SAN ANTONIO — The Phoenix Suns have the NBA’s best record at the midway point of the season, but that’s only a part of their championship picture.
“We have a big (goal) and that's to get a ring," Suns center Deandre Ayton said. "There's nothing to hide to say that's what our goal is. I think the whole world knows that.”
Devin Booker has said the regular season is preparation for the postseason, a place the Suns revisited last season for the first time since 2010.
The return run fell just two wins short of winning an NBA title.
So Phoenix should aspire to capturing the franchise’s first title, but must push through the 82-game grind in the regular season.
This is all part of the journey the Suns hope ends atop the NBA mountain.
"We're hopeful that all the stuff we're doing right now, we feel like, I feel like is a part of the mission that leads to the goal."
Monty Williams as #Suns have #NBA best record at 32-9 at the midway point of the season.
Face #Pistons today at midway point of 5-game road trip. pic.twitter.com/8DyGoyAxci
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) January 16, 2022
“We have a ways to go as far as being the kind of team we want to be,” said Suns coach Monty Williams, who was in protocols four games this season. “We certainly are trending in a good place with our offensive and defensive efficiency, but great teams, great players, make consistent plays, solid plays all the time and that’s what we’re pushing for. The kind of team that plays to a certain identity, certain standard every game.”
So The Republic continues its weekly “Suns Pulse” on a team that is on the backend of a five-game road trip as they play Monday at San Antonio.
Here’s a recap of the Suns through Sunday and a look at what's ahead for the defending Western Conference champions, who will be without Ayton against the Spurs after he sprained his right ankle in Sunday’s win over Detroit.
Overall record: 33-9.
Last week: 3-0 (Won at Toronto, 99-95, at Indiana, 112-94, and at Detroit, 135-108).
Best win: While their most-lopsided win came against the Pistons, the Suns responded to Indiana’s comeback with a 16-2 run to open the fourth quarter to top the Pacers.
“Raptor”: Booker created a stir in Tuesday’s 99-95 victory over the Raptors that took on a life of its own. The two-time All-Star complained about Toronto’s mascot waving his hands behind the basket while he was attempting free throws with 6.5 seconds left. He’s since received major criticism on social media, but Booker responded with back-to-back 30-point games and a renewed perspective.
"I'm just try to keep perspective. I'm having fun with it."
Devin Booker on how his issue with "Raptor" mascot has blown up.#Pacers had dinosaur mascot in arena, but not long.
"I'm looking for him. I'm sure he'll be in Detroit. I'm sure he'll follow me everywhere." #Suns pic.twitter.com/4q3PSprpiU
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) January 15, 2022
Best performance: Another tough call. Ayton going for 27 and 12 in the Indiana win was impressive as he scored 21 in the first half, but with Booker winning Western Conference Player of the week honors, had to go with his 35-point effort against the Pacers as he scored 22 in the third quarter.
Head scratcher: Mikal Bridges going 1-of-6 for four points against the Pacers. This was after he shot 1-of-6 from 3 (5-of-12 overall) for 12 points against the Raptors.
20-20: JaVale McGee and Cameron Payne both scored 20 points in Sunday’s win against Detroit. McGee shot 9-of-10 from the field while Payne went 8-of-12 (3-of-6 from) and added five rebounds and five assists.
Top plus total for the week — Chris Paul (Plus-54). He didn’t have the huge scoring outcome, but clearly impacted the wins in other ways in edging out Jae Crowder, who finished with a plus-47 total.
Worst minus total for the week — Elfrid Payton (Plus-2).This is the first time the Suns have had all the players who saw action finish with plus numbers. Payton only played in the two blowout wins.
Quotable: "I am not Kobe Bryant"
In sounding off about social media following the reaction to his short-lived feud with “Raptor” mascot, Booker took a moment to express his lone issue with the backlash — the comparisons to his basketball idol, Kobe Bryant, and Mamba mentality. He closed his comments by saying, “and people are out here yelling Mamba mentality from their mama's house I'll leave you with that."
Devin Booker enjoys social media.
"The only problem I have is people still comparing me to Kobe Bryant when I told them in the playoffs stop bringing up Mamba mentality."
