The 2023-24 Phoenix Suns never really gave themselves a chance at being liked, appreciated, or even much respected by the broader basketball world. The instant Bradley Beal was traded to the team, it compounded an already growing fatigue with “superteam” configurations, centered around veteran All-Star trios who move and shake the league so that it will allow them to play together. So as soon as he joined Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, anything short of 70 wins was going to be fuel for skeptics and haters—like me.

The Suns have had a pretty good season, though, especially when you consider that their core trio has missed a combined 50 games. Winners of seven of their last ten, they are healthy and popping at the right time as their true stage emerges: the playoffs. You wouldn’t know it from the eye-rolling, guffawing commentary about the team on podcasts, TV, and in columns, though; their praise is reserved for the freshly reimagined Dallas Mavericks after their interesting trade deadline acquisitions, or the New Orleans Pelicans for finally finding balance around a stable Zion Williamson.

The Suns are sandwiched exactly between these two teams in the standings, but because of the staggering expectations they set for themselves by loading so much neon into their superstar billboard, they inspire more malaise than optimism. That might be changing, though. Booker, in particular, is the reason. He has scored 92 points in the last two games, turning once again into the savage mechanic who stutter-steps into pull-ups that seem taken from a different universe than his helpless defenders exist in. Booker looks like the player who became the best in the world for one forgotten postseason week last Spring; in the first four games in their ill-fated series against the Denver Nuggets, he averaged 36 points on 64 percent shooting, including 57 percent from beyond the three-point arc, plus nine assists and five rebounds per game.

Booker and Durant’s two-man show quickly fizzled out after their briefly thrilling effort to tie that series at 2-2, however. Durant had just gotten there, and the team was barely realized. Now there’s been a full season between the duo, and while it’s been a largely underwhelming one, important work has been done, and comfort and rhythm levels are higher than they were when just purely balling was enough to momentarily frighten the eventual champions, a year ago. 

And the team around them makes more sense, too. Jusuf Nurkic is a reliably punishing screener and rebounder, with enough pick-and-roll creativity to add a little offensive variance. Grayson Allen has become maybe the best off-ball shooter in the sport. Royce O’Neale, Eric Gordon, and Drew Eubanks all know their jobs off the bench. Bol Bol is an eyebrow-activating chaos factor. The real mystery is what it’s been all along: Beal. 

When push comes to shove, will he be the versatile-yet-muted utility man that this team needs? A career-long volume scorer, his true fit alongside Booker and Durant has always been predicated on this question. It’s still this way, but there are encouraging signs. Over the past ten games, he is taking only ten shots per contest, while averaging seven assists. And despite his lowest usage rate since 2015, Beal remains an efficient scorer, shooting 50 percent from the field and 39 percent from the arc.

Quickly, on Durant: he is still one of the best players of all time, of course. Flirting with 50/40/90 shooting in his 16th season, he’s also an All-NBA candidate, and the same spindly killer that defenses don’t know what to do with. In an age of proliferating unicorns like rookies Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama, he is taken for granted. But there is no one in the history of the sport who has combined limb-length and guard skills like has, and he hasn’t lost much of a step.

Doubts, naturally, are expressed about Phoenix’s defense. It isn’t exactly terrible, though, and certainly not what the chortling microwaved-morning-take crowd suggests it is. The Suns have been roughly average on that end. Some might say that’s a best-case scenario, for a team with their scoring powers. Nurkic is not the athlete he used to be, but he’s a mountain man who no one hopes to encounter when their body has momentum, and provides a solid base for everyone to build off. Booker and Durant both have long records, now, of dramatic defensive improvement when the stakes are raised, which any playoff opponent will see from them.

Soon, the gap between regular season expectations and performance won’t define the Suns anymore. Neither will their astonishing lack of building blocks for future versions of the roster, which the armchair general manager wing of the media often remarks upon. In the playoffs, everything is distilled into a series of hyper-charged moments, and those are what this team has been built for, and what it’s been waiting for. They’re probably not anyone’s pick for 2024 NBA champion, but they should be everyone’s choice for scariest opponent.