I think we can all agree, as we exhale the breath we’ve been holding since Devin Booker went down in Game 2, thank God that series is over.
With their victory on Thursday night over the New Orleans Pelicans, the Phoenix Suns move on to the Western Conference Semifinals and will face Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. You have to give props to the squad coached by Willie Green throughout the series. They were tough, tenacious, didn’t back down, played with speed and quickness, pestered the Suns, and drove them to the verge of frustration.
And Phoenix is better for it.
The Suns concluded the regular season with a record of 64-18, the greatest in team history. They finished 8 games ahead of the NBA’s second-best team, the Memphis Grizzlies, but did not necessarily finish strong. They weren’t forced to. That was how far ahead of the competition they were.
They clinched the Pacific Division on March 22 and locked up the best record in the NBA on March 25 — nearly a month before the playoffs started.
The team hadn’t played a truly meaningful basketball game since then. They were going through the process of ending the regular season rather than competing for playoff seeding like most of the NBA. The final two weeks of the season saw the Suns go 4-4 as they were spending their time focusing on staying healthy rather than collecting wins. Their priority was ensuring the team was prepared for a long playoff run.
The other side of that coin was the Pelicans, a team that had to play in the play-in game and win twice simply to make the playoffs.
New Orleans had to battle their way in, and as a result, they entered the playoffs firing on all of their available cylinders. It’s the equivalent of a team having to play the second night of a back-to-back. While some believe that resting players on the first night of a back-to-back is a good idea, others say that you should just play them. The theory is that they will perform better over the course of both games because they are simply in rhythm.
That’s what the Pelicans had entering the series against the Phoenix Suns. Rhythm. And that is something that the Suns didn’t really have.
This series against the Pelicans may turn out to be just the blessing that this team needed. New Orleans pushed them. They forced the Suns to push back. It was a galvanizing series that reminded Phoenix that, although they marched through the regular season with ease, the playoffs are a different kind of challenge.
They snapped the Suns out of their end-of-season sleepwalking ways.
We often compare this team to the 2014 San Antonio Spurs – or at least I do – which was a team that upset LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals that season. That team was known for ball movement, team play, defense, and the ability to play as a symbiotic being against some of the greatest talents in the NBA. Let’s not forget that their journey to the championship also began with a tough first series.
Reminder: All year long, the Suns have been compared to that 2014 San Antonio Spurs team that lost in the Finals the year before, ripped through the league and then won the title.
That Spurs team got taken to 7 games in the first round by the 8-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
—Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) April 25, 2022
They too needed to get pushed around before locking in and making a run towards a championship.
What the Phoenix Suns recently went through is something that I believe will be extremely beneficial to them during this playoff run. They needed a punch to the face. They needed to be pressured to make adjustments. They needed to make the most of the depth at their disposal.
It was important for Monty Williams to use his depth, especially this early in the postseason. Some coaches – I’m looking at you Mike D’Antoni – fall in love with short rotations in the playoffs. And rightfully so. You want your most talented players out there playing all of the minutes when all of it is on the line. I get it. And I’ve seen it fail.
When you have as many weapons as the Phoenix Suns, depth allows you to throw different lineups at the opponent with varying degrees of energy, offensive skill, and defensive prowess. This compels them to make changes. This is an example of imposing your will.
We saw this from Monty Williams as a result of how the Pelicans performed. He wanted to stay with his guys. He wanted to play Torrey Craig, but he finally made the correct call and rested him for the series’ last two victories. New Orleans forced his hand and he responded. It’s exactly what both Coach Mont and the Suns needed. To be pushed to that point.
This series was no stroll in the park. Each victory had to be earned by the Suns. As a result, they reengaged and improved with each game. The aim is that they can maintain this flow and play their best basketball during the most crucial time of the year.
Respect to the Pelicans, who pushed Phoenix and drove them to improve. The Phoenix Suns are better as a result. “All playoff series are hard. This is not an 8th seed. No way,” Monty said after the series.
Bring on Dallas.
Game one against the Dallas Mavericks is scheduled for Monday, May 2, at 7:00 PM AZ time.