In 2007, the Dallas Mavericks finished with 67 wins. On the heels of a tough loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, they came into the next season with a certain vengeance, steamrolling everyone behind the efforts of that year's MVP, Dirk Nowitzki. That they were to make a long postseason run was fait accompli, especially given that their first-round opponent was a team that struggled to win half their games, the Golden State Warriors. There's a good chance you know what happened next, though: the Warriors, with a barrage of overwhelmingly athletic guards and wings, seemingly all on the shot-making tears of their lives, pulled off the inspiring upset, entering a rare air within NBA history that hasn't been occupied since.

Fifteen years later, it remains unlikely that anyone will join the "We Believe" Warriors in this category, but there's no doubt that this year's version of the 2007 Mavericks, this year's Phoenix Suns, are increasingly aware of the ghosts of that unusual Spring. A 64-win regular season juggernaut, motivated by the sting of their own Finals loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last in 2021, the Suns now face a real first-round battle with MVP candidate Devin Booker sidelined indefinitely with hamstring tightness, and the young New Orleans Pelicans across them looking like the faster, ballsier, higher-leaping, more liberated team after a startling upset in Arizona to tie the series at 1-1.

The idea of the Pelicans knocking over this season's obvious best team could look like a joke, soon. It's hard to overstate the machine-like nature of winsmanship that likely Coach of The Year award winner Monty Williams has created in the desert: Booker missed 14 games, Chris Paul missed 17, Deandre Ayton 24, Jae Crowder 15. That's 70 missed performances from the Suns' starting lineup, with their two key reserves, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne, combining for 40 more. It hasn't really mattered, because the Suns' principles are so firmly in place, their dedication to the margins and perfection of playbook execution so strong that it can make even some of the truest pros in the sport seem interchangeable at times. Only Mikal Bridges has been a reliable staple, with the likes of JaVale McGee, Bismack Biyombo, Landry Shamet, and Torrey Craig all ready to step confidently into Williams' template at a moment's notice.

That kind of next-man-up mentality will be needed sans Booker. In Game 2, Craig did not look anything like the answer to the conundrum of the missing stud, and neither did a full bench unit that struggled to stay in the game late in the third quarter, following Booker's exit after a scintillating 31-point first half performance. The Pelicans, led often by the efforts of three upstart scrap-heap rookies in Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones, and Trey Murphy III, plus the thrilling open-court surges of super athlete Jaxson Hayes turning the corner in his third season, had the Suns on tilt, with the defending conference champions showing unusual defensive breakdowns as New Orleans pushed the pace relentlessly. And when the Suns tried to slow the game down and recover in their comfort zone of fourth quarter clutch time—where they have been historically dominant—Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum denied them with devastating half-court shotmaking, never allowing Phoenix to close the gap.

Paul and Booker have been the key to the Suns' clutch time slaughterhouse: either can lure defenders into mid-range islands where they take them out to pasture, and because both can—but also because everyone else moves around off the ball and knows exactly what their scheme-punishing role is—you can't give special attention to either. Teams equipped to deal with both of them in isolation mode don't really exist, but teams that stop the almost 37-year-old Paul alone do. The Pelicans have looked like one, so far: even in their Game 1 loss, with Paul closing the door on them down the stretch, contention was never truly out of reach. And in Game 2, Booker playing one of the best halves of his life was the only thing keeping them out of it, until it wasn't.

The Pelicans' odds are still long, because Phoenix is smart enough and deep enough to demolish a young team still finding their legs like them, after gameplanning without Booker and rejiggering the levels of production that each player is asked to provide, and how. And their preparedness for the Pelicans' hunger for pace will certainly be higher. But what if the world is a weirder place than we thought it was, with the league's new play-in tournament a greater inviter of chaotic parity than we realized? The No. 9 seed Pelicans, largely microwaved at the end of the season through trades and rapid youth project improvements, wouldn't be here without the new format, but now they look like a team that should've belonged in it all along. And they are brazen in their sudden relevance, fighting with a wild ease and cool conviction. They are playing for nothing short of history, and don't quite seem to care.