Surprising Suns ready to build off bubble success

NBA Basketball

PHOENIX (AP)Coach Monty Williams could sense a few eye rolls earlier this summer when the Phoenix Suns and their extremely mediocre 26-39 record were invited to the NBA’s bubble.

A few months later, the Suns are the talk of the league after winning all eight games in Florida and nearly making a run all the way to the playoffs.

”I think we’ve gained the respect of the league and that’s huge,” Williams said. ”It’s huge for us as an organization. It’s huge for us as a team. There was some sentiment before this that we didn’t belong. I think we changed that sentiment.”

The Suns won’t be in the playoffs for a 10th straight season after the Portland Trail Blazers edged the Brooklyn Nets 134-133 on Thursday night to clinch the final spot in the Western Conference play-in series. But for Phoenix, it’s hard not to be encouraged by its 8-0 run in the bubble.

”We took tremendous strides in so many different ways,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said. ”Other than just basketball, too. We became closer as a unit and as a team. Great strides for us.”

Here are a few more things to watch for the Suns in the offseason:

BOOKER BOOM

The 23-year-old Booker was fantastic in his fifth NBA season, making the All-Star team for the first time as an injury replacement after Portland’s Damian Lillard had to drop out. The 6-foot-5 guard saved his best moments for the bubble and averaged a team-high 30.5 points over eight games while contributing solid defense.

In the process, he might have proven that he can be the franchise player on a good NBA team.

”We just want to build on it, man,” Booker said. ”Honestly, it’s not surprising to me.”

PLAYOFF PRESSURE

There’s little doubt there’s plenty of pressure on the Suns to end their playoff drought next season. Besides Booker, they have a young core of talented players like Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, plus veteran point guard Ricky Rubio.

Bridges is a second-year player who was particularly valuable in the bubble, averaging nearly 13 points. The 6-foot-6 guard/forward is a versatile defender and can play three different positions. He had a larger role since Oubre missed all eight games in Florida because of a knee injury.

ROSTER DECISION

The Suns have some decisions to make on whether to bring back forwards Aron Baynes and Dario Saric, along with guards Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter. The 6-foot-3 Payne – who was the No. 14 overall pick in the 2015 draft – was a surprise contributor after being signed just before the Suns went to the bubble: He averaged 10.9 points as a key reserve.

Whoever is on the roster, Williams said the team needs to keep its reputation as a high-energy, high-scoring team that brings maximum effort each night. He said the team’s season-ending 128-102 win over the Dallas Mavericks was one to savor.

”You saw our DNA on display,” Williams said. ”That’s who we are.”

AYTON’S GROWTH

Arguably the most intriguing player on the roster is Ayton, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. The 6-foot-11, 250-pounder is still just 22 years old and averaged 18.2 points and 11.1 rebounds. He’s also had some frustrating setbacks, including missing 25 games early in the year after violating the league’s anti-drug policy.

Ayton is most effective on the interior but has been working on his outside shot. He hit the first three 3-pointers of his career in the Florida bubble.

ENJOYING THE MOMENT

The Suns are certainly entering a crucial offseason, but at least for a few days, they were content to bask in a job well done in Florida.

”This has probably been the highlight of my head coaching career, or at least one of them,” Williams said. ”How much fun I’ve had with our guys – it’s been a blast. We got here and went right to quarantine for 48 hours and then we went to work.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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