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Reconciling the highs of the Suns’ 64-win season with utter playoff failure

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
June 2, 2022

The 2022 NBA Finals begin Thursday night, and the No. 1-seeded Phoenix Suns — a juggernaut that won 64 games, steamrolled everyone else in the standings by eight games and appeared to be the title favorite by pretty much every measure — are nowhere to be found.

It’s been almost three weeks since the Suns’ humbling, traumatizing, 33-point loss in Game 7 to the Dallas Mavericks, and it still doesn’t feel real. Life carried on for the rest of the NBA as it always does, but one team and its fanbase — who thought it would finally be their year — have spent the last 18 days in a fog, cycling through the first four stages of grief and wondering what the hell happened.

This franchise has seen more than its fair share of playoff heartbreak, but considering the home-court advantage, the expectations and the embarrassing final result, that season-ending defeat in the second round is the worst this organization has ever endured.

“I just told ’em how bad I hurt for them, I know they didn’t want to play that way,” coach Monty Williams said immediately after Game 7. “We basically played the worst game of the season tonight. That group has a lot of character and integrity, and I know how bad they wanted it.”

Having beaten the Mavs 11 straight times heading into Game 3, it felt like the Suns were getting back to themselves. Their first-round series with the 8-seeded New Orleans Pelicans was rockier than expected, but they still had the excuse of missing Devin Booker for three and a half games to fall back on. Up 2-0 on Dallas, after two convincing wins, it felt like Phoenix was rounding into championship form.

But then the Suns stopped playing like the Suns. The team that boasted the NBA’s best record and point differential, recorded one of the best road records of all time and was the only team to rank in the top-five for both offensive and defensive rating suddenly stopped looking like themselves.

It was particularly hard to swallow after they’d won a franchise-record 18 straight games, watched Devin Booker drop 49 points and get serenaded with MVP chants on the road, enjoyed Mikal Bridges’ steady onslaught of memes in a breakout year and marveled at every fourth quarter takeover from a 36-year-old Chris Paul.

The season was remarkable in so many ways, from Deandre Ayton expanding his game, to Cam Payne filling in capably for Paul, to Cam Johnson’s career-best night capped off by a game-winner, to Jae Crowder donning “F*** Jae Crowder” shirts to JaVale McGee openly declaring before every game that they were the “best team in the motherf**king world.”

And they were.

But that type of statement season, coming off a feel-good run to the NBA Finals, came with all the pressure being on Phoenix in a decisive Game 7. And they crumbled beneath the weight of it.

“It’s tougher, just with expectations,” Mikal Bridges said. “Just wanting to get back. I just want to get back, and falling shorter than last year — but it’s how life goes sometimes, man. However you picture it, sometimes it’s not gonna go that way. That’s just how it is, but yeah, it hurts.”

The shock of that may sting more than anything. It’s not just that the Suns fell short of their goal, it’s how far and how dramatically short they came. Williams chalked it up to an “off night,” but offered no excuses otherwise, taking blame for the two weeks of inconsistent basketball his team played once the postseason began.

Chris Paul shouldered the blame as the point guard, saying that it sucked for that kind of performance to happen at the most pivotal point, but that “shit happens.” Bridges similarly tried to shift blame away from Williams, while Cam Johnson said he wished he had any type of answer for what happened.

“I can’t tell you guys enough how much I wish I could rewind the clock a couple hours,” Johnson said, echoing the thoughts of an entire fanbase. “And it’s not the first time in my career or any of our careers that we’ve been in position where you just wish you could rewind the clock five hours. But you can’t.”

Make no mistake about it: Every single player, coach and executive in the organization bears blame for the calamitous finish that should’ve been a storybook ending. In 54 years as a franchise, this was the Suns team that was finally going to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy home. And instead, everything fell apart in classic Suns fashion.

The word “cursed” is overused in sports, but Phoenix’s complete unraveling against a Mavs squad that the Golden State Warriors handled in five quick games remains inexplicable three weeks later.

Williams, who won Coach of the Year, was out-strategized by first-year coach Jason Kidd, stubbornly sticking with soft switches on Luka Doncic that allowed Dallas to wear Paul down by repeatedly targeting him in pick-and-roll.

Booker, who had a tremendous debut playoff run, earned All-NBA First Team honors, finished fourth in MVP voting and cracked his “Luka Special” joke, was utterly outplayed by his fellow superstar in the final two games, tallying 30 points on 31 shots, shooting 29 percent overall and finishing with 5 assists to 12 turnovers.

Ayton, who was trying to once again prove himself worthy of a max contract, essentially quit on his team in Game 7, logging 17 minutes before a third-quarter sideline spat with Williams that got him benched for the rest of the night.

Paul, who was masterful in Games 1 and 2, became a complete non-factor for the last five games, averaging 9.4 points and 5.8 assists per game over that stretch as he dealt with a secret quad injury. This little tidbit didn’t help the perception that they need to be less reliant on his services:

Bridges scored in single digits in three of the Suns’ final four games. Payne was unplayable all postseason, averaging 4.2 points per game on .297/.167/.833 shooting splits. McGee was a liability in drop coverage. Jae Crowder played well enough, but Dallas was perfectly content with so much of the offense running through him.

