Kevin C. Cox / Associated Press
For all the unfinished business the NBA tried to end with its resumption of Disney World, the fate of the Phoenix Suns was never in doubt. They were just there, invited to fill the schedule, as offspring and not threats, pulling them into another lottery already sealed.
So much for that.
With their 130-117 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, the Sun is now a perfect 7-0 in the bubble and, most importantly, a heartbeat away from qualifying for the post-season play-off tournament.
You read all of this properly.
Not to be lost amidst the euphoria, the Phoenix fate is not entirely its own. A win over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday would go a long way toward strengthening its play-off performance but should also be accompanied by a Memphis Grizzlies loss to the Milwaukee Bucks or a Portland Trail Blazers loss to the Brooklyn nets.
Likewise, it is mentioned that, whatever happens, most of the 2019-20 season unfolded outside Disney. The sun is still calmer below .500, more than throwing a stone or two away from claiming the title – or even blocking game status. They had to remain perfect just to have a chance to enter the postpartum season, where, in all likelihood, they would serve as a first step in the first round for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Still, who cares? They had no expectation of getting into the bubble or even a distant chance of hitting the play-off tournament after the season. They do now.
Almost everything about them is a revelation. Devin Booker’s game is not. These past seven games are just a small exaggeration of how restrained he is this season. Scoring, efficiency, passing, clear command of the game – none of this is new. His numbers, while on strike, are not miles from normal:
Indeed, adding a trademark moment to victory – a winner of games like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard – is the most drastic change to his resumes. The novelty of his stardom is the degree to which he is being recognized and accepted, not that everything exists. Phoenix has a player capable of leading a really good team now, just like before.
Bleacher report @BleacherReport
DEVIN BOOKER GAME-WINNER 🚨 https://t.co/4QAeIRNiA6
All the others, together, are epiphanies. Where the Sun was previously occupying that dizzying space between reconstruction and sub-mediocrity, they rather seem to have laid the groundwork to climb out of the NBA vacuum.
The point of a better perspective stands out in the rest of the list, from Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges to Cameron Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr. But that growth never merged into Phoenix’s sustainability is now champion. Seven games is a drop in the bucket compared to the grand scheme. For the Sun, it is also far and away their longest winning belt of the Booker era.
Essentially, Ayton looks like part of a workable number 2 at both ends of the floor.
His marking opportunities come both in the course of the work and, when necessary, by himself, and he has worked more with three pointers in his arsenal. His defense is tougher and more rounded. He has consistently held unfavorable switches and has a stronger presence online. Opponents are shooting 8.7 percentage points worse than their average within six legs of the basket when he is challenging them.
Bridge protection was already a given – perhaps not fully appreciated, but known. His appearance has come in offense. He looks calmer on his skin, impatient to attack downhill and less reluctant to unwashed trees. His decision-making on discs is no longer a hidden gem, he has even been hinted at as an attractive trio:
Jackson Frank @jackfrank_jjf
Mikal Bridge Attraction 3. Splash. https://t.co/yklhV5WZJm
Johnson, general election number 11 in 2019, has surpassed the impressions of the day in principle essentially throughout the season. His outward touch is real – his 35.9 percent bubble clip is below his seasonal mark of 39.2 percent – and it does not fade. Decisions to shoot, dribble or pass are made quickly.
Rubio has long provided an air of consistency, someone who lightens the load from Booker’s front when they play well and lives to split in defense. He’s an imperfect player, yes, but he was giving the Sun a boost before.
Some of what is happening at Disney will be more interesting. Rubio clip 43.5 percent for the bow will not hold. Nor will Cameron Payne hit half of his territory forever. Jevon Carter will take up defensive duties in the parking lot until the end of time, but his scoring efficiency – 54.2 percent from a distance – will go down.
There is merit to the way the Phoenix limits the appearance of three points, but its six-ball defense after the restoration cannot be considered the new standard. Dario Saric going scorched earth is a real surprise.
Is it weird that the Suns are doing this without Aron Baynes? And Oubre? And on a more macro level, who knows how much the resumption informs the future. They have faced Gix League rematch of the Sixers and Oklahoma City Thunder, along with a Miami Heat squad that did not have Jimmy Butler or Goran Dragic.
Ashley Landis / Associated Press
Tough calls await exclusivity as well. Baynes and Saric (limited) are close proxies. The bench needs relief for creating long-term shots, and Payne is probably not the answer.
Phoenix would do well to stick to the current five starts of Rubio, Booker, Bridges, Johnson and Ayton, which owns a net rating plus-25.9, but which complicates the adaptation of Oubre. He has one year left on his contract and does not have all the games to pilot the lineup as the main initiator. Do the Suns buy it? What can they get for it? And what can they possibly attach to it without mortgaging their future too much?
Playing in the West only complicates matters. It is a pleasure to say that the Sun is on the verge of full squabbling for next season. It’s another thing for them to support it.
At the moment, all 15 teams profile as play off hope next year. Some will inevitably leave themselves, but the conference will not be low enough compared to this season. Phoenix has read a lot in false beginnings and not beginnings before. Doubt on this basis is not without risk.
And yet, the nuts and bolts of the Sun’s biggest figure are a matter of another day, at a time when their season is over. For now, it is not so. And if they bow before the play-off tournament, lose during it or gain the right to cheat the Lakers for five-year-old games, they have won the hold.
Being here at all, in the position of even dreaming about the offspring, is an enviable action and not taken lightly. It does not matter what happened before or that it has taken an unprecedented format of games amid a global pandemic to get the Suns this opportunity.
They have it, they are exploiting it the most, and in doing so, they have left a lasting impression that, a little champion in mind, feels more like a manifestation than a stop.
Unless otherwise stated, NBA.com statistics courtesy, Basketball Reference or Window Cleaning and current go-to games on Wednesday. Salary information and retention information through Indoor Basketball, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Knocks on the hardwood podcast, co-hosted by Adam Fromal of B / R.