The Phoenix Suns’ success so far in the 2020-21 NBA Playoffs should hardly come as an underdog story. Phoenix finished with the second-best record in the league, earning the second seed in the Western Conference. Dating back to the bubble session that ended the 2019-20 season, the Suns have been hot for a while, as they went 9-0 in the bubble, yet narrowly missed the postseason.
The Suns were already growing as a team, with Devin Booker as their franchise cornerstone. Their strong finish in the Orlando bubble would have been a nice prelude to the 2020-21 season. In the offseason, Phoenix went all-in, acquiring veteran point guard Chris Paul to upgrade at the point guard position. Between Paul’s leadership skills and ability to create opportunities on the court, the Suns added a necessary piece to bring their franchise to the next level.
Even with great regular season success, the Suns faced a unique challenge in the first round of the NBA playoffs: LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. The situation was different than the seeding spread suggested, as the Lakers once were in the thick of the race for a top seed in the Western Conference. Their fall in the standings related to the extended absences of James and Anthony Davis.
With James and Davis healthy and on the court, the Lakers were favored, despite being the second-lowest seed in the entire eight-team Western Conference field. The Suns took Game 1 on their home court, and the Lakers were still narrowly favored to win the series.
The Lakers then took the next two games in the series, putting the Suns down by a 2-1 margin for the first time they trailed in a series this postseason. The Suns won the next three games, and consequentially the series, but Los Angeles had an excuse once again: Davis strained his groin in Game 4, rendering him unavailable for Game 5 and virtually unusable in Game 6 (exiting early in the first quarter after attempting to play through the injury.)
Phoenix downed the defending champions in six games, which is no small feat, especially considering James’ postseason dominance over the last decade. Each of James’ last nine playoff appearances resulted in an NBA Finals berth, but the Suns became the first team to ever send James packing with a first round exit.
As if owning the league’s second-best record wasn’t enough, defeating the Lakers certainly added to the Suns resume, and legitimized the team as a serious title threat.
In the second round, the Suns took on the Denver Nuggets. Led by Nikola Jokić, recently crowned the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, the Nuggets entered the postseason with the league’s fifth-best record and the Western Conference’s third seed. Denver edged out an impressive first round series victory over Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Phoenix did enter the second round matchup as the favorites, but few predicted what would ensue utter dominance from the Suns. The team swept the Nuggets in four games, winning by an average margin of 15.8 points per game. Denver averaged 115.1 points per game in the regular season, and yet the Suns held them to 105 points or less in each of the first three games of the series. Game 4 in Denver was the best fight the Nuggets put up, but the Suns still prevailed by a 125-118 score to close out the series.
The Suns now await their next opponent, either the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Clippers, in the Western Conference Finals. Phoenix has won seven straight games dating back to their first round series against the Lakers and will look to keep the momentum going, although they will be afforded a few days of rest after making short work of the Nuggets.
Though the Jazz hold the West’s top seed and the Clippers have some firepower, the Suns could conceivably be favored in the Western Conference Finals regardless of who their opponent is.
In fact, the Suns are currently the team with the second-best odds to win the NBA title, behind only the Brooklyn Nets. This high ranking is partially due to the fact the Suns have already advanced a round ahead of the rest of the field, but it still shows how quickly Phoenix has gone from first round “underdogs” to not just a threat, but a near-favorite to win the 2021 NBA Finals.
The immediate step relates to winning the Western Conference Finals. The Suns match up favorably against the Jazz, as Phoenix won all three regular season meetings. The Suns defeated the Jazz by a 106-95 score in Utah, edged out a 117-113 win in overtime in Phoenix, and most recently blew out Utah by a 121-100 margin on April 30th. The Jazz finished with the NBA’s best record, along with the league’s best defense (107.2 OPP PPG) and the Western Conference’s most prolific offense (116.4 PPG). Throw in the league’s best home record (31-5) and average point differential (+9.2), and the Jazz are a formidable force.
Still, the Suns beat the Jazz at their own game, as well as on their homecourt. Phoenix outscored the Jazz routinely over three meetings, and held Utah to below-average scoring outputs, even on their home floor. For these reasons, coupled with Phoenix’s hot postseason winning streak, the Suns would have a great chance against the Jazz.
Looking back to the regular season again, the Suns did have some trouble against the Clippers, dropping two of three matchups. Phoenix lost a game to the Clippers by as many as ten points, but the combined point differential of the regular season series was just seven points in Los Angeles’ favor. In other words, the Suns and Clippers played pretty even basketball over the course of 144 minutes of regular season play. The Clippers are a tougher matchup for the Suns, but I would still like the odds of Chris Paul facing his former team in a seven-game series.
Assuming the Suns can best the Jazz or Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, four possible opponents could emerge from the Eastern Conference. The Atlanta Hawks pose the longest shot to reach the NBA Finals, and though the team has been playing well, the Suns would easily be favored in a head-to-head matchup.
The next three teams would present a much larger threat: The Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Brooklyn Nets.
Philadelphia could be compared to an east coast version of the Utah Jazz. A tight defense led by a talented big man, and a more than capable offense that is fundamentally sound are common threads between both teams. Joel Embiid could give Phoenix’s defense headaches, but overall, the Suns would be better suited to face and defeat Philadelphia in comparison to Milwaukee or Brooklyn.
The Bucks didn’t replicate the first-place Eastern Conference finish they earned each of the last two seasons, but with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the court, anything is possible in a playoff series. Milwaukee scored an NBA-high 120.1 points per game in the regular season, and with Phoenix falling tied for sixth (115.3 PPG), a potential Suns-Bucks series would likely be high-scoring.
The Nets would be the toughest possible opponent Phoenix could face the rest of the postseason. The trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, all with NBA Finals experience, could pay dividends in a seven-game series. Brooklyn finished second in the Eastern Conference with a 48-24 regular season record, including a mediocre 20-16 road record, but this was all with spotty availability of their ‘Big Three’.
Phoenix has eight wins down and eight wins to go on their quest for a Larry O’Brien Trophy. With a supporting cast that shines on both offense and defense, the Suns are well-equipped to make a serious bid to be the next NBA Champions.