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Dogged determination keeping Suns on track for a Finals return

Despite potential injury and COVID momentum-crushers, Phoenix has looked strong as it seeks a return to The Finals.

Devin Booker and Suns coach Monty Williams have helped Phoenix thrive a season after their Finals trip.

When the Suns lost the NBA Finals last summer, there wasn’t a sense of doom or dread or any of the emotions that often follow a franchise in that situation. No, they weren’t finished. In a sense, they were just getting started.

And so: What you’ve seen from Phoenix since then is the continuation of a journey that has legs, that is lapping the field this season, that is laced with revenge, that seems juiced for a deep run through this postseason and maybe a return trip to the promised land.

That’s not a frivolous forecast: The Suns, in every way, are showing to be the best-equipped team to keep flourishing, based on their overall dominance — with and without Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

They’ve been without those All-Stars on and off all season — Paul is currently mending from a wrist fracture — and yet haven’t missed a beat, grabbing the top spot in the West well before the All-Star break and stretching their lead to nearly double-digits. They’re clearly the best team in the NBA record-wise, and the eye test is putting up a convincing argument as well.

“We have a standard of play that we want to live up to, so we never want to lower that standard,” said coach Monty Williams.

The Suns seem immune from slumps, poor play, recklessness and intimidation. They’ve been fortified by a pair of monster stretches: An 18-game winning streak and also 18 wins in a 19-game span. Plus, along the way, they’ve flexed themselves against other contenders, beating the Grizzlies by 25, the Nuggets by 29, the Celtics by 21, a recent 21-point win over the Heat and a feel-good 24-point thrashing of the defending champion Bucks.

Want more? They’ve beaten every team in the league, a first for them since 2006-07, and are currently one of only three teams with top-10 rankings offensively and defensively.

Phoenix spent the season making statements and staying focused. That’s serving them well while they wait on Paul’s return in a few weeks and brace for what possibly lies ahead once the playoffs start.

With the Suns establishing a clear hold on the top spot out West, the rest of the contenders are vying for a spot as primary challenger.

As Booker said: “We know what we’re working for.”

There are scores of examples of championship runners-up who never returned to the same level the following season. This is often due to the usual trap doors of free agency, injuries, or mainly because the competition simply got better.

The injuries suffered by Booker (hamstring, back in December) and Paul (thumb) weren’t major or season-ending, so the Suns dodged a hurdle in that regard. Also, those injuries weren’t simultaneous, and therefore the Suns mostly had one in uniform while the other was out for an extended time.

“I know the guys are going to hold it down,” Paul said when his injury occurred and shelved him an estimated six-to-eight weeks.

Even more, the depth of the rotation spared the Suns from any costly punishment. Booker was able to assume much of the point guard duties without Paul, and it was a return of sorts for Booker, who was the club’s point guard-by-default during his first few years in the NBA. Booker overall has delivered a tremendous season that will surely give him some All-NBA notice; he’s averaging 29 points (on 53%-42% shooting), 7.8 assists and two steals since Paul went down, looming large whenever the Suns need a late fourth-quarter bucket.

Just as well, Paul was steady once again before the thumb injury, leading the NBA in assists at age 36 and directing the club by meeting his usual lofty standards.

Then there’s center Deandre Ayton. He was victimized in The Finals by Giannis Antetokounmpo and, of all the Suns, had the most to prove this season — especially because he was entering an extension-eligible summer. Ayton didn’t receive the rookie max he demanded, and it was surprising the Suns hesitated, although the club can extend him next summer.

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Rather than pout, Ayton responded with an uptick in his play, averaging 17 points mainly off the screen and roll and 10 rebounds. He still lacks the rim-protecting instincts the Suns were hoping he’d develop, but he’s also far from being a poor defender.

Speaking of that: Mikal Bridges, who did get an extension, is building a case for making All-Defensive with his length and ability to guard multiple positions and along the perimeter.

Therefore, when the Suns dealt with Booker’s hamstring and COVID absences, and Paul’s thumb, the Suns felt confident they could cover for those losses and keep winning. Which they have.

“We know how to adjust,” Ayton.

The growth of the Suns isn’t restricted to the players. Williams has come a long way as coach, from being temperamental and rigid with the Pelicans to a more relaxed and receptive leader on the Suns’ bench. This maturity actually jump-started a year ago, and Williams is using this season to demonstrate his value.

Williams has kept the Suns on the right page, never allowed them to relax during prosperous times, and is selling the club on the value of teamwork and defense and ball-sharing.

In all, the Suns offer few weaknesses throughout the basketball operation. In that sense, the club is mirroring the success of the Charles Barkley years, when the rotation was deep, the ascent in the West was high, and the staying power seemed convincing.

We have a standard of play that we want to live up to, so we never want to lower that standard.”

— Suns coach Monty Williams

Those teams also didn’t win a title, with Barkley and Kevin Johnson and company coming up short in 1993 against the Michael Jordan Bulls. Phoenix never got another shot, falling victim over the next few years to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets in the West, and a team re-do was necessary.

Those dreams, therefore, suffered a quicker-than-expected death. Just like that, new and better contenders than Phoenix moved beyond the Suns and took their spot. The Sonics with Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton took a swing, then the Karl Malone-John Stockton Jazz, and then the Spurs paired Tim Duncan with David Robinson and, well, you know the rest.

That doesn’t appear to be the case with the current Suns. This is a team that’s well balanced with a mix of vets and young players and is built to last. None of the key pieces are aging besides Paul, and he’s still at star-level.

“We have a lot of guys who are selfless and look out for one another,” Booker said.

With LeBron James and Anthony Davis having issues in Los Angeles, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George still in street clothes with the Clippers, and given the uncertainty surrounding Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. and when/if they will join Nikola Jokic in Denver, the scenario seems ripe for a potential return to The Finals for Phoenix. Yes, the Warriors have reloaded with Klay Thompson, but the depth of challengers in the West is weaker than what the Bucks are seeing in the East.

Anyway: For now, the Suns are enjoying the view from the top. They’re on the verge of 60 wins and a solid bet to hold home-court advantage throughout the postseason. At 27-6, they are, by far, the best road team in the league. Everything is working in their favor, and everyone else is aiming for them. Several months after losing to the Bucks in six, the Suns couldn’t have worked up a better scenario in this, their Statement Season.

“We just come together, man,” Booker said. “It’s fun to be a part of. Just everybody versus us.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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