Want to Rally the Valley? A guide to your 2022 Phoenix Suns
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Want to Rally the Valley? A guide to your 2022 Phoenix Suns

 

Want to Rally the Valley? A guide to your 2022 Phoenix Suns

You want in.

You should.

The Phoenix Suns are more than just the story in Arizona sports, they are giving us a white-hot moment we will always remember.

They’ve backed up a trip to the NBA Finals with their best regular-season in franchise history. They’re so 2008 — the last time the Suns made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons — but they’re so in-the-now that Footprint Center is the place to see and be seen for lifelong residents of Planet Orange and celebrities alike.

Will fans eventually celebrate as passionately as last year, when the Suns came oh-so-close to their first NBA title? Only time will tell, but they’ve passed the first hurdle, and are 12 wins away from that coveted and long-elusive trophy.

And fueling this drive is a continuing notion that, in spite of their pedigree, the Suns don’t have believers across the country. After finally dispatching New Orleans in six games on  Thursday, the Suns still trail Golden State and Boston in oddsmakers’ lists of championship favorites.

Yeah, you want in.

You’re ready to “Rally the Valley.” You want to strike up conversations with diehard fans who still remember how John Paxson broke their hearts in 1993. You want to understand how the Suns went from one of the league’s worst teams to its best, in the form of a franchise-best 64-18 record.

That’s where the Arizona Republic comes in. As Phoenix continues its postseason march against the Dallas Mavericks, we are here to keep you on point.

In late March, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid called the Suns “the best team in the league for a reason.”

Let’s explore those reasons.

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) gets away from Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry (7) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 9, 2022, in Miami.

Devin Booker’s the heart

Ahead of this season, the Suns brought back nine players from their finals squad, including the key contributors who got them within two games of a championship.

Devin Booker, the team’s longest tenured player, continued his rise into one of the league’s emerging stars in 2021-22 by averaging 26.8 points per game in the regular season and notching his third All-Star bid. In his second year with Phoenix, Chris Paul helped orchestrate the NBA’s fifth-best scoring offense as the team’s floor general, despite missing 15 games with a fractured right thumb.

Both were pivotal characters in the six-act play that was the first-round series against New Orleans. Booker missed half the set with a right hamstring injury, but came back and hit a critical three-pointer late in Game 6 like something out of a Hollywood script.

But the Pelicans’ series belonged to Paul. His fourth-quarter domination won two games almost single-handedly, and despite being driven to distraction by New Orleans rookie Jose Alvarado, Paul was perfect — literally — from the floor in the clinching game, hitting all 14 of his shots in a never-been-done performance in NBA postseason history.

Yet Phoenix’s success is rooted in more than just its backcourt. Forward Mikal Bridges finished runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year after traveling the most distance on defense of any player in the league (1.28 miles) and tying for seventh in the NBA with 3.7 defensive win shares.

First look:What to know about Suns-Mavericks Western Conference semifinal series

Instead of expressing frustration with the Suns after they opted not to give him a rookie max contract in the offseason, Deandre Ayton is growing into one of the league’s most consistent centers. He’s averaging the fourth consecutive double-double of his career (17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds).

Those are just the headliners. The engine’s two Cams — Johnson and Payne — have solidified themselves as key role players. Jae Crowder brings veteran experience and presence. Even JaVale McGee, on his eighth NBA team, has the important job of leading Phoenix’s pregame ritual in addition to providing key minutes off the bench.

“The way they play here is so unselfish,” Torrey Craig said. “They like to guard, they like to play defense. Just the way everybody is so connected. It’s like everybody is having fun playing basketball.”

Suns big three, and big fun

Everything orbits the big three of Booker, Paul and Ayton.

Booker was on most experts’ short lists of candidates for Most Valuable Player, and while he didn’t make the finalists cut his absence in the Pelicans’ series reminded us just how vital he is to the Suns’ fortunes. Booker is not just the Suns’ most dangerous scoring threat from anywhere on the floor, he is also vitally important in keeping defenses honest, as shown by how New Orleans double-teamed Paul seemingly from the moment he got off the team bus without Booker around to defuse that pressure.

