In 2007, the Dallas Mavericks finished with 67 wins. On the heels of a tough loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, they entered the following season with some vengeance, dragging everyone behind the efforts of that year’s MVP Dirk Nowitzki. . That they needed to have a long playoff run was a done deal, especially since their first-round opponent was a team that struggled to win half of its games, the Golden State Warriors. Chances are you know what happened next: The Warriors, with a barrage of hugely athletic guards and wings seemingly all on the tears of their lives, pulled off the inspiring upset, entering a rare tune in NBA history. which has not been occupied since.
Fifteen years later, it remains unlikely that anyone will join the “We Believe” Warriors in this category, but there is no doubt that this year’s version of the 2007 Mavericks, this year’s Phoenix Suns, are increasingly aware of the ghosts of this unusual spring. A 64-win regular-season behemoth, driven by the sting of their own Finals loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021, the Suns now face a real first-round battle with MVP contender Devin Booker sidelined indefinitely. with hamstring strain, and the young New Orleans Pelicans through them looked like the fastest, swingiest, jumpiest and most liberated team after a surprise upset in Arizona to even the series at 1-1.
The idea of the Pelicans knocking down the obvious best team this season might soon sound like a joke. It’s hard to overstate the mechanical nature of the winning spirit Monty Williams, likely Coach of the Year winner, created in the desert: Booker missed 14 games, Chris Paul missed 17 , Deandre Ayton 24, Jae Crowder 15. That’s 70 missed performances from the Suns’ starting lineup, with their two key reserves, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne, combining for 40 more. It doesn’t really matter, because the Suns’ principles are so firmly in place, their dedication to margins and perfect playbook execution so strong that even some of the sport’s truest pros sometimes seem interchangeable. Only Mikal Bridges has been a reliable staple, with the likes of JaVale McGee, Bismack Biyombo, Landry Shamet and Torrey Craig all ready to confidently step into Williams’ model at any time.
That kind of next-man mentality will be needed without Booker. In Game 2, Craig looked nothing like the answer to the missing stud riddle, nor was a full bench unit who struggled to stay in the game late in the third quarter, after the exit. de Booker after a scintillating first 31 points. half performance. The Pelicans, often led by the efforts of three scrapped rookies in Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III, as well as the thrilling surges of super athlete Jaxson Hayes turning the corner in his third season, had the Suns on the tilt, with the defending conference champions showing unusual defensive breakdowns as New Orleans pushed the pace relentlessly. And when the Suns tried to slow play and claw back into their fourth-quarter clutch time comfort zone — where they’ve always been dominant — Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum denied them with a devastating shot on the running back. ground, never allowing Phoenix to close the gap. .
Paul and Booker have been key to the Suns’ slaughterhouse: Either can lure defenders to mid-range islands where they take them to pasture, and because both can, but also because that everyone moves off the ball and knows exactly what their role is to punish the scheme – you can’t pay particular attention to either one. Teams equipped to deal with both in isolation mode don’t really exist, but teams that stop the nearly 37-year-old Paul do exist on their own. So far, the Pelicans have looked like one: Even in their Game 1 loss, with Paul shutting the door on them on the stretch, discord has never really been out of reach. And in Game 2, Booker playing one of the better halves of his life was the only thing stopping them from participating, until it wasn’t.
The Pelicans’ chances are still long, as Phoenix is smart enough and deep enough to demolish a young team that still finds its legs the way they are, having planned the game without Booker and revamped the production levels each player is asked to provide, and how. And their readiness for the Pelicans’ thirst for pace will certainly be higher. But what if the world was a stranger place than we thought, with the league’s new play-in tournament inviting more chaotic parity than we thought? The No. 9 Pelicans, largely microwaved at the end of the season thanks to trades and quick improvements to youth projects, wouldn’t be here without the new format, but now they look like a team that should have been there from the start. And they’re brazen in their sudden relevance, fighting with wild ease and cold conviction. They play for nothing less than the story and don’t really seem to care.