When Cam Johnson elevated, turned his back to the rim and threw down the reverse slam, his teammates catapulted into a giddy frenzy.
Deandre Ayton, who delivered the pass to Johnson, ran the baseline with arms raised, eyes wide and mouth agape. Frank Kaminsky high-stepped from the bench to the area behind the basket, even chugging up a couple stairs into the stands. Dario Šarić, Ty-Shon Alexander, Cameron Payne, Jevon Carter, Jae Crowder, E’Twuan Moore and Torrey Craig threw their arms around each other on the sideline in a picture-perfect combination of pure shock and jubilation.
“The energy from it, I think that’s what’s nice about plays like that,” said Chris Paul, who watched it all unfold from the floor. “Our team, we’re so connected like that — to see the bench, to see how everybody reacted.”
Of course the Phoenix Suns enjoyed themselves during the most jaw-dropping moment of a 15-0 overtime outburst to turn a dicey May 4 game at Cleveland into a decisive victory. It also served as a recent snapshot of what makes this Suns team special.
Yes, they are challenging for the best record in the NBA during this breakthrough season, fueled by the All-Star pairing of Paul and Devin Booker, a Coach of the Year contender in Monty Williams and an offense and defense that both rank in the league’s top 10 in efficiency. Yes, they have clinched their first playoff berth since 2010 and guaranteed home-court advantage for at least the first round.
But this is also a group that deftly threads the needle between intensely competitive and endearingly fun-loving, rapidly building a palpable sense of togetherness among veterans and young players during a demanding season marked by health and safety protocols and a condensed 72-game schedule.
“You look around the league at some teams, and not everybody has a vibe like this or an energy like this throughout,” Booker said. “I always say it’s a great environment to get better in. When you have everybody supporting you, everybody being honest with you — those are the same people that can give me constructive criticism at any point in the game, and I’m listening to them — that’s the name of our group, man.”
Culture, chemistry and overall spirit are intangible qualities that cannot be measured by traditional stats or advanced analytics. But players and coaches know it — feel it — when those attributes have manifested within a team.
The foundation began to form during Williams’ first season, particularly during the Suns’ time in the Orlando Bubble. Players and staff essentially staged a second training camp upon arrival, where competition was high. In between games during that magical 8-0 run, they all grew closer through shared meals, Spikeball games and fishing adventures on the Disney World campus.
That momentum carried into the offseason, when many players chose to stay in Phoenix to train at Veterans Memorial Coliseum and newly completed Verizon 5G Performance Center. Significant offseason moves — trading for Paul, signing Crowder, adding veteran role players such as Langston Galloway and Moore and bringing back Šarić, Carter, Payne and Kaminsky — heightened internal and external expectations.
Still, Carter publicly issued a blunt message to any newcomers: “If you don’t want to play hard, then you’re not gonna play here at all.’
It was an ideal situation for Paul, whose relentless approach and leadership style have helped propel him to a Hall of Fame career. Williams and assistant coach Willie Green, who are both past connections to Paul from their time in New Orleans, assured the point guard, “C, we got a ‘work team’” full of young players thirsty to learn from an elite veteran.
“You get here, and you see that’s really what it is,” Paul said.
Williams said that “work” mentality is a callback to Jacob Riis’ “The Stonecutter’s Creedo,” more commonly known around the NBA as the “Pound the Rock’ mantra that legendary coach Gregg Popovich has used for years in San Antonio. It reminds that when success arrives, when the boulder finally splits, it is never because of that specific blow but because of all that led up to the final swing.
“But not just on the floor,” Williams said of how that applies to his team. “It’s in the weight room. It’s in video sessions. It’s conversations guys have away from the staff. … Those are all a part of the work that goes into trying to be a good team.
“I’m not a coach that’s smart enough to just show up and just coach. I have to work at it. We have players that are talented enough to show up and play, and they work as hard as anybody in the league.”
These Suns inject competition into post-practice shooting drills, when teammates are labeled as “destructors” if an errant ball from one of their misses on one side of the court inadvertently mucks up another’s shot on the opposite side. Following the film session in between that overtime win in Cleveland and second half of the back-to-back set in Atlanta, many players stuck around for additional discussion and dissection. Those players have also taken the time to learn each other’s personalities, improving communication by knowing when to give a teammate space, when to provide a motivational push and when to hold them accountable with a candid, uncomfortable conversation.
