PHOENIX (AP) — The bubble was encouraging for them and so was the offseason. But the real proof that the Phoenix Suns might be ready to end their 10-year playoff drought obviously wouldn’t come until all the new players were actually on the floor.
So far, so good.
The Suns — built around the All-Star backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker — have won six of the past seven games to push their record to 14-9 about one-third through the slightly shortened 72-game NBA season. That’s good for fourth place in the Western Conference behind the Jazz, Lakers and Clippers.
Booker’s goal is to show the Suns are just beginning to show what they can do. They’ve got another big opportunity Wednesday when they host Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, who are 16-8 and second in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re at a crucial part of the season where we have to lock in more than ever,” Booker said. “We need to do our work early instead of trying to make up games toward the end of the year.”
Phoenix made one of the biggest moves of the offseason when it acquired Paul in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Second-year GM James Jones didn’t stop there, adding veteran free agents like forward Jae Crowder and guards Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore.
They’ve meshed with the team’s holdovers like Booker, a 6-foot-5 guard who made his first All-Star team last season.
The Suns had one of their most satisfying wins this season on Monday night, using a fourth-quarter rally to edge the Cleveland Cavaliers 119-113 in a hard-fought game. Phoenix didn’t have five of its regular rotation players because of injuries, including Paul, who was resting a sore hamstring.
But others stepped up. Booker scored a season-high 36 points while handling some of Paul’s point guard duties. Moore played a season-high 40 minutes and contributed 17 points. Mikal Bridges scored 22 points. Cam Johnson hit two huge 3-pointers in the fourth after missing his first six shots from beyond the arc. Deandre Ayton had 15 points and 16 rebounds.
For Booker — who has slogged through five straight losing seasons with the Suns — it’s a beautiful sight. Now the franchise has legit playoff aspirations for the first time since guys like Amar’e Stoudemire, Steve Nash and Grant Hill were running up and down the floor in 2010.
“I love it,” Booker said. “Going into the first weeks I was like, ‘Man, we’re deep. We’re solid all the way through.’ There might be some games where very talented players don’t get to play, but everyone knows their opportunity is going to come.
“Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”
The Suns’ momentum started late last season in the NBA’s Florida restart bubble, where they won all eight of their games and nearly made the playoffs. The franchise got another huge bump in November when it pulled off the trade that brought Paul to the desert.
The 35-year-old is still playing at a high level, averaging 16.4 points and 8.2 assists in 22 starts. Coach Monty Williams said adding veterans like Paul, Crowder, Galloway and Moore has been beneficial for on and off court reasons.
One example was Monday, when Paul missed his first game of the season. The 10-time All-Star was still active on the bench and essentially another coach in the huddle, constantly talking, teaching and encouraging.
“You don’t have those conversations when you have as young of a team as we had last year,” Williams said. “It’s huge to have those kinds of guys in our gym, in our locker room, on the bus, on the plane. Because those conversations are really mature.”
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