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Suns, Spurs Miss Play-In, But Prove They Belong

Drew Maresca reviews the in-bubble performances of the Suns and Spurs.

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On a night when Damian Lillard took center stage – and delivered, again – the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs learned they’d been bumped from playoff contention.

The Suns entered the bubble with a sub-par 26-39 record. They’d experienced setbacks throughout the season that hurt their chances at the playoffs, including an eight-game losing streak in December. Still, there was plenty to look forward to for Phoenix fans as their beloved Suns prepared to enter the bubble in mid-July: A new coach who is viewed positively around the league (Monty Williams); the surprising play rookie Cameron Johnson, which must have been incredibly satisfying for the Suns after receiving heavy criticism for making the draft pick in June 2019; the development of young big-man Deandre Ayton, who quietly averaged an impressive 18.4 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in just his second season in the league; and, of course, the continued rise of superstar guard Devin Booker.

But still, little was expected of the Suns in the bubble – after all, they had won only 32 percent of their games against bubble teams in 2019-20 prior to the resumption of play in late July. But hold the phone, the Suns rattled off seven convincing wins in the bubble against elite competition and set themselves up to possibly qualify for the first play-in game in NBA history. And after securing another win against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday, the Suns were ready for the playoffs.

Unfortunately, Thursday night was, as it always is, Dame Time. The Trail Blazers beat the Nets in a thrilling and closely contested game, punching their ticket to the playoffs and, simultaneously, ensuring that the Suns would miss out. But the Suns’ future is glowing, even if they did come up short.

Ricky Rubio was a major bright spot this season, as he was a part of six of the team’s seven best lineups in 2019-20 –  all of which were +10 or more in total. Mikal Bridges’s play was also encouraging, as he averaged 12.6 points per game on 38.7 percent three-point shooting through the team’s first seven games in the bubble. Johnson was already a pleasant surprise entering Orlando, but he also continued to prove himself. Johnson, who is a mature rookie at 24-years-old, averaged 13 points and six rebounds per game on 35.9 percent shooting from deep. Ayton has proven a lot, too. He must continue to improve on his defensive decision-making, but he showed he is more than capable.

And then, last but not least, there’s Booker – someone who will inevitably be named to the All-Bubble First Team. Booker played like a man on a mission, averaging 30.5 points and six assists per game with pretty incredible shooting splits at 50.3/31.3/94. But Booker did more than just put up mind-boggling numbers– he made major, Dame-like statements, including a moment-of-the-bubble game-winner.

While it must be disappointing to have won out and still fail to qualify for the playoffs, the Suns now know how good they can be. Between Booker’s brilliance, Rubio’s calming presence, Johnson’s surprising transition to the NBA and Ayton anchoring it all on the block, the Suns can build on it whenever the 2020-21 season begins.

The San Antonio Spurs also missed the playoffs by an extremely slim margin, ending a 22-year playoff steak – the longest current streak in North American major sports. Their fight to advance to a play-in game ended on Thursday night, too, with a loss to the Jazz.

The Spurs are the gold-standard of the NBA: Five championships in the last 21 seasons, possibly the best coach of all-time and at least two first-ballot Hall of Famers (Tim Duncan and David Robinson). Further, their system made average players good and good players great. But when Kawhi Leonard demanded a trade in 2018, it was widely assumed that the Spurs run had come to an abrupt end.

Instead, the Spurs quickly and quietly reloaded their arsenal. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are All-Stars in their own right, and they’ve been more than capable of leading a team to the playoffs. But the Spurs’ organization demands more. As expected, DeRozan and Aldridge were the 2019-20 leaders in minutes played and points per game – yet the two former All-Stars were assumed to be too little to help the Spurs advance deep into the playoffs, and so it appeared that the time to rebuild was at hand.

So the results of the current season weren’t too surprising as of July. Prior to the play stoppage, San Antonio was 27-36 and even Popovich was looking forward to next season.

”Each team has a goal here,” Popovich recently said to reporters prior to resuming the season in Orlando. ”Some teams are confident they’re a step away from winning an NBA championship. Other teams just want to be in the playoffs. Some teams are concerned mainly with development. If we play well enough to get into the playoffs, that would be great. But my goal is development right now.”

But the Spurs almost made Popovich eat his words, as they went 5-2 in the bubble without Aldridge and Bryn Forbes. They ultimately missed out — but as much as the playoffs would have been a great learning experience for the young team, bubble play boasted a playoff-like atmosphere in which every game counted. And the youngsters answered the bell.

Derrick White was the major breakout star of bubble play for the Spurs. The former D2 star outperformed all expectations by averaging 18.9 points, 5.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds over the seven games in the bubble (he sat out the final loss against Utah). He shot a scorching 39.3 percent from deep and eclipsed the 20-point mark in five of those contests too. Not bad for the second-to-last pick in the first round way back in 2017.

Dejounte Murray might not be the team’s only – or even main – backcourt star, but he proved that he can still be a major contributor alongside another lead guard. Paired with White, Murray averaged 12.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game – and the duo displayed a defensive prowess that would be hard to duplicate.

But it’s more than just those two. There’s also Lonnie Walker, the aggressive second-year wing and a fearless slasher with elite athleticism. Considering his youth and lack of experience, Walker was impressive in the bubble, averaging 11.3 points on 40 percent three-point shooting.

However, the most surprising breakout came from rookie Keldon Johnson. Johnson – who appeared in just six of the team’s 63 games prior to the stoppage – averaged  14.1 points and 5.0 rebounds in just 26 minutes per game in the bubble. And what’s more, he set a career-highs in points three separate times – against the 76ers (15), Nuggets (20) and Rockets (24) – and he eclipsed the 20-point mark three times, as well.

Eight teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs every season. It’s not uncommon for good teams to miss out. But don’t bet on the Suns or Spurs missing out again. Even with all of the talent out in the Western Conference, it’s hard to justify betting against either after watching both overachieve in the weird and pressure-filled Orlando bubble.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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