‘We want to win a ring’: Phoenix Suns close out regular season strong, begin championship quest

Phoenix Suns guard Bradley Beal said, “We want to win a ring, it’s time.” (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

By Mason Byers
Cronkite News

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns have been consistently inconsistent throughout the regular season, but the team hopes it has figured out the championship formula as the 2024 NBA playoffs get underway.

The Suns (49-33), struggling to string together a stretch of wins during many points this season, earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference with three straight victories and help from other teams to avoid the play-in game. Phoenix’s postseason starts Saturday on the road against a tough Minnesota Timberwolves, who the Suns beat 125-106 at the Target Center last Sunday to close out the regular season.

Despite a favorable matchup against Anthony Edwards & Co., the Suns’ standing is a long fall from preseason expectations, which predicted the talented trio of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal would contend with the Denver Nuggets for the West crown.

The Suns got off to a scorching start to the season, even stringing together a seven-game winning streak in November despite Beal not playing due to injuries. One key win during that stretch came against a New York Knicks team that saw All-Star Jalen Brunson score 35 points against the Suns. Despite Brunson’s great game, the Suns left Madison Square Garden with a 116-113 victory, setting what some hoped would be the tone for the rest of the season.

Shortly after, however, inconsistency showed in the Suns’ next 12 games with a 3-9 record. Some of those losses were to other Western Conference teams the Suns might see later on in the playoffs, including the Nuggets and the Dallas Mavericks. This stretch proved to be the start of an up-and-down campaign.

A main problem with Phoenix has been its lack of bench production. With such top-heavy talent in the starting lineup, the depth was always feared to be a problem. The Suns’ sixth man off the bench this season has been guard Eric Gordon who is only averaging 11 points per game. The second leading scorer off the bench has been trade deadline acquisition Royce O’Neale who is averaging 8.1 points per game and 2.7 assists, which is the most off the bench for the Suns. While these are not bad averages, it shows how limited coach Frank Vogel is when he turns to his bench for production.

The team also has dealt with some injuries all year long, leading to the Suns playing catchup in terms of building chemistry. During the times they had injuries to key starters such as Beal and Booker, it exposed the team’s lack of depth.

The Suns responded to this by signing veteran guard Isaiah Thomas to a contract for the rest of the season. Thomas, who is in his 11th season, hopes to bring veteran leadership to the team throughout the postseason while also being ready to play whenever his name is called.

“My job is just to show the guys the work each and every day whether you play or not,” Thomas said. “When your opportunity is called you just take advantage of it.”

Vogel was visibly frustrated after a poor performance on April 9 saw the Los Angeles Clippers take a 31-point lead late in the first quarter. It was a game in which the Clippers were without veterans Kawhi Leonard and James Harden. The Suns were able to make the game somewhat competitive later on, but the damage was already done as they lost 105-92.

“Teams want to get into us and reroute us and foul us, that’s playoff basketball,” Vogel said. “Offensively we’ve got to be tougher.”

The Suns followed up that loss the next night with a blowout win over the Clippers 124-108, paced by Booker’s 37 points. Winning one day and losing another has been something the team has gotten accustomed to.

The Suns have had some wins against really good teams, but also some losses against teams they should have beaten. Phoenix lost to the 22-60 San Antonio Spurs three out of the four times they met this season. In all three losses the Suns committed double digit turnovers which was not an anomaly for them. They rank 25th in turnovers this season averaging 14.9 a game.

However, on the plus side, the Suns defeated the Timberwolves all three times they met this season. The Suns won every game by double digits against Minnesota, in part because they have been able to contain Edwards. In two of the three games against the Timberwolves, the Suns held Edwards to just 13 points. Edwards averaged 25.9 points per game this season but his scoring was subdued against the Suns.

Even though Phoenix is undefeated versus Minnesota this season, it does not mean the playoff series will be easy. The Timberwolves finished with the best defensive rating this season with a 108.4, which is over two points better then the second-best rating. The defense is backed by three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Paired alongside the emerging superstar in Edwards and other star big man Karl-Anthony Towns, the Suns will have their work cut out for them in round one, and Booker acknowledges the challenge it will be to slow down Edwards.

“Ant’s not up and coming anymore, he’s somebody that’s here,” Booker said in reference to how good Edwards has been this season. “He’s a tough matchup, so it’s gonna take a collective whole to slow him down.”

Another thing working against the Suns is history. The 1995 Houston Rockets are the only sixth seed to win an NBA championship, although Cinderella runs are not out of the ordinary as of late in the NBA. The eighth-seeded Miami Heat compiled a run to the Finals last season after going through the play-in tournament, proving it’s unwise to count out any team in the playoffs.

One thing Phoenix has going for it is the star power embedded on the roster and even though the team has struggled to find a rhythm, there is still confidence in the players and coaches that the Suns can compete for the first NBA title in franchise history. Beal, who has started to find his role on the squad, thinks the team is ready for a strong playoff run.

“It’s time to start playing defense, it’s time to execute,” Beal said after his 20-point performance helped seal a close win over the Sacramento Kings last Friday. “We want to win a ring, it’s time.”