When everyone counts you out, what do you have to lose?
The Phoenix Suns were the youngest team to enter the bubble, but you would never be able to tell by their dominating run against the league’s premiere competition under the bright lights in Orlando. Despite all of the odds stacked against them, the Suns shocked the basketball world with an undefeated 8-0 record while leaving every last ounce of sweat and effort on the hardwood.
“It's been fun,” Devin Booker said. “We’ve been playing very good basketball. We’ve been having fun on and off the court together. We’re becoming closer. We’re learning from each other and we’re communicating with each other. We’re taking it one game at a time. That’s been our mindset since we’ve got here.”
The Suns locker room heard all the chatter, or lack thereof, when entering the bubble. Instead of allowing these voices to get them down, the Suns used that negativity and ‘impossible’ odds as motivation to show that they belonged.
“I just think that we have a group that wanted to come here and wanted to prove to the world that they were worthy of being here,” Head Coach Monty Williams said. “They heard a lot of the stuff being said. When people say stuff about you, you want to prove them wrong. This is who we are. We’ve been this competitive all year. We’ve been a scrappy team. We play hard. We share the ball. We’ve tried to stick to our DNA.”
Finishing as the only undefeated team throughout the seeding games, there became a complete shift in their narrative. From virtually no mention besides the occasional, ‘Why are they invited?’ to becoming the leading story in the bubble, the Suns carved their place in underdog history joining the likes of the 1976 ‘Sunderella’ Suns, the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the 2007 ‘We Believe’ Warriors.
“They didn't have expectations entering the bubble or even a remote chance at cracking the play-in tournament and postseason,” Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale said. “To be here at all, in position to even dream about the postseason, is an enviable feat and not to be taken lightly. It doesn't matter what happened before or that it has taken an unprecedented playoff format amid a global pandemic to get the Suns this opportunity…They have it, they're making the most of it, and in doing so, they've left a lasting impression that, small sample in mind, feels more like a manifestation than a stopgap.”
The Suns have taken tremendous strides throughout Williams’ inaugural coaching season with the franchise. His impact on the court and in the locker room have inspired the Suns to unite together, grow together and shine together. But despite all the accomplishments the team has reached along the way, Williams knows this is not the end goal.
“What’s working for us is that we’ve committed to a style of play,” Williams said. “We’ve been able to adapt to different situations. We scrapped all year long, we won some games, but it’s been an uphill battle for us. We’ve done a good job of getting to this point. No one knew we were going to be here, but we’re here and we’re thankful for that.”
The Suns have gained the respect from their NBA peers, the media and fans of all teams across the league, providing a heart-warming story of resiliency. Their success on the court has proven that not only did the Suns belong in the bubble, but they have the ability to compete with anyone.
“That's huge for us as an organization,” Williams. “It's huge for us as a team. There was some sentiment before this that we didn't belong. I think we've changed that sentiment.”
“That shows our growth,” Booker said. “Our ability to lock-in and understand when we aren’t doing something right.”
Booker reached out to his coach immediately when it was first announced that the NBA season would resume and that the Suns would be invited into the bubble.
“He was the first text I got from a player,” Williams said. “He was excited about being in the bubble. He put a ton of work in. That’s been the most impressive aspect about this. Obviously, his production on the floor, but he put the work in. When I talked to our strength guys, they showed me his numbers, how they had improved as far as his strength and conditioning goes. That’s a sign of a guy that wants to get better and prepared for this opportunity. He’s making the most of it.”
From day one, Booker and the rest of the Suns were locked-in and ready to attack the daunting task that lied ahead.
“Coach said the way we navigate uncertainty is how we're going to turn out down here,” Booker said. “I know it's a different situation, different formats, but we came in with the right mindset. We didn't come in here saying we wanted to win eight in-a-row. We just wanted to win one game eight times.”
Their odds to advance were less than 0.1 percent. Their situation in the bubble was unorthodox. Their playoff caliber competition was intimidating.
Instead of allowing these distractions to discourage a young team, Williams kept them focused the same way he had all year and preached the importance of breaking everything down step-by-step and not looking too far ahead.
“We're not going to change our approach,” Williams said. “You want your guys to have a bar. Once we started to play a certain way, I was able to hold them to something and that's what we've done here. We've raised the bar and now I have another reference point for these guys. You can always refer to this time. Every one of our games was a game seven and our guys brought it every single night. We didn't make it really hard for them. We just asked them to do a few things and let the chips fall. It takes time to get to a point like this. I'm not saying we're there, but we're at where we are right now. It's pretty cool with a young team like we have.”
The success of the Suns was a shock to many, especially those who predicted the team could potentially go 0-8. However, none of this came as a surprise to Booker who saw his teammates rally together and focus from the time their plane first touched down in Orlando.
“From the moment we got down here, it’s been high energy and competitive,” Booker said. “I know we’ve got some guys in this locker room that won’t back down from any matchup or any competition. We’re having fun with it. The way we are communicating, helping each other out and holding each other accountable is the reason for our success.”
Booker continued his dominant season that earned him his first All-Star appearance, but that might not be the only hardware he takes home this season.
The 23-year-old averaged 30.5 points on 50.3 percent shooting to go along with 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds in the bubble. Add in the undefeated record and Booker looks to be the well-deserved frontrunner for the Kia NBA Player of the Seeding Games as well as a spot on the Kia NBA All-Seeding Games Team.
“I'm sure he's got to be in the conversation for that,” Williams said. “What we've been able to do and how he's played, I would have to say he's certainly got to be in that conversation at the top of that list. That's a good thing for him and for the organization.”
