The Phoenix Suns have completed a survival course this season, and as the NBA playoffs open Saturday, the question about how far they can roll is a real one.
“I haven’t been able to make any assessments about where we’ve been and how we’ve gotten here,” Suns coach Monty Williams said this week. “We’re in preparation mode. Hopefully we won’t have to make those kind of assessments for a while.”
Fourth-seeded Phoenix begins its opening-round series at Footprint Center Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Suns were the second seed in the West two years ago before blowing a 2-0 lead to Milwaukee, losing the Finals in six games. Last year, they were the top seed after setting a franchise record with 64 wins only to blow a 2-0 lead to Dallas in the second round, which ended with a horrible home loss in Game 7.
This year they have survived the Robert Sarver suspension, the sale of the team to Mat Ishbia, the banishment of Jae Crowder, and lengthy injuries at some point to every key member of the team. This week, they dealt with more unsettling news—a Bloomberg report that former employees at Ishbia’s mortgage company complained of racial disparities, sexual harassment and bullying at the firm.
Those are the same issues that plagued Sarver and ultimately led to the NBA sanctioning him and pushing him out.
Kevin Durant, who was obtained from the Brooklyn Nets at the trade deadline in a deal that shipped out Crowder, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, has only played eight games since then because of injuries and health management. The Suns are 8-0 when Durant has started.
They were lucky to be the fourth seed this year after slumping to 45 wins.
Durant, who wasn’t with the team the past two postseasons, is certainly the wild card.
“It’s a good thing,” Williams said. “He represents the unknown. I’m watching a lot of playoff games on video right now, and I’m seeing what kind of impact he has not only on offense, but on the defensive side as well.”
Durant won two titles with the Golden State Warriors and was named MVP both times.
“He’s a great player,” the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard said Friday. “These are the fun parts of it, just going out there and competing against a guy like him who’s been doing it year after year. Everybody’s going have to take the challenge.”
Durant’s former Golden State team opens its defense of last year’s championship, won in six games over the Boston Celtics, Saturday against the Kings in Sacramento.
The Kings are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and leapt from 30 wins last season to 48 and the third seed in the West this year.
That series offers the drama of Warriors coach Steve Kerr going up against former Golden State assistant Mike Brown, who turned the Kings around in his first season and is an odds-on favorite to be named coach of the year.
“We texted when the matchups came out,” Kerr said this week during a press conference. “Everybody in our building feels so happy for Mike. We feel strongly about what he did for us while he was here, how much he contributed to our championships and our culture.”
Elsewhere, both New York teams—the Knicks and the Nets—are in. Same with the two Los Angeles teams, the Clippers and Lakers. The Nets have a tough first-round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Knicks play the Cleveland Cavaliers. At the same time, all three Texas-based teams are out for the first time since the Dallas Mavericks expanded into the league in 1980.
The Lakers, who won the 2019-20 pandemic championship in the Orlando bubble, had to win nine of their final 11 games just to make a play-in game at home against Minnesota.
Talk about survival, the Lakers eked that one in overtime to qualify for the seventh seed and open in Memphis Sunday against the second-seeded Grizzlies.
When LeBron James and Anthony Davis are healthy, which they are now, the Lakers are a force.
“We are a scrappy team,” James said after outlasting the Timberwolves. “We know we’re one of the best defensive teams in the league. That’s where we have to hang our hats.”
The Clippers, in contrast, may be without Paul George, who missed the last three weeks of the regular season with a sprained right knee. In the season finale, the Clippers had to scramble against the Suns just to capture the fifth seed from the Warriors.
They barely defeated the depleted Suns, who rested Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. The Clips’ other stars, Russell Westbrook and Leonard, had to contribute 25 points each to defeat the Phoenix bench.
That doesn’t bode well for the Clippers, who will face a healthy Suns squad in the first round. Williams rested the aforementioned quartet of stars in the last two games. The only downside is that none of them will have played competitively for 10 days heading into Sunday’s opener. The Suns had to battle that same lag time last year then struggled against a surging New Orleans, which almost won the first round.
“Anytime you can go into the playoffs with a level of health that’s close to 100%, you feel good about that,” Williams said. “We had to prioritize health and being fresh especially when you have a week off. You can’t keep your edge. You don’t lose it all. But you can’t keep it all, either.”
The Suns have weathered it all this season. What’s to come is the next hurdle.