Apr 17, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.; Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) talks to his teammates during Game 1 of the Western Conference playoffs against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Paul led the NBA with 10.8 assists per game in the regular season and, as mentioned, showed he can still be a big-time player in the playoffs. In Game 1 against New Orleans, he dropped 30 points and dished out 10 assists, becoming the oldest player in NBA history to do so in the postseason.

Ayton came into his own in last year’s playoff run and picked up nicely in 2022, scoring 28 points and 23 points, respectively, in Games 3 and 4. He’s capable of carrying this team at  times, and his place in the league’s hierarchy is about to get a new assessment when he faces Dallas’ Luka Doncic in Round 2. Ayton was the No. 1 overall pick; Doncic went two spots later and some pundits felt he was a better choice for Phoenix, who could have teamed him up with Booker.

Unlike last season, when the Suns had not yet developed into the force they would become, they’ve had a target on their back this time around right from the opening night of the season. That can certainly test a team’s resolve, like in Game 3 against New Orleans when Crowder was shoved to the ground by Pelicans forward Jaxson Hayes, who was ejected with a Flagrant 2 foul. Not only did Phoenix pass with flying colors by winning, but also Crowder finished the game with his first double-digit scoring outing in nearly a month.

But similar to last year’s squad, the Suns know how to enjoy themselves. With less than 10 minutes before tip-off against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 3, Ayton and Bridges were caught dancing to “Nevada” by NBA Youngboy on the jumbotron at Footprint Center.

Nothing exemplifies this team’s passionate spirit than its elaborate, animated pregame ritual, complete with handshakes, hugs, bumps, dog crawl and woofs, even a nod to football’s “Oklahoma” drill.

“Every time we play, we literally have to remind the world that we’re the best team in the world,” McGee said.

Even Booker had fun following his viral moment in January when he complained to referees that the Toronto Raptors live mascot was distracting him during free throws at an empty Scotiabank Arena.

“We hashed it out,” Booker said after the game. “We homies now.”

How the Suns went from worst to first

Just three years ago, the Suns finished with a 19-63 record, the worst in team history since their inaugural 1968-69 campaign. So how did this franchise figure it out and post back-to-back masterpiece seasons?

The answer can be found in the Suns’ head coach and general manager.

Monty Williams and James Jones are re-writing Suns history, as well as their own.

During Booker’s rookie campaign in 2015-16, Williams was a year removed from being fired as New Orleans’ head coach after five seasons. Jones was playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the penultimate season of his 14-year NBA career.

Today, Williams is the two-time National Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year. Jones won NBA Executive of the Year last season. The two are a powerful model for how the coach-executive partnership can lead to success on the hardwood.

It was Jones who kicked off the foundation for this year’s Suns team when he was elevated to general manager in the 2019 offseason. One of his first moves was firing head coach Igor Kokoskov after one season. He then traded for Dario Saric and the 11th pick of the 2019 draft (Johnson) to pair them with Ayton, Booker and Bridges, and shed T.J. Warren’s salary in a trade with the Indiana Pacers.

Jones soon brought in Williams, who was serving as a 76ers assistant, to lead the remodeled Suns.

The moves paid off. The Suns barely missed a playoff spot by going 8-0 in the COVID-19 bubble. Before playing in Orlando, Jones made one of his top signings in Payne, then playing for the Texas Legends in the G League.

A few months later, Jones sent four players and a protected first-round pick to Oklahoma City for Paul and Abdel Nader.

“You have to have a vision,” Jones said last year. “The long-term goal is to win a title. The short-term goal is to win a game. And if you prepare every day to win games, that prepares you for the journey of winning a title.”

The Suns nearly accomplished that journey last year, but fell short at the hands of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks after losing a 2-0 lead. This year, they are set on finishing the mission. But without Williams, it is uncertain whether Phoenix would be in the position they are now.

Over the last two seasons, Williams has won 133 combined regular season and postseason games, coached multiple players to All-Star and All-NBA status and led the Suns to its first Finals appearance in nearly three decades.

Just as Jones changed his perception from 3-point sharpshooter to accomplished league executive, Williams has left his struggles with New Orleans in the past and is now one of the NBA’s top coaches.

