Five months later than many expected, the last two Western Conference champions will duel in the desert when the Golden State Warriors visits the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night.
The Warriors, who made five straight trips to the NBA Finals from 2015-19, and Suns, the 2021 Western champs, appeared to be on a collision course to determine the West’s 2022 Finals representative when each was one win from Western semifinals advancement last May.
But two days after the third-seeded Warriors closed out the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in six games, the top-seeded Suns were shocked at home in a decisive Game 7 by the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
Then, with the Suns watching on television, the Warriors dispatched of the Mavericks in five games and the Boston Celtics in six to capture their fourth title in the last eight years.
Suns coach Monty Williams noted Sunday that his team hasn’t forgotten.
“We all still feel the pain with the way we went out. That can still drive you,” Williams said. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to win it. But it certainly will motivate you to work on the things you need to work on.”
The Suns have opened the season with wins over two of the projected top contenders in the West, including the Mavericks in a rematch on Opening Night. Phoenix went on the road and blasted the Los Angeles Clippers 112-95 on Sunday.
The Suns and Warriors split four meetings last season, with the Suns taking the final one at Golden State with just 12 days remaining in the regular season. Despite Stephen Curry sitting out, it was billed as a possible Western Finals preview.
A month later, the Suns were no longer standing, and some after-effects remain visible. Veteran forward Jae Crowder is away from the team as he awaits a trade, and radio silence engulfs the relationship between Williams and star center Deandre Ayton that many identified as the dam-breaker in the Dallas series.
A restricted free agent who was forced to rejoin the Suns this season after they matched his offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers, Ayton has been on his best behavior so far. He’s averaged 19.0 points and 8.0 rebounds while also anchoring a defense that has allowed opponents just 104.3 points per game.
The Warriors nearly scored that many in the first half alone Sunday at home against the Sacramento Kings, exploding for a franchise-record 50 in the second quarter en route to an 89-71 halftime lead. Stephen Curry had 28 points in the half.
The second half wasn’t nearly as pinball-like, and in fact the Warriors saw the Kings close within four in the final two minutes before falling short as Golden State won 130-125.
“We played very poorly and let our guard down,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the final 24 minutes, “but we’ll learn from that.”
Tuesday’s game matches two of the league’s top scorers in the early going.
Phoenix’s Devin Booker had 35 points in Sunday’s win over the Clippers, giving him a franchise-record 96 through three games.
That’s four points fewer than Golden State’s Curry, whose 100 points (33, 34 and 33) have come in 100 minutes.
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