There are anxious questions that come with the territory of the playoffs. Questions like, What if X team wins? What if X team loses? What if X team loses against X team? Questions that must be put out of mind by the people on those teams as each series begins and that transfer, readily, to the fans and media of those teams. We like those questions. They’re great fodder for stoking our little sports anxieties and passions, and provide the prompts for stories and talking points.
The playoffs are half cyclical, half surprise. They happen every season but who gets there, that’s the surprise. So, the repetitions of the aforementioned questions, in their wide application but alternating subjects each postseason, never raise flags nor do they seem all that significant or indicative of some larger, looming question — it’s more that we don’t get tired of trying to answer them.
All that goes out the window with the Phoenix Suns, a team that’s had one very particular, very pointed question hanging over them since losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2020-2021 NBA Finals.
What if this doesn’t work?
That season was Chris Paul’s first in Phoenix — it would be his healthiest — and the momentum felt ripe. Here was a team craving a floor general, and here was the league’s shrewdest calculating fury. Paul quickly organized a listless Deandre Ayton and idling Devin Booker, working with coach Monty Williams to turn the team into something that was intentional and generative. Not only did those Suns have technically perfect, beautiful to watch basketball on their side, they also appeared to have an instant cohesion. That rare, unspoken current of understanding that runs through rosters typically together for many more seasons than the single, bright one the Suns had under their belts. Losing to the Bucks felt surprising, but then it was easy enough to chalk it up to the singular will of Giannis Antetokounmpo and methodical Milwaukee basketball.
Some of that luster was gone when the Suns came back the following season. The question, now persistently nagging, was more of a brief tinge then. But Phoenix finished the 2021-2022 season 64-18, first in the west. They looked like the same sure contender of the year before. I say looked, because the feeling was a bit off. There were rumors that Ayton wasn’t happy and potentially wanted out, that there was some tension within the roster. And then, in losses that looked a little like sleepwalking, the Suns were eliminated in the second round. The question, then, was coming through loud and clear but not just from fans and media, it was radiating off the team, too.
What if this doesn’t work?
This past season was spotty for the Suns, with the Denver Nuggets propelled early to the top of the West thanks in part to Jamal Murray’s return. Paul was in and out of the lineup with injuries and the losses piled up through winter. Suddenly, a trip to the postseason, at least a long one, didn’t feel as sure of a thing as it had the previous two seasons. It was like the team was regressing, unwinding where they should’ve been knitting closer together. Phoenix’s front office took the big swing at the deadline and landed Kevin Durant, walking bucket and cool floor presence who, to his credit, has been part of some mercurial lineups and managed to be the metronome. It felt like a good fit that would balance out the Suns spotty shooting as much as the bubbling chemistry problems.
And it worked, inasmuch as the Suns started winning games. Rounding out the regular season with momentum that carried the team into the first round against the Clippers. This isn’t to say that Phoenix only won the first round because Kawhi Leonard was hurt partway through it (the Suns scored 122.5 points per 100 possessions in that series), but much of where the Suns struggled — looking pressed when vets like Russell Westbrook pushed and unbalanced their already spotty offensive creation and Leonard capitalized on Phoenix’s defensive gaps — was mitigated with Leonard gone.
That hasn’t been the case against Denver, a team with Murray’s offensive engine and Nikola Jokic’s little-bit-of-everything aptitude at both ends. The Nuggets haven’t been pushing especially hard but in two games the Suns have come up short because their beautiful, but highly specific and shooting optimized basketball needs everything to go right or else it all goes wrong. Ayton’s all but folded around the rim, even when rim defense isn’t a Denver strong suit, and it’s not even Murray showing out Booker as the two teams’ best shooting options.
Instead, it’s been secondary players like Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope putting up .571 and .583 3-point field goal percentages, respectively, to Booker’s .444, presenting Phoenix with an offensive onslaught it can’t seem to counter. And now, with Paul likely out for the next two games with a groin strain, a team that’s looked lost in some of its best games this season loses its most wily weapon.
There’s been so much pressure on this Suns group — Paul, Booker, and Ayton, now Durant — to figure it out individually and collectively in order to win right now. With right now now stretching to nearly three seasons. The messaging has been firm that this team has to coalesce, or better gel, and that if they lose again it will take another summer to better work in Durant. But Durant, as he’s shown capable of, is a perfectly capable mercenary player. Fitting in and figuring it out, at least on the floor, has never been his problem.
Durant’s arrival was meant to fix the disconnect, not strain it further. The Suns are 0-13 when trailing 0-2 in a seven games series — to even have a small record of such a specifically losing stat, let alone such a big (and unlucky) number hanging over them, doesn’t bode well for a group already struggling to hang onto the identity they first and best hit on two seasons ago.
This series isn’t over, but with that one question now impossible to ignore, maybe the alternative to asking, again, “What if this doesn’t work?” is “Should we still be trying to make it?”