It’s all Zion Williamson’s fault.
He’s not on the Clippers. He’s not on the Phoenix Suns. But depending on your collection of tinfoil hats and contacts within the NBA deep state, he’s the reason why the Suns have been basketball’s hottest team since last August and are playing the Clippers in the Western Conference finals.
The theory goes like this: In an effort to boost ratings for the NBA’s return to action in the bubble last year, the league wanted to ensure Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans had a chance to make the playoffs. And in an effort to shield their capitalistic impulses, they’d add more teams out of the playoff picture.
That meant the Phoenix Suns received a surprise invitation to keep their season alive, the 21st of the 22 teams sent to Orlando, Fla. (only the Washington Wizards had a worse record).
So, thanks to Williamson, the Suns got to build confidence and momentum, winning eight consecutive games in the bubble while setting the stage for their Western Conference finals run one season later.
The truth isn’t as fun. NBA sources insist that Williamson’s inclusion in the bubble wasn’t a factor, that the league just wanted to bring teams still in contention for a playoff spot and safely play as many games as possible.
It won’t stop everyone from debating the NBA’s intentions. But the results? They’re inarguable.
The Suns’ eight-game winning streak in Orlando laid the groundwork for another eight-game winning streak, this one stretching through the three rounds of this year’s playoffs.
“Outside of the teams that either won the championship or competed for one, we had the most to gain because a lot of people thought we shouldn’t have been there,” coach Monty Williams said Monday. “For us, it was like a third training camp for us. We had the preseason training camp and then we had the madhouse [pre-bubble] training camp, and then we got to go to Orlando and have another training camp, so we were able to continue our program. Then we were just fortunate enough to play well and win a lot of games and built a ton of confidence.”
The Clippers shouldn’t be surprised. They had an early look at the Phoenix transformation.
As teams were getting used to bubble ball, Devin Booker stunned the Clippers with a last-second jumper to break a tie and give Phoenix a win. The shot became one of the more iconic plays of the experiment, an impossible turnaround with Paul George inches away.
By then Booker had established himself as one of the NBA’s purest scorers, a 23-year-old with a bag full of tricks and traits normally reserved for more experienced players.
In the NBA, they call players like Booker a “three-level scorer” because he’s a threat from deep, from mid-range and at the rim. Booker’s had that in him for a while.
The swagger was already there too. After Booker’s rookie season, Williams saw the young guard take on members of the 2016 U.S. national team.
“You could see that he wasn’t afraid of going against the top guys,” Williams remembered.
That confidence has spread among his teammates — you can see it in big shots drained by third-year forward Mikal Bridges, the way second-year forward Cameron Johnson spots up or the way journeyman guard Cameron Payne attacks. And you can watch it as third-year center Deandre Ayton looks more and more like a complete player.
Add a veteran star like Chris Paul and established role players such as Jae Crowder and Dario Saric, and the Suns are three wins from the NBA Finals.
“When I first got here, Coach started texting me like, ‘Man, I think we’re a championship team,’” veteran guard E’Twaun Moore said. “… He acted like we were that team.”
If the Suns hadn’t been included in the bubble, Williams and Co. couldn’t have been so sure that they were a contender.
“It gave us a lot of momentum going into the season; a ton of momentum,” Johnson said. “Beyond that, let’s say we didn’t even make it to the bubble. That’s a lot of months without being together as a team.
“So the fact that we were able to get into the bubble, come close to the playoffs, maybe not make it, but it gave us a lot of steam, momentum, kind of showed that the work that we put in, the kind of culture that we built is starting to pay some dividends. It just gave us a lot of excitement going into the season.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.