NEW ORLEANS – The Suns spent six months building the best record and the best resume in basketball.
It took just a few hours to lose their VIP status.
They lost a playoff game at Footprint Center to a team with a losing record. They lost Devin Booker to a hamstring injury expected to sideline him for 2-3 weeks. And they lost their status as heavyweight favorite, no longer the odds-on favorites to win the NBA championship.
This show of disrespect should be just the fuel they need to survive.
There are certainly concerns entering Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinals. Pelicans head coach Willie Green, a former assistant under Monty Williams, knows the Phoenix Way better than anyone. And through two games, he seems to be one step ahead of his mentor.
The Pelicans have better rebounders. After being dominated in the first half of Game 1, they have scored 190 points in the ensuing six quarters. They have shown resilience, fortitude and a lack of reverence for their opponent.
Most alarming, Brandon Ingram looks like a breakout star. He scored 37 points in Tuesday’s victory, including a spectacular display of shot-making in the clutch. Given Booker’s absence, NBA analyst Kendrick Perkins actually called him the best player remaining in the series.
The latter is a stunning rejection of Suns point guard Chris Paul, who is more than capable of filling the void on offense, in the same way that Booker took the wheel and ascended to the MVP candidate while Paul recovered from a fractured thumb.
Maybe it’s because Paul is about to turn 37. Or maybe it’s because he spent most of the season pacing himself, deferring early in games while nurturing the growth of all the young stars in his midst. Paul sharpened his reputation as a closer in 2021-22, taking over numerous games in the fourth quarter and producing at extremely high levels in clutch-time minutes. There were also games when he barely shot the ball in the first quarter, when teammates had to remind him to get involved offensively.
It’s possible some outsiders view Paul’s strategy as a concession to age. Given his unfortunate history of postseason injuries, some think he will inevitably break down while shouldering a heavier load in the coming weeks, if forced to play 40 minutes a game in Booker’s absence.
Granted, Paul has endured a disproportionate amount of bad luck in his career. He’s also endured his share of bad opinions, and these are more of the same. Either way, this much is certain:
Paul once played in New Orleans and will likely view the next two games as a homecoming of sorts. It will be a personal mission, another chance to remind the basketball community of his Hall of Fame pedigree. My guess is that Paul will be rolling hot this weekend, and those standing near him on Friday night risk third-degree burns from his competitive temperament.
It’s possible the Suns will miss Booker’s defensive prowess most, a testament to how much he has grown on the other end of the floor. That’s because Booker is aggressive, physical, surprisingly strong and plays defense with an attitude. That can’t be replaced by Cam Johnson, who has the size but lacks physicality; or Landry Shamet, who is physical but lacks size.
But it’s certainly not enough to derail a team as cohesive and deep as the Suns, a team that will benefit from a few days spent processing and strategizing Booker’s absence.
Alas, recency bias has been taken over professional sports. Narratives shift dramatically based on single-game performances. Near the end of the regular season, the MVP race seemed to become a daily debate. It’s almost as if people forgot how dominant Paul was at the end of Game 1, where he scored 17 of his team’s 19 points in one stretch of the fourth quarter. It’s almost like people forget how good the Suns were on the road this season, where they posted a better winning percentage than any other NBA team did at home.
While posting a franchise-record 64 victories, the Suns have done a remarkable job at staying focused on the process and the task at hand. They’ve been mostly impervious to the noise and the naysayers.
But this time, I hope they’re all listening. I hope they’re deeply offended. Especially Paul.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta mornings from 6-10 am on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.