“Feels great. It really does. It’s been a long time coming.”
That’s Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, in his usual stoic manner, after the Suns beat the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night, 109-101, to guarantee a top-six playoff berth in 2021. The Suns are now 44-18 — their best record since the height of SSOL — and set for a showdown on Friday night for the top seed in the West with less than 10 games to go.
Let’s just take a moment to breathe this in. Over the last 70 games, this season plus the Bubble, the Suns have the best record in the NBA. Over the last 46 games, after starting a middling 8-8 this season, the Suns have the best record in the NBA. And on Friday night, they could have the best record in the league even inclusive of that 8-8 start.
They are not only returning to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, they’re leading the whole damn league.
So many recently-arriving people had a hand in this resurgence by the team, but Booker represents those in and around the team — including us fans — who survived the slog of the tanking years and are still here to celebrate this incredible moment together.
He’s our Captain America. His uniform celebrates the Valley. His shield is the basketball. And his superpowers are on display every night at Phoenix Suns Arena.
Booker was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 2015 just in time to watch an epic dumpster fire burn down the whole franchise. Assistant coaches fired. Head coach fired. Best players tanking and forcing their way out. Losses. Lots and lots of losses.
“It’s been hard to win here,” Booker said more than once, hitting me hard with the understatement every single time.
Just 18 when he was drafted, Booker quickly became the face of the franchise, partly because he simply didn’t do anything to embarrass us but mostly because he’s a great basketball player. And for a long time, the Suns took advantage of that. He was so young they embarked on a slow, painful rebuild while letting him take countless blows like “looter in a riot” and “is he even good?” hit pieces.
Booker just put his head down and kept getting better. He became one of the most prolific young scorers in league history (including a 70-point game at age 20), then became one of only three players in league history to average 26 points and 6 assists in multiple seasons before turning 24 years old. That he molded himself into an All-Star playmaking every-level scoring guard out of a lightly used spot-up shooter in college was remarkable, and simply more than most onlookers’ brain matter could process.
He was ready to win but the team was not. In fact, they intentionally regressed, losing more games in his first four years than any other team in the league. All in the name of high draft picks that come only when you suffer greatly on the other 364 days in the year. And even most of those high picks didn’t pan out!
“I just shut my mouth for five years,” Booker said in a rare moment of reflection. “Coach Monty always says, ‘Preparation meets opportunity’.”
Then he quickly stops himself, like he has for five years, and turns even this conversation into the positive.
“I’ve been saying for a long time I don’t want to look back at what I’ve gone through, but I wouldn’t change the past for anything, either,” he says. “Every path I’ve had, I’ve seen the bright side of it, put my head down.”
While Booker has struggled to win games, he has never once wavered on his commitment to the franchise and to the city of Phoenix.
“The love has been there since the beginning,” he says. “I’m looking forward to packing the place out hopefully and the atmosphere and the energy and the vibe around the whole city to be up.”
Now a big smile cracks Booker’s stoic demeanor. He says he’s been told by countless former greats of the team — those depicted in the murals along the hallways of the arena’s event level — that while the fans have been great to him, it goes to a whole other level when you hit the playoffs.
Booker is already finding that out, despite the pandemic still tamping down everyone’s fun. The Suns are still only allowing just over 5,000 fans to home games, but those fans are nothing short of rabid.
They are LOUD, engaged, good natured and sporting more home jerseys than I’ve seen in one place in a decade.
“Our place is the loudest place I’ve been in this year,” head coach Monty Williams said with a huge grin after Wednesday’s win. “It’s going to be a huge advantage for us.”
There’s no indication of capacity increasing in time for the playoffs, but even if the Suns are only allowing 5k fans at a time for safety reasons, those fans will be a difference maker for sure.
“I’ve missed it,” center Deandre Ayton said of the screaming fans at a game earlier this month. “I’ve missed all of it.”
You get the clear sense that, despite most of the roster never having been in a playoff game, they know it’s going to get harder from here. And they can’t wait for that to happen.
Booker was asked what he was thinking as the clock wound down on Wednesday’s game, letting it sink in that he would finally make the playoffs.
“I was honestly thinking about Friday already,” he said. “Thinking about playing against Utah for the top of the conference.”
The team as a whole knows that making the playoffs isn’t only goal this season.
“Like I told the players just now, more to do, more to come,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said on clinching a playoff spot. “We are not satisfied. We are not settling. We feel like we are just scratching the surface as far as the way we want to play, the way we can play. But this is a huge moment for our organization, a huge moment for the fans in the city and state.”