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Last year in the NBA Finals, the Phoenix Suns lost four straight games for the first time all season, squandering a 2-0 series lead and falling short of the franchise’s first ever championship. This season, with a familiar but improved squad that won a league-best 64 games, they somehow found an even more disappointing way to go out.
As Devin Booker put it: “It was a good old-fashioned ass-whupping, beginning to end.”
It wasn’t just that the NBA’s top seed lost in the second round of the playoffs, that they dropped a Game 7 at home or that a memorable season ended in such shocking fashion. It’s that this team — one that specialized in mental toughness, dominated crunch-time all year and was on a revenge tour after enduring Finals heartbreak — got absolutely embarrassed in a do-or-die game.
Make no mistake about it: The Suns’ 123-90 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday was not the most heartbreaking playoff loss this snakebitten franchise has ever seen, but it certainly was the worst.
“I know they didn’t want to play that way, we basically played the worst game of the season tonight,” coach Monty Williams said. “From my standpoint, I did not have us ready to play in a Game 7. They played their tails off, and that part for me is tough, because I know how bad our guys wanted it. We just had a bad night.”
“Bad night” is gracious. Their 17-point first quarter was a season-low, as was their 27-point first half. Their 30-point halftime deficit was the largest in Game 7 history. Luka Doncic matched the Suns’ point production by himself through the first two quarters, and he was actually ahead of Phoenix, by himself, a few minutes into the third.
Sifting through the rubble, that 33-point defeat was the fifth-worst loss in NBA history for any Game 7, and it was the Suns’ worst loss of the season.
Again: In a playoff environment. Game 7. At home. Win-or-go-home setting. For a team that looked every bit the part of a title contender just a few weeks ago.
“I talked to them about, all year long, we’ve been hearing all the praises, winning all the games and setting records and all that stuff, and we’ve been taking it,” Williams said. “Well, tonight, you gotta take it. That’s a part of manhood. There are days where it doesn’t go your way, and you gotta stand right there and show character and integrity and take it. That’s life.”
When such a memorable, record-setting year ends in abruptly calamitous fashion, the blame game is sure to follow. It makes sense, given the gravity of this type of second-round upset.
Out of the 22 teams in NBA history to win at least 64 games, 14 of them went on to win the title. Of the other eight, one lost in the Finals and four lost in the conference finals. Those last three remaining? The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, who lost in the first round, the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs, and the 2021-22 Phoenix Suns, who both fell in the second round.
Those ’07 Mavs were overshadowed by how fun the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors were, and the ’16 Spurs are easy to forget because of how transcendent Kevin Durant was. But what will be remembered from this latest series — aside from Doncic dominating the team that should’ve drafted him No. 1 overall — is how, on the biggest stage, the Suns completely, inexplicably wilted.
This was a group known for its late-game execution, for rising above adversity and injury woes all season long. And yet, when it mattered most, all the experience and mental fortitude from last year’s Finals run seemingly dissolved into thin air.
“Different seasons presents different challenges, and we didn’t step up to that challenge today,” Cam Johnson said. “I can’t tell you guys enough how much I wish I could rewind the clock a couple hours.”
“I think we all have to look inside, but I’m the head of the ship,” Williams added. “And so if there’s any reason why, you can point to me. But every series is different. We lost to a good team in the Finals last year. We lost to a really good team tonight. We had an off night.”
Off nights happen, but not like that. Not in a Game 7 at home with the franchise’s best season ever on the line. And the truth is, the Suns hadn’t looked like themselves for weeks.
“I know our whole entire group tried our best to get it right as it was going south, but it didn’t work out for us tonight,” Johnson said. “And it’s not just tonight, either. We had some performances this series that we all wish we could’ve gone back and fixed. Felt like we shouldn’t even have been in this position, but sometimes things happen.”
The vulnerabilities were there in a first-round series with the New Orleans Pelicans that was far more contentious than anyone predicted. The first two games against Dallas went according to plan, but then the Mavs turned the NBA’s fifth-best defense into the Utah Jazz.
As easy as it’d be to chalk up that up to the NBA’s Coach of the Year getting out-coached by Jason Kidd, everyone involved deserves their fair share of the blame.
“That’s just Monty, man, he’s gonna take the blame, but I promise you, it has nothing to do with him,” Mikal Bridges insisted. “It’s on us as players to go out there. They give us a script, they tell us what we have to do and scout and all that stuff, play hard, but no, it has nothing to do with Monty or the coaching staff. It’s on the players.”
