As Footprint Center fans rang in a record 63rd Phoenix Suns win, both Devin Booker and Monty Williams knew how they wanted to celebrate.
First, Booker darted to grab the game ball, knowing his team would keep it. Then Booker headed to the sideline, shrugging off his jersey. He grabbed a nearby marker, signed it, and inscribed a special message to commemorate the history-making night:
To Al. The Legend. Franchise Record.
Al, in this case, was Al McCoy, who has broadcast Suns games since 1972 and has been known as the “Voice of the Suns,” for 50 seasons. Knowing the Suns were close to the record, Booker made a mental note to honor the radio and TV legend who has seen nearly all the Suns’ highs and lows over the past five decades.
“Been there literally since Day 1,” Booker said the next day. “I’ve always had big respect for him.”
Down the tunnel in the Suns’ locker room, the game ball made its way into the hands of head coach Monty Williams, who also wanted to lift up a Suns lifer.
“Obviously guys, this is an unreal moment for the franchise,” Williams told the team. “And we say it all the time, we are grateful for all of you guys … and we wouldn’t have this moment without you guys.”
“But I want to do something a little different,” Williams said as he called over head equipment manager Jay Gaspar and handed him the ball.
“He’s such a team guy, he’s been here 34 years, he’s seen it all, so the team decided to give it to Jay,” Williams explained postgame. “That’s who we are. Everything counts and every person in this organization counts.”
- Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns | Head Coach
Neither Booker nor Williams knew the other’s plans. They hardly discussed it with each other. But both know what makes this Suns team unique and drives its greatness is buy-in from every corner of the franchise, a contagious and thrilling brand of togetherness that allows everyone to thrive. Players always drive success, but this group’s dominance brings everyone in, from a voice behind a microphone, to those in charge of team gear, to those filling the seats or watching on TV.
That bond shows up on the court, too. They are an NBA-best 33-9 in "clutch" games that are within five points in the final five minutes. No other team has more than 26 such wins. They are 6-2 in games decided by three or fewer points. They lead the West despite being tied for the most games missed due to injury and illness among the top four seeds, and saw a whopping 17 players tally more than 100 minutes this season. In spite of those tense moments and lineup fluctuations, the Suns are top-five in the NBA in assists and lead the league in assist-to-pass percentage, meaning they make their connections count.
“We execute. That’s what we do,” said Paul, who led the NBA in assists. “Everybody’s got a job to do. We’ve got a team where everybody plays a part. We don’t have to ask somebody to drop 40 or 50 every night. We don’t have to take hero shots every night. We just play. If a guy’s open, we make the play, make the pass, and we live with it.”
Facing a final playoff tune-up last week against Utah, the Suns again flashed what makes them special in moments when most teams get tight. Down 92-75 heading into the final period, the Suns awoke, out-rebounding the Jazz 16-6 and holding Utah to just 13 points. Mikal Bridges led the way with nine points in the period, including an emphatic and-one layup to effectively put the game away (and an iconic stink eye to punctuate his performance).
“We call it the wear-down effect,” said Williams, “where if we can just stay with it, trust each other, keep playing the right way, we can live with the results.”
The win became yet another symbol of the Suns’ fight, stretching their record to 17-17 in games in which they are trailing enter the final frame. Playing on the road in a hostile environment like Salt Lake City doesn’t seem to faze Phoenix, either. The Suns posted the third-most road wins in NBA history this season and had a better road record than any other team’s home record. None of this should come as a surprise; after all, in the 2021 playoffs, the Suns clinched every Western Conference series win on the road.
As the Suns have woven together brilliant moments all season, they’ve built on the connections they built with fans last year, when flocks of devotees welcomed them at Sky Harbor Airport and filled the streets of downtown Phoenix after home wins. The Suns enter the 2022 postseason on a streak of 26 consecutive home sellouts at Footprint Center. And now, when Williams takes walks around his neighborhood, people thank him for raising the bar for the Suns and giving them a team to cheer for.
“Everywhere I go, people talk about the Suns are their baby, and to have us playing this way, achieving this goal tonight, is huge for the Valley,” Williams said. “I think the energy around the city is at a high level right now, and we don’t want that to dissipate at all.”
- Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns | Head Coach
To keep it that way, the Suns will look to carry their collective mentality into the postseason. The road to any championship is filled with hardship and elite opponents. This season familiarized the Suns with how to handle any situation by staying focused and banding together, and for them, the best way through a challenge is hand-in-hand.
When the Suns clinched win 63, center Deandre Ayton made a point of making the rounds at the Suns’ bench to thank each person individually as the game clock ticked down. It felt right to him to savor a moment that was a long time coming for the core group of players he grew up with.
“There’s a lot more to go, but on this team, we celebrate everything,” Ayton said. “And that was a joyful moment to really embrace everyone.”
Moments later, Williams would hand the game ball to Gaspar and Booker would leave the jersey for McCoy and the 2021-22 Suns would cement themselves in the history books. All year, the Suns have made a point to “celebrate everything.” With the postseason already in sight, they kept sight of that, bringing Gaspar, McCoy, and everyone in the Valley in to relish the record before the focus narrows on bringing a title to Phoenix.
“I don’t know how anybody else operateS, but everybody on our team is always thoughtful. It’s always about the next guy,” Paul said. “And that’s what makes our team special.”