PHOENIX (AP) — The Phoenix Suns have several reasons to be confident they can make another deep playoff run. They have the No. 1 overall seed, they're talented, they're healthy and their roster has loads of continuity and postseason experience after advancing to the Finals last season.
Confident, but not cocky as they've pegged one trait they believe could knock them off track in pursuit of their first NBA title — hubris.
"I am not like some old, wise playoff sage that I can sit up here and wax eloquently the step-by-step process," Suns coach Monty Williams said. "I have a level of humility for the process."
The Suns are trying to follow a brilliant regular season by finally bringing a championship to the desert. The franchise has been to the Finals three times — in 1976, 1993 and last season — but never won it all.
It's easy to see why the Suns are optimistic this team could end the streak. They just finished a 64-win season that was eight wins better than any other team in the league thanks to the All-Star backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker, along with a rapidly improving supporting cast that includes Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson.
The dominant regular season was an important statement for many on the team — particularly Booker — who still feel the Suns don't get the proper amount of respect following last year's Finals appearance. They took a 2-0 lead in the championship series before losing the next four to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Now the goal is to finish the job. They'll open the playoffs Sunday against the winner of the Pelicans-Clippers play-in game Friday night in Los Angeles.
"I think there's a whole other level we can tap into," Booker said.
The Suns didn't change their roster much following the loss to the Bucks, opting instead to make another run with the same nucleus. General manager James Jones did make a few shrewd moves to bolster the bench, adding center JaVale McGee in free agency and guard Landry Shamet in a trade. Both have been key parts of the second unit.
The 7-foot-1 McGee has been particularly valuable, providing rim protection and hustle when starter Deandre Ayton's out of the game. He's also turned into a fan favorite and likes to call the Suns "the best basketball team in the world."
But most of the team's improvement came from within. The Paul-Booker pairing has been impressive, adding a stellar new chapter to the 36-year-old Paul's career and helping Booker to become one of the league's bona fide stars.
Bridges has grown into a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year and is averaging a career-best 14.2 points per game. He's also been a rock in the starting lineup when others were out with injuries or COVID-19, playing in 309 consecutive games over four seasons, which is the longest streak in the NBA.
Ayton changed the trajectory of his career in last year's playoffs — growing from and inconsistent young player to a legitimate force in the paint — and continues to impress.
The Suns were roundly criticized for taking the big man with the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 ahead of stars Luka Doncic and Trae Young, but Ayton has turned into a productive player in his own right, shooting a career-high 63% from the field while averaging more than 17 points and 10 rebounds per game.
The Suns also have a productive bench.
The 6-foot-8 Johnson has become one of the league's most productive reserves. The 26-year-old was known as a shooter when he came into the league three years ago and his 42.5% mark from 3-point range certainly fits the description. But he's also a sneaky athlete who can get to the rim for powerful dunks and often finishes the game with the starters in the fourth quarter.
Phoenix's 64-win regular season is another accomplishment for Paul, who has few rivals in NBA history when it comes to making teams better. His presence and production have helped the Clippers, Rockets, Hornets and now Suns establish new franchise records for wins in a season.
There's only one thing that remains.
"It would be nice to put a championship with all that," Paul said. "That's the goal, that's what we're working towards."
But after playing 1,155 career NBA games, Paul knows a good regular season when he sees one.
And the Suns were the league's best.
"I don't take that lightly though because it's a lot of work, it's a lot of hard work that goes into year-in and year-out playing and competing," Paul added. "At the end of the day, you want to have a chance. You at least want to have a chance, and I'm grateful to be here with this group."
AP freelance writer Bob Huhn contributed to this story.