“Not one person creates that,” Booker said. “That’s everybody buying in. That’s everybody trusting each other. It just happens over time, having great leaders, great ears, great listeners, great talkers … all the way down the locker room, through the coaching staff, through the training staff.
“Once you have everybody bought in like that, if you’re not bought in, you look like the outcast, and there’s not one of those in this group.”
That’s why Paul has repeatedly said in recent weeks that he genuinely misses his teammates whenever the Suns have a day off. That is especially true because Paul is currently living apart from his family, though he jokes third-year teammates Mikal Bridges and Carter make him feel “like I am around my kids” because they “ain’t got no sense.”
“We were about to jump him in the locker room as a joke (after those comments),” Bridges said with a smile.
Because it’s not all serious, all the time. And the Suns exude that side of themselves before the ball is even tipped.
During starting-lineup introductions, Craig creates a circle with Booker, Paul and Crowder to mime dealing and playing cards — a nod to Craig’s immediate invitation from those teammates to play popular NBA game Booray on plane rides after he joined the Suns in a midseason trade. Then, the elaborate handshakes begin up and down the bench. Payne and Johnson throw up three fingers. Bridges and Carter grab arms, leap to switch spots and unleash a boisterous yell. Payne and Šarić knock hips and lift one hand.
“We feel like a college team — seriously,” said Bridges, who won two national championships at Villanova. “ … We love each other. We’re all close. You can see that we all mess with each other off the court, just showing how we hoop.”
The Suns have fostered these bonds in a world of social-distancing, as contact with anybody outside teammates and close staff has been limited due to restrictions designed to help prevent COVID-19 outbreaks within teams and across the NBA.
Payne describes players-only hotel dinners that turn into two or three hours of deep conversation about life, with zero thought of, “Man, I gotta get back to the room.” When the Suns’ first road trip of the season occurred over Christmas, they organized a white elephant gift-exchange game. On a recent off day, Booker invited the whole team over to his home to play pool and ping-pong. After Paul passed Magic Johnson for fifth on the NBA’s all-time assists list last month, Booker interrupted Paul’s virtual media availability to say, “Get to the cards, bro,” another reference to how they would spend their upcoming flight.
And whenever players linger inside the facility long after practice and training sessions are over for the day, Williams is reminded of how he interacted with relatives getting together for holidays.
“They’re like a bunch of cousins,” Williams said. “It just reminds me of when I’d go to my grandparents’ house and me and my cousins … we acted like brothers. It’s kind of like ‘Cheers’ from back in the day. Those guys just went there and really did nothing, but they enjoyed being around each other.”
That personal connection shows itself in how the non-rotation players have accepted their roles, supported their teammates and remained ready when called upon. It took the form of two perfectly synched bounce passes from Booker to Bridges for crafty finishes during an April 10 win against Washington, or in Galloway’s split-second instinct to run from the bench to help Bridges up off the floor so he could get back on defense during an overtime win in Milwaukee nine days later. It appeared during a chippy meeting with the Knicks last week, when Paul encouraged teammates to physically wrap their arms around each other during a timeout as a reminder that they had each other’s backs.
Those relationships are also critical when heated in-game conversations become necessary. Paul regularly pulls teammates aside for no-nonsense instruction during timeouts or while on the bench. Bridges recently shared that he and Craig “got into it a little bit” while discussing how to match up against Julius Randle during an April 26 comeback win in New York.
“I want to see him succeed, and we all do,” Bridges said. “We all stay on each other, which makes it great. We know how close we are off the court, so none of the things somebody says to us are gonna hurt us. Because we know it’s in a good way not just to be disrespectful.”
And sometimes, that chemistry bubbles into pure joy.
A dominant April 30 win at Utah is a prime example. When Booker put a filthy ballhandling move on Rudy Gobert and buried a corner 3-pointer on the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Ayton and Bridges smothered Booker from the bench as he tried to run back down the court.
Later, inside the postgame locker room, the Suns broke their huddle while Ayton took a routine test away from teammates. Ayton ran down the hallway as soon as possible, and was genuinely bummed when he realized he had missed the moment.
So the Suns re-gathered their group, calling players and staff out of the weight room and showers. Then they broke it down again with “one, two, three … together!”
“That’s who this team is,” Williams said. “We have a sense of family, togetherness, unity. … That’s the thing that you’re really proud of.”