The Phoenix Suns didn’t have much of a shot.
Escaping irrelevancy isn’t easy — just ask the New York Knicks or the Cleveland Browns. The Suns have been in that category since the Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni “Seven seconds or less” offense departed the desert more than a decade ago.
Even the brief moments of hope turned to misery. 20 win seasons turn into draft whiffs. The coaching staff turns over more than a college town McDonalds.
Even a hint of hope, in the form of an invitation to the NBA bubble in Orlando, was met with what felt like the inevitable.
“The Suns don’t belong in the bubble.” “Who invited Phoenix?”
We’re all guilty of it. Even the most diehard of Suns fans didn’t expect much. Let’s just see what Devin Booker can do against elite competition, right?
Well, thanks to Booker and company, the Suns are the hottest team in the bubble (yes, pun intended.)
The playoffs still aren’t likely, but are possible
The Suns are undefeated after four games in Orlando. They sit a half game behind the Spurs for tenth in the west and 1.5 behind Portland for ninth.
Obviously, they’ll need some help to earn the ninth spot and a play-in round to reach the playoffs. And with Phoenix’s brutal remaining schedule (Miami, OKC, Philadelphia and Dallas), it’s hard to see a future where it can leapfrog Portland.
But let’s not push it. With just four regular season games remaining, the Suns are playing meaningful basketball in a stacked conference. For a team that won just 19 games a year ago, this is an unbelievable feat in its own right. How did they get to this point?
“Wet like I’m Book”
To the most casual NBA fans, Devin Booker is now more than a reference in a Drake verse. The world is being introduced to a fact Phoenix faithful have known for a while: Booker is a bonafide star.
The fifth-year player is averaging 28 points in the bubble. He’s shooting at a 47% clip and averaging 6.5 assists.
Booker’s the same player he’s been for years, truth be told. He’s just finally on the big stage.
Booker is one of the most lethal shooters in the NBA, and now he gets to display his clutch gene, most notably with his buzzer-beater against the Clippers.
With the best (and healthiest) supporting cast he’s had since his days as a Kentucky Wildcat, Booker is showing his potential to the world. When the Laker jersey photoshops start popping up on Twitter, you know you’ve made it.
The supporting cast is BALLIN’
We’ve established that Devin Booker is the same player.
Cam Johnson is not.
With Kelly Oubre Jr. out, Johnson is playing 34 minutes per game and is taking advantage. The rookie is averaging 13 points per game while playing formidable defense on the wing. He’s grabbing 8.5 boards to top it off.
Speaking of defense, Mikal Bridges is guarding the opponent’s best player every game. And he’s locking them up.
In the Suns’ win over the Pacers, Bridges was assigned to former Sun TJ Warren, who by all accounts has been the best scorer in the bubble. He averaged about 40 in his first three games on ridiculous efficiency (69% FG and 60% from three).
Against Bridges and the Suns, Warren scored 16 on 7-of-20 shooting.
Bridges is a gritty defender. He’s a pest. It’s working. He helped disrupt the rhythm of the two Clipper stars and stifled the Mavericks offense late (though, the Mavs tend to do that to themselves too).
Finally found his landing spot
The most surprising come-up for the Suns in the bubble has been Cameron Payne. He’s been able to come off the bench and serve as a spark plug for the high-tempo offense, averaging 11.5 points in 20 minutes of action.
Payne, of course, hasn’t had any success like this in his career. The 25-year old has bounced from team-to-team in his short career, and a solid showing in the G-league earlier this year has earned him a shot in the bubble.
Clearly, he’s embraced it. Expect to see him stick around in the Suns’ rotation next season.
With the Phoenix Suns right now, there are simply too many contributors to name and keep it a reasonably sized article, so take our word for it. The Suns are putting a terrific product around its centerpiece, and that’s not something that fans are used to reading.
Austin covers the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Chargers for OT Heroics. Follow him on Twitter @AustinTurner_ . For more coverage on the NBA, check out the rest of the great content on Overtime Heroics.