While Booker has led the way, he would certainly be the first to credit his teammates around him for rising to the occasion and stepping up when needed. Through their ball movement, defensive tenacity and lights-out shooting, the Suns quickly proved to be one of the deepest teams in the bubble as the development of their youth continued to be on display.
It’s been an electric start to Cameron Payne’s Suns career as he’s provided a key spark off the bench with 10.9 points per game on 51.7 percent three-point shooting. Dario Šarić found his groove, impacting all facets of the game while averaging 14.8 points on 57.4 percent shooting (52.4 percent from deep) and adding 7.6 rebounds per game.
Mikal Bridges and Jevon Carter wreaked havoc on both ends of the court, dominating defensively while showing their growth on the offensive end. Both players notched their second-best scoring outings of their careers while in the bubble, Bridges with 24 points against the Philadelphia 76ers and Carter with 20 points against the Miami Heat.
While it’s technically still his rookie season, Cameron Johnson appears to have taken tremendous strides on the court and was clearly working on his game during the four-month hiatus. Johnson upped his scoring average from 8.1 points per game during the regular season to 13.0 points per game during the reseeding games while also doing his work on the glass, averaging 5.9 rebounds.
Deandre Ayton continued to dominate inside for the Suns averaging 15.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Ricky Rubio tied all of these pieces together from the point guard position with 12.9 points, 7.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game.
“It’s very encouraging,” Booker said. “We’re just all hoopers. Any night can be somebody’s night if we are playing the right way, sharing the ball like we do. That’s obviously big help for me when teams are throwing a jump defense at me and making them pay for it. We always say they are going to make a decision. With the spacing we have out there, the concepts and the basketball actions that we run, it forces defense to have to pick and choose.”
At 8-0, the Suns gave themselves every opportunity possible to keep their playoff hopes alive. From the legendary game-winning buzzer-beater against the Los Angeles Clippers to dominating 20-point victories against both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks, the Suns consistently showed their resiliency and continued to battle against the odds until the final clock struck double zero.
The NBA gave the Suns an opportunity by inviting them to the bubble, but the effort displayed on a nightly basis by each and every player is what truly gave them the chance.
“Nobody would have guessed the Phoenix Suns would be in this position before all of this started,” Williams said. “Our guys have just battled, executed and made the plays necessary to give us a chance.”
While this is only Williams first year with the team, this is far from his first rodeo. The 48-year-old head coach has spent over 25 years in the NBA, but few moments resonate more throughout his storied career than the memories he gained in Orlando.
“It's probably been the highlight of my head coaching career or at least one of them,” Williams said. “Just how much fun I've had here with our guys. It has been a blast. We got here and went right to quarantine for 48 hours. Then we just went to work and we didn't hear any complaining. Our team didn't complain. We just came to work and our practices were fun, but they were intense. It's just been a blast from watching movies together to watching the guys play spikeball, fishing, trying to teach Mikal how to fish. The different things I've learned about our team. I've learned so much about our guys. It's been a really fun, fun ride.”
Williams was able to share this sentiment with his team just moments after they clinched their eighth-straight victory.
“It has just been an unreal ride,” Williams spoke to his team in the locker room. “This was therapeutic for me to be around a group like this. I’ve got to tell you guys, I love you. I do. I don’t care what happens tonight. I know what I’ve got in this room. It has been cool for me to be with y’all every day; to watch you guys work and battle and gain the respect of your peers the way you have on this trip. We’re not the Suns of old. It’s hard to play the way you’ve play every single night and not get the respect that you deserve. Guess what? You’ve got it. God knows I hope we get a chance to keep shocking the world because that’s what you did. Nobody believed we’d come here and go 8-0 and beat the teams we beat. Just know, this is special. Don’t let anybody take this away from y’all. You gained the respect of the league. Now, we’ve got to build on it.”
Instead of being disheartened by the fact that they did not control their own destiny late Thursday night, Williams wanted to focus on the room of guys that sat before him who trained, battled and clawed their way as a historic underdog.
“I'm just really grateful for the effort and the growth of this team,” Williams said. “I just wanted them to know how much I love them and how much I appreciated them allowing me to be a part of a special period in our franchise.”
No matter how the playoff scenario ultimately unfolded, the Suns gained every right to hold their heads up high, knowing that while so many didn’t believe in them, they gave everything they had and battled until the final buzzer.
“I'm proud of my guys, regardless,” Booker said. “We came in here with the right mindset. It could have been different. People could have been frustrated coming out in the middle of a four-month hiatus straight to basketball and leaving your family. But, we came in, we locked in and we made the sacrifice that we need to make. So, I don't think there's going to be any sad faces around here. Whether we leave here in the playoffs or not. We've put the work in and we've grown as a team. We've taken tremendous strides that I think will build for us for continuing years to come.”
The future is clearly bright in Phoenix. This opportunity gave the Suns a platform to prove themselves across the NBA as well as provide the team will invaluable playoff-like experience that can translate into next season and for years to come.
“I'd like to get away from here and reflect,” Booker said. “Let's see how we come into next season. I think we just figured out if you come in and play every game, the right way, communicate with each other, that we can win basketball games. There's a thin line between winning and losing and you can't skip any steps. We haven't done that down there. We've had goals, we've had tasks, things that we had overcome since we've been down here. We understand the steps to get through it. We haven't been taking any shortcuts. That's been the reason for our success.”
For a more in-depth visual inside inside the bubble, tune-in this Sunday on the Suns YouTube Channel at 11 a.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.