“…I’ve been on record about our team,” Williams said. “How much I love our guys. Our spirit. Our culture. The way we compete and my focus is on the guys we have in the locker room.”

Those feelings of competition and focus are key aspects of the culture Williams has instilled within the Suns. For example, how did Phoenix celebrate after tying a franchise record with 62 wins by beating the Golden State Warriors on the road? By doing chin-ups, weight training and more in the depths of the Chase Center.

Monty Williams

Additionally, that love and loyalty Williams talked about for his players runs both ways. Phoenix has praised their third-year head coach throughout the season, with Ayton saying that he is “going to Mars” if Williams doesn’t win NBA Coach of the Year.

For perspective, New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau  — who bested Williams for the award by 11 votes last year — led the Knicks to a 37-45 record this season and missed the playoffs.

“It shouldn’t even be close,” Paul said. “No disrespect to all those other coaches and what they’re doing, but what are you watching if this man doesn’t get coach of the year?”

What’s up with that orange Suns fan?

Ah, that would be Mr. ORNG, who among so many longtime Suns fans deserve the success the franchise has enjoyed these past two years.

If you go to a game, or even watch one on TV, you cannot miss Mr. ORNG. In real life, he’s Patrick Battillo, who coaches a high school basketball team and was profiled during the NBA Finals by our Richard Obert.

May 23, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Mr. Orng, Patrick Battillo, poses for a picture before game 1 of the first round against the Lakers at Phoenix Rising Stadium.

Last fall, his father was seriously injured in a car crash, but he’s doing better and there’s nothing stopping Suns Fan No. 1 follow this chase for a championship.

What celebrities make the scene at Suns games?

OK, the Footprint Center suites and floor seats aren’t quite at the Showtime Lakers level of celebrity sightings. But as the Suns keep winning, and keep captivating the public with their personality and style, A-list celebs are starting to make their way downtown.

There probably isn’t a more frequent big name at Suns games than Kendall Jenner, and with good reason — she and Booker have been dating for about two years. Click here for a peek at the happy pair’s doings.

(Also, you might want to check this out: Earlier this year, Booker invited azcentral on a tour of his fabulous crib in Metro Phoenix!)

Along with Jenner, celebrity sightings this year include Cedric the Entertainer, boxing great Floyd Mayweather and future football Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald.

Last year during the finals, the red-carpet level sightings included Adele, Lil Wayne and Vanessa Hudgens.

We’ll keep you posted as we roll along.

Suns are rallied by the Valley

Doesn’t matter what the home arena is called. The building on East Jefferson Street between 1st and 3rd streets, and the fans inside, are a forever part of this franchise’s lifeblood, a suitable successor to the original “Madhouse on McDowell” that was the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in the team’s earliest seasons.

The Suns finished a league-best 32-9 at home during the regular season before packed houses. “We ride off our crowd a lot,” Crowder said.

That crowd is representative of a Phoenix population who loves its NBA team. Some of the fans in attendance for Game 2 of the Pelicans’ series returned to Footprint Center on Sunday for the Suns’ first Road Rally of the postseason. Many fans showed up at Sky Harbor Airport last July when the Suns arrived to massive fanfare after beating the Los Angeles Clippers to make their first NBA Finals in 28 years.

Supporting the Suns isn’t limited to the team’s fans, however. Numerous Phoenix players have established relationships with Arizona businesses and companies.

Crowder is a brand ambassador with Gila River Resorts and Casinos and will host a Summer Oasis Pool Party once a month starting in May. Booker co-owns Coco5 — an all-natural sports drink sold only in Fry’s Arizona grocery stores — while Payne partnered with the Suns to create a clothing line called Valley Threads. He also joined Built by Gamers, a gaming lifestyle organization headquartered in Gilbert, as an owner and participant.

These three Suns players are part of a group looking to do what Paul Westphal and Alvan Adams and Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle failed to do in 1976 and 1993: win the NBA Finals.

So, buckle up. Pay close attention to the Suns and maybe buy some orange and purple and black gear. Those slick “Valley” t-shirts seemed to vanish off the shelves during last year’s run, so don’t wait.

You want in, right?

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