“This is a get to, not a got to,” Head Coach Monty Williams continues to preach to his team.
The Phoenix Suns entered the Orlando bubble with nearly insurmountable odds to advance past the seeding games and into the postseason. Entering into play as the No. 13 seed in the Western Conference, the Suns had little room for error in order to keep their playoff-hopes alive.
With four of eight games played, the Suns are not only gaining valuable experience on the court, but have joined the defending champion Toronto Raptors as the only undefeated teams in the bubble. Sitting at 4-0 to restart the season, the Suns have brought the Arizona heat to Orlando as arguably the hottest team in the NBA.
While some other players and teams may feel trapped inside the bubble, the Suns have instead instilled a competitive mentality and are quickly seizing the opportunity that was granted to them.
“We can complain about it or we can look at what we get to do,” Williams said. “We’re here. There are teams that aren’t here. We worked our way into this bubble and we want to take advantage of that. The good thing is we get to hoop and we get to compete. We’ve got a small shot at making the playoffs and that’s something that we are grateful for.”
The Suns were the youngest team invited to the bubble and have been able to use this time to accelerate their growth on the court as well as build stronger relationships with each other off of it.
“This has the potential to be so much more valuable for us than any other team here,” Williams said. “Because of the experience, because of the games, because we have a chance to just be together without a lot of distractions. We’re going back to the hotel together. We eat together. The guys watch games together. That time spent is probably worth two training camps for a team like ours. It’s been huge for us to be in this environment.”
Suns Senior VP of Basketball Operations Jeff Bower believes that regardless if the Suns are going to be playing for two weeks or two months, these games are crucial for the development and future of the organization.
“The importance is in many different ways and in many different areas,” Bower said. “We're playing the games to compete and to win - is what our objective and our goal is for each and every game. Obviously, our first objective for being here is to try and chase that playoff spot. That is the target. Now moving beyond that, our objectives are deeper in terms of growth, development and the progress that we can continue to build on during this season and the momentum that is generated into the future.”
The bubble has provided the Suns a platform to prove themselves across the league as well as commit all their focus on one thing, basketball.
“It's a totally immersive basketball experience for everybody associated with it,” Bower said.“There's no travel time. There are no distractions. We've got a three-hour block of practice during the day and then we have an additional two-hour block of time in the evening for individual work and shooting fundamentals. The combination of those timeframes have put our guys in position for an increased number of reps and an increased amount of time to be on the floor together. We have seen great growth coming at a fairly rapid pace. When you add in games now to provide that extra and immediate feedback, you're able to see the results of your labor and you're able to see the areas that need further attention, further growth and further concentration.”
The results are surely paying off as the Suns are making headlines by showing a glimpse into what the future of this team may hold. The entire roster is rallying together as one cohesive unit and are quickly developing into a squad that competes night-in and night-out due to their high energy, tenacity and pure determination to not back down from anyone.
“We're seeing good play from the younger players that are helping the more established guys,” Bower said. “The progress that Mikal has shown in these games and Cam Johnson. Cam Payne has been a nice addition for us here. Those are all real bright spots. Overall, probably the greatest thing to see is the collective spirit that our guys play the game with on the court and the support they show each other off of the court. That sense of team and that sense of carrying the load to help your teammate out is something that's very real and is very needed to be successful over the course of an NBA grind. Not only are we seeing our players exhibit that naturally, but it's authentic and it's real. It's built by the times that they've shared together.”
The Suns have caught the attention from around the league due their resilient play in their victories against the Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana Pacers. The team has taken this situation seriously and has embraced the opportunity to compete with open arms in order to prove that they belong.
“As a group, our collective mindset is not that we're stuck in the bubble - it's that we have an opportunity to be here together, to grow, to learn and to improve as a team,” Bower said. “Because of that mindset, we've been able to attack each day and we've been able to spend incredible amounts of time at both high levels of intensity and then total levels of relaxation. The guys eat together. They fish together. They play various games together. Players, coaches, staff, it's been an experience that everyone has been able to learn a little bit more about their colleagues. They've had to rely on them for companionship as well as competition to be better. As an organization, it's an opportunity for us to grow, to improve and to establish who we want to be moving forward.”
This camaraderie has ventured far beyond just the players as Bower has seen the entire staff working together, learning from each other and growing as one. With this still being the inaugural season for Williams and the rest of the Suns staff, this opportunity gives them the chance to experiment with new techniques as well as build a more united club from the top down.
“Many of the same things that we've said about our team and our players applies to our staff as well,” Bower said. “The interaction between the coaching staff, the training staff, the player development staff and the strength and conditioning staff, it's all integrated. The connectedness that they're functioning with every day is a great example for our team to see.”
The Suns have dramatically shifted their playoff odds and turned many heads throughout the first half of the seeding games, but Williams is trying his best to keep the team as grounded as possible, knowing that there are much higher goals to reach for.
“The excitement level is obviously pretty high, but at the same time you have to temper it because there is so much at stake and your focus has to be at a place where emotion doesn’t take over,” Williams said. “It’s one practice at a time, one video session at a time, one game at a time. That’s how we are going to look at it. We know we have eight games in fourteen days, but we are more than prepared for it. We’re excited about the ability and the chance to compete against the best teams in the league.”
The road that lies ahead will be challenging for the Suns as the remaining schedule features four teams that have already clinched a playoff spot (Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks). But instead of backing down, the Suns are accepting the task at hand in order to cement their place in the league.
“Our schedule here is incredibly difficult when you see the quality of the teams that we have in front of us,” Bower said. “If we can continue down this path and make it to the play-in games or the playoffs, we will certainly have earned it. We would have done that through outstanding play with some consistency habits that we're going to be able embed in us as a core group moving along into next year.”
With four games remaining, the Suns join the Toronto Raptors as the only two undefeated teams in the bubble. Phoenix currently sits just 1.5 games out of the No. 9 seed and a chance at the play-in matchup between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds. As six teams are battling it out for the final two spots in the Western Conference, the competition level is at an all-time high and the Suns have their focus set on making history.
“We’re playing in a highly intense environment against the best teams and players in the world,” Williams said. “That’s something that our fans, I hope, appreciate. I hope that we make our fans happy with how we play.”
For a more in-depth visual inside inside the bubble, tune-in this Sunday on FOX Sports Arizona as well as the Suns YouTube Channel at 5:30 p.m. PT as we take you behind-the-scenes in this week’s episode of “Don’t Sleep on Basketball.”
Don’t Sleep on Basketball is a content series that captures the unprecedented times we’re facing through the lens of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. Basketball sits at the intersection of culture, entertainment and sport, which puts the Suns & Mercury organization in the perfect position to serve as participant, voyeur and storyteller during this unparalleled era. The dynamic initiative is available across multiple mediums, including FOX Sports Arizona, Suns and Mercury social channels, YouTube, and editorially on Suns.com.