When the Phoenix Suns were invited to compete in the NBA restart, not many considered them a threat to make the playoffs. After all, before the hiatus, Phoenix won just 26 games and ranked dead-last among Western Conference teams traveling to Orlando to finish the 2019-20 season. However, entering Saturday's game against the Miami Heat, the Suns are currently the only undefeated team remaining in the bubble with a 4-0 record, and are just 1 1/2 games out of the No. 9 spot in the West to force a play-in game for the last available postseason spot in the conference.
"I've been in the league five years and haven't had that much success," Devin Booker told reporters in a postgame Zoom conference. "But I'm working hard everyday to change that narrative, and we have a good bunch in here to do it. We're gonna keep our heads down and keep working. I don't think anyone in here is worried about 4-0, we still have plans and goals to reach, and 4-0 wasn't it."
In the first four years that Booker's been in the league, the Suns never won more than 24 games. Last season alone Phoenix finished with just 19 wins, the second-worst win total in franchise history. Year after year, the Suns have racked up losses, traded away valuable assets -- hello TJ Warren and Eric Bledsoe -- secured top draft picks and yet still continue to struggle finding any bit of success. It also doesn't help when the franchise is on its fifth head coach in as many years, as Monty Williams tries to right the ship in his first season with the team.
There was a different feeling heading into this season. In April 2019, James Jones was officially named general manager and given full control of the Suns' basketball decisions. During last summer's offseason, Jones traded Warren to the Pacers for cash, which looks like a terrible transaction given Warren's averages in the bubble so far (33 points per game). However, two days later the Suns signed Ricky Rubio, the perfect point guard to pair alongside Booker, something the All-Star guard hasn't really had since being drafted by Phoenix.
When the 2019-20 season tipped off, the Suns got off to a tremendous start. They opened with a trouncing of the Sacramento Kings, followed by a close overtime loss to the Nuggets but bounced back with a huge statement win over the Clippers at home. A 5-2 start to the season had some believing that this could be the year Phoenix could compete for a playoff spot, but injuries and Deandre Ayton's 25-game suspension slowed any sort of chemistry for Phoenix.
Now, though, with a new lease on life in the bubble, the Suns are making the most of their situation, and in Orlando for more than just the experience.
"It feels good for us to come out and play the way we're playing, but for us as a group we're not surprised because we worked hard in this little training camp bubble," Cameron Payne said after putting up 15 points off the bench in the Suns' win Thursday over Indiana. "Monty is pushing us and he's doing a great job. We're making sure we're ready to play every night, and everybody is doing their job. We want to let everyone know we're not just here to try and get everybody ready for the playoffs, we're trying to make that."
The Suns are outscoring opponents by eight points, which ranks second in the bubble behind the Boston Celtics, and are playing a very unselfish, free-flowing brand of basketball. While Booker is responsible for most of the Suns scoring -- he's averaging 28 points in the bubble -- he's gotten some much-needed help when the defense collapses on him. Guys like Payne, who wasn't even on a team this season until Phoenix signed him for the restart, and rookie Cameron Johnson are knocking down shots with ease from beyond the arc. Jevon Carter and Mikal Bridges are putting defensive pressure on opponents, which leads to deflections and steals for the Suns.
Williams attributes the success of the younger players in the bubble like Johnson, Bridges and Payne to their hunger to prove everyone wrong.
"I just think they want it, when you're young you probably don't pay much attention to the stakes as much. You just go out there and hoop and do the best you can," Williams said after the Suns' win over the Pacers. "They've listened to everybody say it's a long shot for us to make it, and it still is, but I think they're growing up. They're part of the scouting report for other teams now and they're responding."
Not only are they responding, they're frustrating defenses in every game with every made jumper or open lane to the rim. Booker said the offense right now is "pick your poison" in terms of how do opposing teams want to get scored on. That could mean a weak-side 3-pointer:
Or a skip pass to a teammate on the other side of the floor to pull up from deep:
Or a lob to Ayton for the dunk:
This isn't what we've grown accustomed to with the Suns, who have been toiling away near the bottom of the conference for years now. Before the season resumed, Phoenix had less than a one percent chance of making the postseason, but those odds have now jumped up to five percent, per FiveThirtyEight, because of its recent play. However, while the thought of this team making the playoffs this season could be enticing, the results from the bubble is more about their big picture future. With a core of Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Johnson, all of whom are still under 25 years old, Phoenix has a group of guys actually worth developing and building around.
Ayton has improved significantly on defense, and even worked on stretching his game out farther from the basket. Bridges is already being tasked with picking up the opposing team's best player on defense, having already checked Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Luka Doncic in Orlando, and has the second-most defensive win shares on the team this season. Johnson appears to be automatic from 3-point range, and his size makes him versatile on the defensive side of the ball. Booker, of course, is the head of it all, getting you buckets, racking up assists and even being more committed on defense.
"We're taking it one game at a time," Booker said. "That's been our mindset since coming in here. We didn't have 8 or 9 on our mind, that wasn't our target. Just coming in and playing the best basketball every night. So people can say the 'nothing to lose' mentality, but we don't look at it like that. We have games to lose and games to win and we come out here with that attitude and play that way."
That one-game-at-a-time mentality ensures that Phoenix doesn't get too far ahead of itself. But regardless of how far the Suns make it this season, this team will exit the bubble with the most positive outlook for the future since Steve Nash wore a Suns jersey, and that should be a win in itself for this franchise.