys come into the game, and they can stand you up, and I call them rock haters. They just bring it every time they step on the floor. That’s something we haven’t had in years past.”
This recent success continues the trend for Phoenix of finishing the regular season strong. In 2022, the Suns ended on a 34-9 stretch, and the year prior, they blazed to a 30-10 record en route to a Finals appearance. The success in the second half of the season has been apparent for the last three years.
Despite that, the anxiety around the Valley is high as the Suns finished the regular season at 45-37, earning the fourth seed, which is significant for many reasons. In the 21st century, an NBA team has never won the title with less than 50 wins in an 82-game regular season. The last time was in 1995, when the 47-35 Houston Rockets beat the second-seeded Suns on that run. At the same time, the fourth seed hasn’t produced an NBA champion in 55 years.
Only two NBA champions have come outside the top three seeds of either conference. Over 87% of the league’s champions have come from the first or second seeds. The past two NBA champions were three seeds in the Warriors and Bucks. That is the first time since 1977 and 1978 that back-to-back No. 3 seeds or below have won the title. It has never happened three years in a row, so the Suns would etch their name in the history books with a Finals win.
Another factor going against the Suns is former NBA championship coach and Hall of Famer Phil Jackson’s 40/20 rule, which states that a team must win 40 games before its 20th loss to be considered a title contender. This rule has been correct in predicting the last 16 champions in an 82-game regular season, with the 2004 Detroit Pistons (33-20) being the last team to break that mold.
The Suns only had 20 wins when they recorded their 20th loss, but similar to the ‘04 Pistons, Phoenix made some significant changes midway through the year.
At the 2004 trade deadline, the Pistons were part of a three-team swap that sent four-time All-Star Rasheed Wallace to Detroit, helping the franchise finish the regular season on a 20-6 stretch en route to an NBA title. Flash-forward 19 years, and the most significant move at this year’s deadline was the acquisition of Durant, which has raised the Suns’ title chances tenfold.
“It’s Kevin telling me to, ‘Sit down and give me the ball,’” Williams said. “We knew once we got him that there was going to be some simplicity involved … He’s a big target. You just throw him the ball. You don’t need to look really cute with play calls and misdirections to do what you want to do.”
Phoenix is undefeated in eight games with Durant, who is averaging 26 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on 57% shooting from the field as a Sun. While a small sample size, it is a sign of the team’s potential when fully healthy.
“Chemistry matters, being on the same page with your team matters. In a perfect world, I want to play more than eight games with this team,” Durant said. “I’ve been in the league for 15 years playing, 16 years around the league, and so (I’ve been) playing with so many different players under so many different coaches. I knew a few coaches here before I got here. I’m going to have a couple of teammates that I played with before I got here. I think that stuff adds up and helps speed that transition.”
Whether the Suns stay healthy and copy the Pistons’ date with destiny is up in the air right now. Piling up all the unwritten rules and history going against Phoenix, the odds aren’t in their favor. The task ahead would be challenging for any NBA team, especially for a team that has laced it up healthy for only eight games.
“It just feels really close, really close, despite not having a lot of games together,” Suns small forward Josh Okogie said. “A lot of these guys you see in the offseason. You already got to know (Durant) a little bit before. It’s not like bringing in a new person. We spend a lot of time together even though some of those guys are out. They’re always around.”
The talent is there, but what about the cohesion? Phoenix’s sketchy postseason past makes it hard for fans not to be pessimistic. However, for the players in the building, it doesn’t affect their psyche. The hurdles are visible for Williams and his team. All they can do is look ahead, do the work, and not worry about possible setbacks.
“I think there’s advantages and disadvantages, but I don’t think you can overcome those disadvantages any other way than putting the work in,” Williams said. “There’s no easy route to success. I don’t think we have that expectation, like our guys understand that we have to embrace hard.
“I’ve said that, ‘Everything you want is on the other side of hard.’ We’re just trying to get the mentality of understanding that there’s no easy route. If it were only advantages, it probably wouldn’t be worth it.”