Inspired by Bryant, but added, "People are out here yelling Mamba mentality from their mama's house." pic.twitter.com/D32Rjkvrus
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) January 15, 2022
Next games: Monday at San Antonio (16-27), Thursday at Dallas (24-19), Saturday vs. Indiana (15-29) and Monday vs. Utah (29-14).
Toughest — Jazz. First meeting this season against Utah, which is considered a championship contender, too. Phoenix went 3-0 against the Jazz last season. Utah surely remembers that.
Utah finished with the league’s best record in the regular season, but the Suns made the finals, something Donovan Mitchell suggested wouldn’t have happened had the Jazz been healthy.
Phoenix surely heard that.
Easiest – Pacers. Even though they gave Phoenix a scare, the Pacers still lost by 18 at home to the Suns. Phoenix should handle business even with this being the first game at home after long road trip.
The Utah game could go either way, but the Dallas one is interesting.
The Suns have yet to play against Luka Doncic this season, but they’ve won eight matchups in a row over the Mavericks. So it’s not as if they haven’t knocked off Dallas with Doncic on the floor.
The difference could be how the other Mavs are playing. They played the Suns tough in their two losses in Phoenix without Doncic. Jalen Brunson has been a difference maker.
This will be the final game of the five-game road trip. Possibly no Ayton, too.
Last week's prediction (3-1)
Phoenix 3-0 heading into Monday’s game against the Spurs (The prediction included the Spurs game).
What to watch for this week
As the Feb. 10 trade deadline draws nearer, more names will enter the conversation.
Jalen Smith has been part of trade talks since last summer, but with the way he’s playing and the unpredictability of guys missing games due to COVID-19, his value with the team has risen.
Phoenix has the NBA’s best record. So why miss with something that works.
With that mentality, the Suns wouldn’t have landed Torrey Craig, who helped them reach the finals last season., in a trade with Milwaukee for cash considerations.
The Suns are 11-3 without Ayton heading into Monday’s game as he missed six games with a leg injury, five protocols, two with a non-COVID illness and one to recondition after being in protocols.
So they can win without him — and having Smith helps them shoulder that loss.
The Suns remain second in the league in defensive rating just behind Golden State, but are facing the Jazz, who are first in the NBA in offensive rating, twice in back-to-back games.
They say defensive wins championship. True test of that will come against the Jazz.
Finally, the NBA All-Star voting concludes Saturday at midnight ET.
The odds are very much against the Suns landing any starters.
Booker and Paul were fifth and seventh, respectively, in the second return of fan votes for the West backcourt starters while Ayton was 10th in the voting for the frontcourt starters.
Two starters are picked for the backcourt, three for the frontcourt. Fans make up 50% of the vote, current players account for 25% while the media make up the remaining 25%.
So the NBA head coaches will determine the fate of whether Paul, Booker, Ayton or Bridges make it as reserves.
Paul will probably make it for 12th time. Coaches see him as a difference maker for the Suns.
They’ve got 20-20 vision on that one.
Bridges probably won’t make it. Very good player, great defender, but isn’t having an All-Star year.
That leaves Booker and Ayton.
Ayton is a wild card. With Anthony Davis being out due to injury, that opens up a spot.
Then there’s Booker.
After an outcry that Klay Thompson was ahead of Booker after the first batch of fan votes were released and he hadn’t played a game in two years, Thompson was still fourth in front of Booker after the second fan vote returns.
Both of Booker’s All-Star selections have been as an injury replacement.
He’s not going to make it as a starter, but will the coaches vote him in as a reserve.
That’s the vote to watch because it'd be crazy if the Suns have the NBA's best record and only one All-Star with Williams as a head coach in next month's game in Cleveland.
Upward — Devin Booker. Pretty easy call after he was named Western Conference player of the week. Plus, he was literally trending on Twitter after “Raptor” feud.
at Raptors: 16 points (4-of-13 FGs).
at Pacers: 35 points (11-of-25 FGs).
at Pistons: 30 points (11-of-18 FGs).
Downward — Mikal Bridges. Struggling to make shots right now, Bridges went 3-of-14 from 3 during this three-game stretch.
at Raptors: 12 points (5-of-12 FGs)
at Pacers: 4 points (1-of-6 FGS)
at Pistons: 10 points (4-of-10 FGs)
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Suns Pulse: Best record midway point, Booker vs. 'Raptor' and back-to-back 30-point react