It was a perfect storm at the worst possible time in the most Suns fashion imaginable. It still feels like some horrible dream that Phoenix coughed up another 2-0 lead, lost in the second round, and got smoked by 33 points in Game 7, at home, against a Mavs team they had dominated over the last three years.

For the “best team in the motherf**king world,” and for an arena that chanted “Suns in 4” once again after going up 2-0, it was an unwelcome comeuppance.

“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 after Game 7. “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.”

The contrast between that abhorrent ending and the exhilarating journey that built Phoenix into such a convincing powerhouse couldn’t be more drastic. In the wake of that stunning loss, the Suns and their coach struggled to reconcile the two.

Williams was unwilling to throw out a memorable season where Phoenix was the best team in the NBA, saying he was proud of what his group accomplished and calling them the “new standard of Suns basketball.” He also repeatedly mentioned how much it stung to fall short.

“It’s unbelievably hard though, just because our expectations are to be the last team standing,” he said. “In a short period of time, we’ve come a long way, and the process of the expectations have changed so quickly. And that adds a lot more to the stakes. So when it ends, the way that it ended doesn’t bother me as much, because whether you lose by one or 33, the fact is, it’s over. And it comes to an abrupt end based on where you thought you could have been.”

Booker described it as something the Suns have to stand up and be a man about, but as a longtime student of the game, he tried to take a long-term perspective as well.

“I think right now we’re gonna say it doesn’t matter,” he said. “But then you look 30 years down the line — it’s kinda hard to put yourself in that shoes, but — we solidified ourselves in this organization, an historic organization, gotten the best record in a regular season.”

Bridges and Johnson both agreed the ugly ending didn’t completely sour the journey of 2021-22, citing the personal relationships they built with their teammates and the people in the organization all year long.

“That was what our main goal was, be the last team standing, but also just can’t take for granted about the whole year,” Bridges said. “Everybody thinks it’s just a bad year just because we didn’t make it to the Finals, which is fine, but we still had a hell of a year. Just a lot of things happened this year where I wouldn’t trade the year for nothing.”

“I feel very grateful to be in this city, playing on this team, a team that accomplished a lot in the regular season,” Johnson agreed. “The people that we have in our program, the people that we have on our team, they all mean a lot to me individually. And it was a situation where I showed up to work every day, happy and excited — excited to be around our coaches, our teammates, our staff. And you can’t take that away. The pain of this doesn’t take that away.”

Williams and even general manager James Jones readily admitted this group has to get better heading next season, but they seemed understandably proud of the progress they’ve made in just three years — including the heightened expectations that come with an upward trajectory.

“Let’s be real: We had a tremendous season,” Jones said. “I said this yesterday, the season, the way it ended was disappointing, but the season was not a disappointment. Our team was a really good team. We just didn’t have that same level of success in the playoffs. And so I’m not going to change what we do. I’m not gonna change my approach to team-building, which is to create and construct a team that has a ton of depth, a ton of skill and great chemistry. We just need to be better, and I think after a summer where our guys improve, we will be.”

None of this does much to console a fanbase that’s spent the better part of a century waiting for a championship. The Suns should’ve been in the Western Conference Finals at the very least. Had they played like they did all season, they should’ve been in the Finals, and they probably would’ve been the favorites to win it all.

Instead, they’re having to turn another blown 2-0 lead into an opportunity for growth, watching the Warriors and Boston Celtics from afar. After a magical Finals run where it felt like the Suns didn’t take their expected playoff lumps until the very end, they’ve now absorbed a roundhouse kick to the face.

How they regroup and use it as fuel next season will determine the full extent of this year’s failure. Phoenix used their Finals defeat as the catalyst for a 64-win campaign that felt like a revenge tour until everything crumbled. Booker said that pain felt pretty similar to losing to the Milwaukee Bucks.

“As a team, we just have to own it,” he 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.”

With Paul getting another year older, the question is, will this Mavs humiliation unlock the next level for this group? Or has the Suns’ title window with the Point God already closed?

“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.”

It’s probably still too soon to properly contextualize this type of missed opportunity, especially as Phoenix enters the unknown of a busy offseason. We don’t know who will be on this roster next year, let alone how the Suns will respond to the type of loss that can stain reputations and break teams of lesser resolve. A title would ease the pain, but even that won’t erase the Suns’ latest shot of “what could’ve been?” pain.

Like the rest of this shell-shocked fanbase, the Suns still have to come to terms with it too.

“I still have to process a lot of it,” Johnson said. “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. And I think that’s all it comes down to, and that’s what I’m gonna spend the next four months doing.”

As the 2022 NBA Finals tip off with the league’s No. 1 seed nowhere to be found, he certainly won’t be the only one.

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