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Countdown to playoffs: Can Phoenix Suns win out to capture No. 1 seed?

With nine games remaining, Phoenix has chance to finish regular season with the NBA's top record. Here's a look at how challenging that will be.

Don't know what's more impressive.

Beating two of the NBA's top four teams after a five-game road trip out East or going 5-2 in its last seven games with wins over Milwaukee, Philadelphia, New York, the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah.

Either way, the end result put Phoenix atop the league after Friday's games.

"I don't think we're slowing down," Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker said. "We can only get better with more experience." 

More:Phoenix Suns' challenge for next 3 weeks: Stay good, and healthy

Suns coach Monty Williams appreciates the 45-18 record, but is far from satisfied.

"You want to maintain what we're doing and increase it," he said after Friday's win to complete a 3-0 series sweep of the Jazz. "Obviously, it's great for the city of Phoenix, great for our fans. It's great for the players, but I can't dwell on that. I love the mindset of how can we get better."

Apr 30, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) pumps his fist after scoring and being fouled by the Utah Jazz in the first half at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic

Climbing the mountain is tough. Staying on top of it is even tougher.

With nine games left, Phoenix is in position to finish this shortened 72-game regular season with the league's best record, but may have to win out to achieve that.

That won't be easy, but they should at worse finish 6-3.

Seven of Phoenix's final nine games are on the road. Not ideal, but the Suns have the league's top road record at 20-9.

They're in a battle for the West's top seed with the Jazz and Clippers, who own the tiebreaker over them. Tankathon rated the Suns with the tougher remaining schedule of the three teams going into Saturday's games.

  • Suns (15th): at OKC, at CLE, at ATL, vs. NYK, at LAL, at GSW, vs POR, at SA (2). 
  • Clippers (24th): vs. DEN, vs TOR, vs. LAL, vs. NYK, at TOR, at CHA, at HOU, at OKC.
  • Jazz (25th): vs. TOR, vs. SA (2), vs. DEN, vs. HOU, at GSW, vs POR, at OKC, at SAC.

With the Clippers and Jazz seemingly having the easier finish, based on opponents' record, Phoenix may need to win out to maintain the top seed and avoid falling to fourth.

Denver is just three games behind the Suns — and has the tiebreaker over them. 

Fourth in the West, the Nuggets have the seventh's toughest remaining schedule: at LAC, at LAL, vs. NYK, at UTA, vs. BKN, at CHA, at MINN, at DET, at POR.

Tall order for Denver, but a flat finish for Phoenix could lead to a first-round matchup against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, who have LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (calf) back from injury.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) and forward LeBron James (23) talk during a timeout as the Lakers play the Dallas Mavericks during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Dallas. James is not playing due to an injury. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins).

The Suns would have home-court advantage, but facing the Lakers isn't the favorable way to return to the playoffs after an 11-year drought.

Beyond the schedule, Phoenix, with a top-six spot locked up to avoid the play-in tournament, has the option of resting players going into the playoffs.

Other teams have done it all season. The Suns haven't, and aren't going to broadcast their potential plans in that department, either.

"We'll have those discussions. I won't be talking about it with anybody outside of the building," Williams said before Friday's game. "Just not something we're going to make public, but our players have put in the work to play this time of the year, but we're going to be smart, but it's something we'll keep as an internal conversation."

Back to the remaining schedule, here's a breakdown of Phoenix's final nine games.

Jan 28, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges (25) is pressured by Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney (5) and guard Stephen Curry (30) in the first half at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic
Most anticipated ones

May 9 at L.A. Lakers: No brainer.

Phoenix is 2-0 versus Lakers, but Davis didn't play in either game while James missed the second one.

Opportunity for Phoenix to once again show it's worthy of being NBA elite.

May 11 at Golden State: Any game against Stephen Curry is must-see TV.

Add Kelly Oubre Jr. facing his former team makes it even more intriguing. 

Currently a 10th seed with the final play-in spot, the Warriors can't afford many more losses if they want to chance to make the playoffs.

Rematch one

Friday vs. New York: The Knicks led by 15 in the first half only to lose, 118-110, in what was the second of a back-to-back to conclude a five-game road trip for the Suns.

Less than two weeks later, they'll meet again in Phoenix.

Easier ones

Sunday at Oklahoma City: Phoenix beat Oklahoma City by 37 points April 2, but the Thunder were minus Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (foot), Darius Bazley (shoulder), Mike Muscala (ankle) and Lu Dort (concussion protocol) as well as Al Horford, who has been made inactive for rest of the season.

Bazley and Dort are back, but with this being Chris Paul's return to OKC after leading the Thunder to the playoffs in his one season there, Phoenix should be up for this one.

Tuesday at Cleveland: Slumping Cavaliers must play out of their minds to top Suns.

San Antonio Spurs forward Drew Eubanks (14) blocks the shot of Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Back-to-back ones

April 15-16 at San Antonio: The Spurs handed Phoenix its worst loss this season, 111-85, April 17, without DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills and Jakob Poeltl.

The NBA fined the Spurs $25,000 for resting three players for a single game, but they'll likely play in these final two considering a play-in spot may be on the line here.

The Suns are ninth in the West. Couple that with Phoenix having possibly locked up a one or two seed at this point, the Spurs could have more incentive to win.

Wednesday at Atlanta: Second of a back-to-back. Suns are 11-4 in second of back-to-back, but those games are still challenging, especially this late in the season.

Final home one

May 13 vs. Portland: The Blazers are trying to avoid the play-in after winning in the experimental one in last year's bubble to make the playoffs.

They're 0-2 versus Suns this season, but haven't played Phoenix since their 127-121 home loss to begin the second half of the regular season.

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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