By: Brendon Kleen
Devin Booker couldn’t even keep a straight face.
After a win that pulled the Suns within one victory of clinching the best first-half record in the West and sending the team’s coaching staff to Cleveland to coach Team LeBron in the NBA All-Star game, Booker tried his best to fake his surprise when a reporter brought up the standings.
“For real? We had no idea,” Booker squeaked out before letting loose into a full-on laugh.
Of course he knew. Everyone in the Suns’ locker room had been counting down the days until they locked in that honor for their coaches.
“Those are the little things that we want to celebrate throughout the season to get things done like that,” Booker said. “We know our main objective is to win a title and bring a championship here, but you can celebrate the little things that go into it, the day to day things, and getting our whole coaching staff in the All-Star Game is big time.”
This has been the Suns’ outlook from the start of this season. The way last year’s run ended not only intensified their hunger to dominate, it strengthened their desire to appreciate every moment throughout the marathon regular season. This weekend’s All-Star Game, where the coaching staff will join both Booker and Chris Paul as Phoenix’s representatives, is just the latest opportunity to do so.
The Suns went on to clinch the West’s best first-half record in their next game. As head coach Monty Williams celebrated the achievement for the first time in his career, the typically humble coach brought everyone into his moment, dishing praise back to his players.
“(The coaching staff) covers for me a ton. You guys cover for me a ton,” Williams said. “I don’t take that for granted. I know what it’s like in this league, I’ve been here for a long time. When you have a good group, you relish it.”
But beyond celebrating the team’s representation in Cleveland, the Suns see this as a stepping stone in their chase for a title. Williams often preaches the difference between short-term and long-term successes.
“Our goal is different, but we’ve got a mission,” said Williams. “I could sit here and say, ‘Oh it’s not a big deal,’ but you know what? That would diminish what you guys do every day.”
That mindset has been present in many of the big moments on the Suns’ calendar lately. It’s easy to see a conscious effort to lift one another up and come together in success.
We Figure It Out
As the Suns built a late lead on Minnesota a few weeks ago, Cam Johnson was on his way to a 20-plus point scoring night when he grabbed a rebound, turned his head, and dribbled up the court. With the Suns’ usual offensive rhythm now disrupted, Paul bounced up and down, calling for the ball. But Johnson confidently kept possession and took off. A couple dribbles later, he was into the teeth of the Timberwolves’ defense for a bucket at the rim, extending the Suns’ lead to two possessions.
Watching Johnson make a big-time highlight play after shaking him off, Paul had one thought: Shut up.
“I was trying to get it from Cam and then Cam went and got the and-one, so it works out like that sometimes,” Paul said postgame. “That’s just our team, we figure it out.”
Paul later joined Booker on the Western Conference All-Star roster, but when he heard that Johnson had not been named to the roster for the Three-Point Contest, he took the chance to remind anyone who would listen what Johnson meant to the team.
“You would think with our team being No. 1 in the league it would be nice to get some more representation from our team,” Paul said. “Not to take nothing away from the other guys. … He’s second in the league and he can’t get into the 3-point contest?”
When it was Johnson’s turn to address the snub, he took up the same tone, saying that while he would have appreciated the recognition of his season, his focus on the ultimate prize had not changed.
“What can you say, right? You just try to prove it on the court,” he said. “Of course I wanted to do it but just gotta keep grinding, keep getting better and keep making more I guess.”
We Think About Chemistry A Lot
Most recently, as the Suns surveyed the landscape ahead of the NBA trade deadline last week, they settled on the most familiar player available as their big addition. They struck a deal with Indiana to bring back fan favorite Torrey Craig, who made an instant impact in his debut with a team-high plus-21 in a win over the Magic.
“We think a lot about chemistry before we make any decision,” Williams said. “James (Jones) and I talk a lot. He’ll ask me my opinion on certain players and I try to help him as best I can, but chemistry is certainly a part of what we do.”
There was little doubt Craig would be a positive addition to the team’s chemistry after his arrival in Phoenix boosted the Suns significantly last season. It had to feel good, then, when Craig tied his Suns high in assists with four in his first game back in purple and orange, and got a massive, welcoming cheer from the Footprint Center crowd when he entered the game.
“I guess it’s that easy when you play the right way,” Craig said postgame, “when you got a bunch of guys that play together and play to a certain standard.”
While the close-knit Suns may have hoped to send Johnson and others to the All-Star festivities, another recent win streak has them happy with where they are as a team.
“Right now, we’re in a good groove as a team,” said Paul, “and we just want to stay that way.”
As for Williams, he finally allowed himself to think forward to Cleveland after a win on Thursday night to close out the first half with a franchise-best 48-10 record. He’s excited to bring his sons along and watch them enjoy being up-close with the best of the best in the NBA. And he’s looking forward to learning.
“I’m really grateful for this opportunity, I’m grateful for the players and how hard they’ve worked, the staff, the things that we’ve been able to do,” Williams said after the win over Houston. “It’s one of those things that I’ve never experienced before so I don’t have a level of excitement because I don’t know what to expect. I’m just glad that I get the chance to go.”
As promised, Williams was soaking in the moment. What started as a quiet push by his players ended exactly as they’d hoped, with the coach who shares so much in the joy of his own success getting a little back.