Playoffs or Not, Do Not Take Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns Lightly

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2020

Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker dribbles against the Los Angeles Clippers during an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)
Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

Of all the unfinished business the NBA sought to complete with its Disney World restart, the fate of the Phoenix Suns was never in question. They were just there, invited to stuff the schedule, both afterthoughts and non-threats, their retreat into yet another lottery already sealed.

So much for that.

With their 130-117 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, the Suns are now a perfect 7-0 in the bubble and, more importantly, a heartbeat away from qualifying for the league's postseason play-in tournament.

You read all of that correctly.

Not to be lost amid the euphoria, Phoenix's fate is not entirely its own. A win over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday would go a long way toward solidifying its play-in appearance but must also be accompanied by a Memphis Grizzlies loss to the Milwaukee Bucks or a Portland Trail Blazers loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

It likewise bears mentioning that, whatever happens, the majority of the 2019-20 season unfolded outside Disney. The Suns are still comfortably below .500, more than a stone's throw or two away from title contention—or even playoff-lock status. They needed to remain perfect just to have a chance at entering the postseason, where they would, in all likelihood, serve as a first-round steppingstone for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Still, who cares? They didn't have expectations entering the bubble or even a remote chance at cracking the play-in tournament and postseason. They do now.

Almost everything about them is a revelation. Devin Booker's play is not. These past seven games are just a slight exaggeration of how he's fared this season. The scoring, the efficiency, the passing, the sheer command of the game—none of this is new. His numbers, while striking, are not miles from normal:

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Really, the addition of a trademark moment in victory—a game-winner over both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard—is the most drastic change to his resume. The novelty of his stardom is the scale at which it's being recognized and accepted, not that it exists all. Phoenix has a player capable of headlining a really good team now, just like it did before.

Everyone else, together, is the epiphany. Where the Suns were previously occupying that painstaking space between rebuilding and sub-mediocrity, they instead look like they've laid the groundwork to climb out of the NBA's void.

Flashes of a better outlook are peppered through the rest of the roster, from Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges to Cameron Johnson and Kelly Oubre Jr. But that growth never coalesced into the sustainability Phoenix is now championing. Seven games is a drop in the bucket relative to the grand scheme. For the Suns, it is also far and away their longest winning streak of the Booker era.

Crucially, Ayton looks the part of a viable No. 2 on both ends of the floor.

His scoring opportunities come both within the flow of the offense and, when needed, on his own accord, and he's worked more three-pointers into his arsenal. His defense is tighter and more well-rounded. He has held up on unfavorable switches nearly all season and has a stronger back-line presence. Opponents are shooting 8.7 percentage points worse than their average inside six feet of the basket when he's challenging them.

Bridges' defense was already a given—perhaps not fully appreciated, but known. His emergence has come on offense. He looks more comfortable in his own skin, unafraid to attack downhill and less hesitant to uncork threes. His decision-making on drives is no longer a hidden gem, and he's even hinted at a pull-up triple:

Johnson, the No. 11 overall pick in 2019, has outperformed draft-day impressions basically all season. His outside touch is for real—his 35.9 percent clip from the bubble is below his season-long mark of 39.2 percent—and he doesn't dawdle. Decisions to shoot, dribble or pass are made quickly.

Rubio has long provided an air of steadiness, someone who alleviates Booker's from-scratch burden when they play in tandem and lives to disrupt on defense. He is an imperfect player, yes, but he was giving the Suns a boost before now.

Some of what's happening at Disney will be an outlier. Rubio's 43.5 percent clip from beyond the arc won't hold. Nor will Cameron Payne hit half his treys forever. Jevon Carter will pick up defensive assignments in the parking lot until the end of time, but his own scoring efficiency—54.2 percent from distance—will come down.

There's merit to how Phoenix limits three-point looks, but its top-six defense since the restart cannot be considered the new standard. Dario Saric going scorched earth is a genuine surprise.

Is it weird the Suns are doing this without Aron Baynes? And Oubre? And on a more macro level, who knows just how much the restart informs the future. They've faced G-League iterations of the Sixers and Oklahoma City Thunder, along with a Miami Heat squad that didn't have Jimmy Butler or Goran Dragic.

Are the Bubble Suns for real? That's TBD. But that doesn't make what they're doing any less impressive.
Are the Bubble Suns for real? That's TBD. But that doesn't make what they're doing any less impressive.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Tough calls await the franchise, as well. Baynes and Saric (restricted) are impending free agents. The bench needs long-term shot-creation relief, and Payne probably isn't the answer.

Phoenix would do well to stick with its current starting five of Rubio, Booker, Bridges, Johnson and Ayton, which owns a plus-25.9 net rating, but that complicates Oubre's fit. He has one year left on his contract and doesn't have the playmaking chops to pilot lineups as the primary initiator. Do the Suns shop him? What can they get for him? And what can they feasibly attach to him without too heavily mortgaging their future?

Playing in the West only complicates matters. It's fun to say the Suns are on the brink of full-tilt postseason contention. It's another thing for them to back it up.

At the moment, all 15 teams profile as playoff hopefuls next year. A few will inevitably remove themselves from the fray, but the conference won't be appreciably shallower compared to this season. Phoenix has read too much into false starts and non-starts before. Doubling down on this core is not without risk.

And yet, the nuts and bolts of the Suns' bigger picture are an issue for another day, at a time when their season is actually over. Right now, it's not. And whether they bow out before the play-in tournament, lose during it or earn the right to pester the Lakers for five-ish games, they've earned their keep.

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.

  

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into Wednesday's games. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.