By Karl Batungbacal
I love the Phoenix Suns with all my heart.
Despite being one of the worst teams in the league for the better part of the 2010s, my love for the franchise continued to shine bright. Growing up, my dad and I were obsessed with how well Mike D’Antoni ran the 7-Seconds-or-Less Suns. Year after year, we cheered on the team led by Steve Nash (who is still in my personal Mount Rushmore) and Amar’e Stoudemire as they went into battles against the three-headed monster in San Antonio and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant. For as good as they were as a team, they could never break through the West, reaching the Conference Finals a total of three times in the 2000s. Their last Conference Finals appearance was also the last we’ve seen of them in the postseason.
For ten long years, Suns fans had to carry the weight of supporting a team that the front office cared so little for, as evidenced by all the terrible decisions they’ve made since Nash went ring-chasing with the Lakers. In recent years, they struck gold in the draft by selecting Devin Booker in 2015 and Deandre Ayton 1st overall in 2018, but for the most part, the Suns have been equivalent to sorrow in the NBA.
The start of the 2019-2020 NBA season was typical for Phoenix; chaos, and not the good kind. The Ayton suspension was too big of a blow for the Suns to swallow. To be fair to them, they amassed a 5-2 record despite his absence and were atop the Western Conference for a day or two. However, when Ayton came back, the Suns weren’t the same, falling to 11-16. They continued to freefall until the season was suspended.
Then something amazing happened.
The Suns are 5-0 in the bubble as of this writing and have put the league on notice. Booker’s amazing game-winner against the Los Angeles Clippers opened our eyes to their talent and we’ve been all watching them closely ever since. Observers remarked this shouldn’t be happening. They went from barely competing on a normal day to suddenly beating playoff-bound teams.
I’d be lying if I told you that the Dallas Mavericks game didn’t worry me because I felt like there were a lot of calls that could have gone our way or shouldn’t have been called. No matter, for the first time in a long time, the Suns could close out a game. Devin Booker led the comeback with 30 points and Ricky Rubio poured in 20 points with 7 assists. To the surprise of nobody, Ayton was stifled by the Dallas defense but it was the rookie Cam Johnson who stepped up.
If you don’t know who this kid, Cam Johnson, is, let’s fix that right now. People ragged on the Suns for trading away Jarrett Culver (whom they used the 6th pick on) for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Dario Saric and 11th pick (that became Cam Johnson). The University of North Carolina wing player stood out of the pack for his high-level shooting and defense, something that the Suns are only starting to figure out recently. While his three-point shooting percentage is shooting at 32.0 right now, he found value in being a capable passer, reliable team defender, and strong rebounder. So far in the bubble, he has grabbed a double-double in two out of three games. He’s not really a shot creator yet but a couple more games under the tutelage of Kelly Oubre and he should be good to go as their power forward of the future. I’m claiming it.
Another breakout star in the bubble is Mikal Bridges. I’ve been all-in on him since the Suns traded for his draft rights and I couldn’t be happier to see him succeed. Statistically, he’s been all over the place as a 3-and-D player but as soon as the bubble games started, something clicked within the guy. He gassed out Luka Doncic in the 4th quarter and was able to lockdown Kawhi Leonard on a couple of possessions. Also, if there’s anyone that fans should thank for that beautiful Devin Booker game-winner, it’s him. He has finally returned to his “glue guy” Villanova years.
Let’s talk about Devin Booker real quick, though. Book’s game right now resembles a young, pre-Mamba Kobe Bryant. Fans have always been on his case for most of his career but it’s important to remember this one thing: he’s only 23 years old and he’s already achieved a lot compared to some of his peers. An All-Star selection, NBA All-Rookie First Team, and a Three-Point Contest Champion are all in his trophy case at home but what fans love most about the guy is his unwavering loyalty to the Suns. Despite the losing seasons, Booker still re-signed for the 5-year max deal and looks to be determined to bring a championship to the desert.
Oh, did I mention he’s the third-highest single-game scorer in modern NBA history with 70 points, behind Wilt’s 100 points and Kobe’s soul-crushing 81? Yeah, he did that.
As a student of the game, I would love nothing more than to see them challenge for the 8th seed via a play-in. The offense is firing on all cylinders despite not having Aron Baynes and fan-favorite Kelly Oubre play in the bubble. Defensively, there’s a lot more to be desired but their most recent win over the Miami Heat was proof of their improvement.
As a ride or die Phoenix Suns fan, it doesn’t matter if we win or lose the remaining seeding games. What we do know is that this team is finally hitting its stride. Ayton is blossoming into one of the best big men in the league, Booker is showing why he’s the “Young Mamba”, Oubre is drawing in fans with his poster dunks (and looks), Rubio is the first high-level point guard the Suns had since Goran Dragic, Cam Johnson is projecting to be an important piece for the future and the bench is full of guys with chips on their shoulders.
Oh, let’s not forget about Coach Monty Williams who has done a great job of reining the team together and playing to their strengths. What I love about Coach Monty is that he’s a “player’s coach” similar to Tyronn Lue with the Cleveland Cavaliers. As a coach, he gave the team direction on the court and taught them how to block out the noise from the outside observers. Outside of the court, he’s a great example of being a leader as he was one of the leading voices in the league’s Black Lives Matter movement. He’s easily the best coach that the Suns have had since Alvin Gentry in 2013.
From laughingstock of the league to the last unbeaten team in the bubble. Amazing.
For the better part of ten years, the Phoenix Suns’ illustrious history was covered in mud, making ill-advised moves in the draft and trades. As fans, we had to carry that burden of shame. but things are finally starting to look up. If there’s anything that the Suns want from the rest of the league going forward, all you need to do is take a look at the back of Deandre Ayton’s jersey again.