Phoenix may be a literal desert, but for the past decade, it’s mostly been a basketball one as well, leaving loyal Phoenix Suns fans wandering a wasteland with no clear signs of salvation. New PR slogans usher in every season, promising a team on the rise only for the actual team to frack the bedrock of already diminished expectations.
Fans, weary and parched desert vagabonds that they’ve become, latch onto any sign of hope — a good game from an unexpected player, perhaps, or "potential!" — like a shimmering oasis in the distance. Thus, they stagger forth and lower their sun-chapped lips to the water only to come away with a mouthful of sand for their faith.
Such is life in this miserable, protracted playoff drought in the post-Steve Nash era. Or should that read was?
Admittedly, I took a healthy portion of skepticism into the 2019-20 season. I had only trifling complaints about the offseason moves and felt there was more than enough talent on paper for the team to make noise. But my disbelief had become Pavlovian. The mere mention of the Suns evoked a reflexively dismissive response from me, as though my favorite basketball team were a doctor wielding one of those knee-thwacking hammers and I were the patient involuntarily kicking the doctor in the groin.
The more I watched my team languish year after year, the more the franchise came to resemble an old heavy bag at the gym, sitting in the corner, sand spilling from its side, its glory days long gone. Yet every year I’d hear the infuriating PR, the spin. Lies, all of it. My attitude towards the team became, basically, prove it. If the saying "once bitten, twice shy" is true, then I and my tooth-scarred derriere demanded evidence.
And to this team’s credit, they’ve delivered a strong opening statement. Through five games, they sit at 3-2, with the two losses coming by a single point each. The wins, meanwhile, saw them jack the Sacramento Kings in the jaw in the second half of their season opener, mosh the Los Angeles Clippers a couple nights later, and, most recently, dismantle the former juggernaut Golden State Warriors so thoroughly in the first quarter that I was compelled to meditate on the fragility of life itself — at least until the microwave dinged.
Most impressively, the Suns have won through consistent effort and focus, especially defensively. I repeat, the Suns are winning with defense.
Is this real?
Is this really real?
Is this really, really real?
The questions still linger. Is this team the one that jogged alongside the Kings for a half or the one that blitzed them 70-36 to close the game? Is it the team that made a mockery of the Warriors on the road or the one that had to reinsert its starters in the fourth quarter against the Warriors’ deep bench to hold a massive lead? Time will tell.
But there are reasons for hope. Ricky Rubio has taken over the ball-handling duties, and as a result, the other players on the court remain engaged through offensive sets, knowing the ball won’t stick and could swing to them at any time. Head coach Monty Williams has them all playing hard-nosed defense that will buoy the team — as it does all teams — through scoring slumps. And newcomers like Aron Baynes and Jevon Carter, who may look like Anthony Carter but plays with the grit of P.J. Tucker, have replaced softer players more concerned with stats than floor burns.
There’s no way to predict how this iteration of the team will finish, and five games is an awfully small sample size. But I’ve seen enough to follow the mirage again. I’ve seen enough to stagger forward, hoping this time the oasis is real.
I’ve seen enough to believe.