Bordow: As Playoff Pressure Ramps Up, Suns Breeze Through First Test

On the eve of the NBA playoffs, John Hollinger, a former league executive and now a sportswriter with The Athletic, postulated that the postseason should be viewed in this manner:

The Phoenix Suns vs. the field.

That’s how dominant the Suns have been this season. They won a franchise record 64 games and finished with eight more victories than any other NBA team. They were 33-9 in “clutch” games, defined as games within five points in the final five minutes. No other team had more than 26 clutch wins.

They have the league’s best backcourt in Chris Paul and Devin Booker, a deep and talented roster and a camaraderie rarely seen among professional sports teams. Plus, the experience they gained in the playoffs last season, when they reached the NBA Finals before losing to Milwaukee, should be invaluable as they begin their march toward a championship ring this season.

But dominance in the regular season gives way to expectations in the post-season, and that’s not always an easy burden to handle.

Remember, Phoenix’s run to the Finals last season was an unexpected magic carpet ride. Blowing a 2-0 lead against Milwaukee, while devastating, was softened by the realization that just three years earlier the Suns had finished 19-63.

Who could stay disappointed for long given how far the Suns had come?

But these playoffs, which Phoenix began with a 110-99 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans Sunday in the first game of their best-of-seven series are a very different animal.

Nothing less than an NBA championship will suffice, and if that seems unfair, well, that’s what happens when you’re indisputably the best team in the league over 82 games.

The good thing about these Suns: They’re well-equipped to handle the pressure. That starts with coach Monty Williams, who refuses to look at tomorrow when there are things to do today.

Williams joked before Sunday’s game that he doesn’t have any slogans or catchphrases like “Four, four, four,” the famous boast made by Philadelphia 76ers center Moses Malone as the 1983 playoffs were about to begin.

But Williams does have pet sayings to describe the Suns’ mindset.

“We have the do-the-next-thing-right mentality,” he said.

As trite as that may sound, it’s an important characteristic of these Suns. They’re not thinking about avenging last year’s Finals loss to the Bucks at least not yet. They’re not contemplating who they might face in the Western Conference Finals.

Do the next thing right means beating New Orleans in Game 1. Period.

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But it’s not just Williams who beats that drum. Paul, Booker and Jae Crowder know how important it is to stay in the moment. By doing so, they insulate themselves – and their younger teammates from the expectations placed on them to win it all.It’s about the next drill, the next practice, the next game.

“I think they have respect for the whole thing. There’s a humility I’ve talked about,” Williams said. “When you’ve gone as far as we did last year … Chris says it all the time: You’re not promised anything. You have to go through your step-by-step process.

“I’m sure there is motivation (after last year’s Finals loss) but it’s not something we talk about. As a boxer, you get knocked out, you want to get back in the ring and fight that guy. This is different. You can’t automatically get back to that point … At least for us, that keeps us focused on the day.”

It was instructive to hear Williams talk about the Suns’ preparation for the series against the Pelicans. He said because the players are now so in tune with what he wants that when they go through a scouting report, they complete his sentences before he finishes them.

“Last year we had no idea what to expect with that group,” he said in comparison.

So, here’s what the Suns are: An immensely talented, tough-minded – no one will call these Suns soft – focused team with, now, the requisite playoff experience.

And here’s how that combination manifests itself:

Phoenix, unlike Milwaukee in its precarious Game 1 victory over Chicago Sunday, dispatched New Orleans as if it was a bug on a windshield. Booker had eight points in the game’s first four minutes, the Suns led, 28-16, after the first quarter and they were never seriously threatened thanks to Paul, who scored 19 points in a fourth-quarter performance worthy of his Point God nickname and finished with 30 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.

That Phoenix led from wire-to-wire Sunday is no surprise. The Pelicans are no match for the Suns, and this series should be over in four, maybe five games. But the routine nature of the win also speaks to Phoenix’s maturity. It didn’t fall into the “we’re-the-No. 1 seed-they’re-the-No. 8-seed” trap and play sloppy, disinterested basketball against New Orleans, except for a short stretch late in the third quarter.

Phoenix did the next thing right.

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Oh, if there’s one more reason to think there will be a championship parade in Phoenix in late June it was the news that broke just before Sunday’s game: The three NBA MVP finalists were announced, and Booker wasn’t among them.

(Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid are the final three.)

I covered Booker throughout the 2017-2018 season. I can say with certainty that the slightest of sleights drive him, no matter what he says in press conferences. Sunday, it was, “My main focus is playoff time.”

Ignore the words. Know the man. Booker, who has some Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan DNA in him in that he wants to be “the guy,” will be out to prove the voters wrong. And he plays better when he’s angry.

The Suns took care of step one Sunday. And while they may not be looking ahead to another NBA Finals and, if regular-season form holds, the first championship in franchise history, know this:

Everyone else in Arizona is.

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