The NBA playoffs are here, with many eyes on favored Phoenix

Apr 14, 2022, 10:59 PM | Updated: Apr 15, 2022, 11:02 am
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives against Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks during t...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives against Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 1, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

              Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum shoots against Memphis Grizzlies guard De'Anthony Melton in the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, April 10, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
            
              Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler, right, passes the ball as Charlotte Hornets guard Isaiah Thomas defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Miami. The Heat won 144-115. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
            
              Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) drives against Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 1, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
            
              Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo cheers from the bench in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sunday, April 10, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Devin Booker does not take having another chance at an NBA championship lightly.

Over his first four years in Phoenix, among players who appeared in at least 200 games spanning the 2015-16 through the 2018-19 seasons, nobody in the NBA experienced more losing than Booker did. He appeared in 272 games in those years, and the Suns lost 197 of them.

“A lot has shifted since then,” Booker said. “We’ve watched it grow. We’ve watched it develop. I obviously don’t forget those days. All those times make now even better, make now even more important.”

They were the NBA’s worst team in those days. They were the NBA’s best team in this just-concluded regular season. And now comes the big test — the playoffs, and the Suns enter as the overwhelming favorites to become the team that takes the Larry O’Brien Trophy from Commissioner Adam Silver’s hands sometime in June.

The first four games on the official playoff slate — the play-in games don’t count, officially — are Saturday, the other four Game 1’s are on Sunday. LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers aren’t in the postseason, after their season became a stunning failure and cost coach Frank Vogel his job less than two years after winning an NBA title. Chicago, Golden State, Minnesota and Toronto are back in the postseason after not getting there a year ago.

And the longest active run of postseason appearances belongs to the Boston Celtics, in the playoffs now for an eighth consecutive year. The Celtics get a Round 1 showdown; former Boston guard Kyrie Irving and two-time champion Kevin Durant will lead the Brooklyn Nets into an Eastern Conference first-round series against the Celtics.

“Excited for the opportunity,” Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said.

Everybody at this time of year should feel the same way.

Phoenix went 64-18 this season, eight games better than anybody else in the NBA; Western Conference No. 2 seed Memphis was 56-26. Only four other teams in the last 49 seasons finished the regular season with at least eight more wins than the second-best club, and all four of those teams — most recently the 2000 Lakers — went on to win the NBA title.

“People don’t understand what it really takes to win a championship,” said Suns center JaVale McGee, a three-time NBA champion and part of the team that won Olympic gold for USA Basketball at the Tokyo Games last summer. “They think, like, you compile all the best players together and there it is. It’s not. There’s definitely a percentage of luck, and by luck I mean staying healthy.”

There are a few people in the league who understand what it takes to win a championship. Many of them reside in Milwaukee. Oddsmakers at FanDuel Sportsbook predict an NBA Finals rematch, with Phoenix favored to win this year’s title and Milwaukee the second choice, ahead of Miami, Golden State, Boston and Brooklyn.

The Bucks are the defending NBA champions, rallying from a 2-0 series deficit to beat Phoenix in six games a year ago, and most of the principal parts of that team — Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday among them — are back, and ready for more.

Winning a title last year doesn’t affect the desire to win one this year in any way, Antetokounmpo said.

“I want to be the best that I can be,” Antetokounmpo said. “I want to enjoy the game as much as possible. I want to play good basketball. I want to help my team win games. That’s pretty much it. The pressure is always the same. I’m not thinking about winning a championship or we won a championship. That’s in the past. That’s over with.”

The Bucks are the No. 3 seed in the East this year, behind No. 1 Miami and No. 2 Boston. Miami is bidding for a second trip to the NBA Finals in the last three seasons, after the then-fifth-seeded Heat made the title series in the restart bubble at Walt Disney World in 2020.

The regular season is one thing, Heat All-Star Jimmy Butler said. But the playoffs are what matter.

“That’s been on all of our minds all year long,” Butler said. “That’s the reason that we play the game. I think we’ve been a great team all year long. But now is the time we talk about.”

The Heat and Suns find out their Round 1 opponents after Friday night’s conclusion of the play-in tournament. It’ll be a tight turnaround for the top seeds, both of whom will play Game 1’s on Sunday.

The Dallas-Utah, Minnesota-Memphis, Toronto-Philadelphia and Golden State-Denver series all begin Saturday. Miami and Phoenix start their respective series Sunday, along with Brooklyn-Boston and Chicago-Milwaukee.

The last team to finish the regular season with the best record and go on to win the NBA title was Golden State in 2017. Houston in 2018, Milwaukee in 2019 and 2020, and Utah last season couldn’t get it done. The Suns believe they’ll be the ones who buck that trend.

“We’re the best team in the world and we’re having fun doing it,” McGee said. “I know from the outside looking in, they hate it. But we’ve got to keep going. We’re keeping our head down. We’re not worried about nobody else but ourselves.”

___

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The NBA playoffs are here, with many eyes on favored Phoenix