Chris Paul, who continued to decline the possibility that he was dealing with any sort of injury, averaged 9.4 points, 7.2 shot attempts, 4.0 fouls and 3.6 turnovers per game over the last five games of the series. Paul, predictably, actually was injured:
Devin Booker, who had talked about being excited for Game 7 after the team’s Game 6 blowout loss, had one of the worst games of his playoff career, putting up 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting with a -41 point differential. The only game that compares was his Game 3 in last year’s Finals, when he finished with 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting. But even that was only a 20-point loss to the eventual champs.
Booker said the sting of this loss feels about the same as the Finals defeat, which it should, considering the elevated expectations for this group.
“As a team, we just have to own it,” Booker said. “You have to look at this and use it as motivation, just as we did with the Finals last year and just take that into the summer with you. It’s tough. It’s gonna be a few weeks trying to clear our heads and get away from this.”
It may take a bit longer to get away from the NBA’s best backcourt combining for 21 points on 7-of-22 shooting in a do-or-die game…in yet another series where they led 2-0.
It’s not just on the star backcourt either, though. Mikal Bridges, who averaged 17.3 points per game in the first round, tallied 6, 7 and 6 points on a combined 8-of-27 shooting over the Suns’ final three losses of the series.
And then there’s Deandre Ayton, who finished with 5 points and 4 rebounds in only 17 minutes on Sunday. If true, the murmurs from a few fans near the bench in Game 7 paint him in a terrible light, regardless of his upcoming restricted free agency:
When asked about Ayton’s low minute total, Williams said curtly, “It’s internal.” DA did not speak to the media after the game.
The core of this team is still incredibly young, but watching this series, it became inherently clear that erring on the side of “continuity” at the trade deadline was a mistake. Whether or not Eric Gordon was ever truly available remains unknown, but it was easy to see the Suns’ need for a second ball-handler, scorer and shooter when CP3 broke down, Booker got trapped, Cam Payne became unreliable and Aaron Holiday never got any burn.
And so all of this leaves the Suns with multiple, troubling questions to be answered in the next few weeks, in an offseason that’s arrived far sooner than expected.
At age 37, can Chris Paul stay healthy enough through a full postseason to get the Suns to the promised land? And if the last two years are an indication of what to expect, how do they alleviate those concerns with a more trustworthy backup and/or successor?
Furthermore, is anyone but Booker off limits anymore? Was Ayton’s combustion during Doncic’s Game 7 coronation enough to doom his chances at a max contract? How does this team improve its bench when Payne, Landry Shamet and Torrey Craig thoroughly underwhelmed?
Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll be diving into each and every one of those questions in full detail, but for now, it’s impossible to avoid the feeling that this was the Phoenix Suns’ best shot at an NBA title…and they completely fumbled it, a full 1-2 rounds before anyone thought they might.
A few shell-shocked Suns players admitted they thought they’d win Game 7, but Cam Johnson couldn’t even compare this defeat to the Finals last year, because at least in that series, they lost hard-fought, competitive games that went down to the wire. In all four of their losses to the Mavs, Phoenix was soundly beaten.
“Still have to process this game, still have to process this series in the light of the entire season, and try to figure out what went wrong and what I can do personally to help achieve a different outcome,” Johnson said. “And I think that’s all it comes down to, and that’s what I’m gonna spend the next four months doing.”
Johnson, Williams and the rest of the team will take these next few weeks to reflect on what happened to the “best team in the world,” before turning their attention to running it back for a new season. It’s what they’re wired to do, starting with their on-court leader.
“Probably no greater message than, ‘Get back to work,'” Paul said. “At the end of the day, you at least want a shot at it. We was one of 16 teams in the playoffs, you know what I mean? It’s a great regular season, but we didn’t reach our goal. So I don’t think anything matters, except for everybody just trying to get a little bit better for next season.”
What that Suns roster will look like by then is anyone’s guess, but rest assured, this painful finish to what was such an enjoyable, historic season will remain fresh in people’s minds for a lot longer than one offseason. Sunday’s Game 7 was the most inexplicably devastating no-show in Phoenix’s heartbreak-laden playoff history, and it leaves the type of stench only a championship can wash out.
How they solve that riddle is more troubling than ever for the one Suns team that seemed to have all the answers.
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