The Phoenix Suns have taken full advantage of a relatively easy stretch of their schedule lately, winning 11 of their last 12 games as part of a whopping 28-6 blitz that leaves them with the second-best record in the entire league.
But it was their win over the only team with a better record on Wednesday, 117-113 over the Jazz, that confirms the Suns contender status with an exclamation mark.
Getting that win in front of their biggest home crowd of the season — over 5.000 fans were allowed at the game for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began — made it all the sweeter.
In fact, players cited the home crowd as one of the reasons they were able to overcome a Jazz team that wanted the win every bit as much as the Suns did.
“The fans did a great job.” Suns center Deandre Ayton said after the win. “I ain’t hear the arena like that since I got drafted [in 2018]. Even though it wasn’t packed it sounded like a full house and I just really appreciate that.”
Indeed, I noticed the fan roar as well. Sure, there were only 5,000 fans in a 20,000 seat arena to ensure continued health and safety protocols, but every single fan was excited to be there and make their voice heard. From the opening tip to the final buzzer of overtime.
“It was the closest to a playoff atmosphere we’ve had this year,” Devin Booker said.
Neither Booker nor Ayton have ever played in a playoff game, so those comments ring especially loud in that the Suns-Jazz game was the most hyped game they’d ever played.
Ayton was dominant on both ends in his anticipated matchup against Rudy Gobert, one of the best defenders of his generation. Ayton finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals. Booker was the Suns leading scorer, with 35 points, plus 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Wily veteran Chris Paul did all the heavy lifting, making the biggest shots on his way to 29 points, 9 assists and the best troll job of the night.
CP3 tried to high five Donovan Mitchell after his missed free throw pic.twitter.com/CxxxCySVni— Madison Kerley (@madisondion) April 8, 2021
The Suns (36-14) are only 1.5 games behind the Jazz (38-13) for the West’s top seed now, and have won the season series in case of a tie. The Suns have 22 games left before their almost-certain playoff opener is scheduled. If the Suns and Jazz stay where they are in the standing, the two teams could meet in the West Finals for a chance at the NBA Finals against the best of the East.
I can’t imagine the craziness of an arena even more full than the one on Wednesday, but it’s coming.
“I love it, I love it,” Ayton said. “Just seeing everybody, seeing the jerseys. Seeing the opponents fans out there as well. Just... that’s what the NBA is about.
“You can feel the energy on the court, and you just want to play hard for them. You know what I’m saying? You just want more chance. You just want to do the right thing to help us on the scoreboard. You felt that energy, it helped a lot. They hit big shots, Donovan hit a big three, but they was still in it with us. You could hear them holding our back. The chants and stuff, while we were shooting free throws. They were super excited screaming MVP.”
With seconds left on the game clock, with Devin Booker on the line attempting to seal the Suns lead, fans cheered in “MVP MVP” in unison for their favorite player.
The crowd was so hyped that Chris Paul, standing near mid-court as Booker was lining up the free throws, actually held out his arms and did the ‘quiet down’ motion I have only ever seen at football games when the home team needs less noise in order to hear the play calls. Clearly, Paul was worried that the raucous cheers might be too much for Booker to manage his concentration. Indeed, Booker missed the second one, allowing Utah one more chance for a three to tie the game.
“The crowd was great,” Chris Paul said.
Paul, an 11-time All-Star and 12-time playoff veteran, knows what a crazy crowd sounds like. He’s been right there in the playoffs for the last 10 consecutive years. He knows the pressure, the desire to be great.
“It’s good to get a few games like that under our belt before the playoffs,” he said.
The Suns are now 19-8 at home, and finally able to use the home crowd to their advantage to will the team to a victory.
“I missed all of it, to be honest.” Ayton said quietly with a smile on his face, still in awe after the game. “I missed all of it.”
Tonight, the Suns take on the Los Angeles Clippers, on the road in LA. Before you worry about ‘oh no, a road game’, the Suns have been even better on the road this year, with a 17-6 record. They’re nearly undefeated in back to backs too.
Worried about the Clippers being such a good team? Well, the Suns are 11-1 in their last 12 games against the league’s top-10 teams in net points margin.
Could the Suns be tired tonight? Sure. But don’t count on it. Devin Booker will be ready, for sure.
“Let’s get it,” he said when asked about the Clippers game, on TNT tonight. “That’s it. Just get it.”