‘THERE’S NOTHING LIKE IT’
How the Phoenix Suns have created arguably the NBA’s best home-court advantage during the 2021 NBA Playoffs
“He has been a flamethrower in this fourth quarter!” TNT’s Kevin Harlan yelled into his mic, attempting to be heard over the blaring crowd’s cheers bleeding through the broadcast.
Chris Paul had just stepped back and drained a 3-pointer over Paul Millsap to give the Suns a 16-point lead over the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals early in the fourth quarter. That was quite possibly the most deafening level Phoenix Suns Arena hit throughout the 2021 NBA Playoffs — until about 20 seconds later.
Dario Šarić forced the steal and immediately fed the ball to Cameron Payne, who was already moving up court for the fast break. Payne launched a lob from the 3-point line to Torrey Craig, and the former Nugget threw down the thunderous two-handed slam sending the Suns crowd into complete chaos.
The television cameras cut to a group of four young boys in Suns jerseys bouncing, head-banging, waving rally towels and screaming at the top of their lungs, perfectly representing the atmosphere in downtown Phoenix during this thrilling postseason run.
That electric crowd is goosebumps-inducing in person and takes television viewers aback, prompting local pride and national attention. It has been praised by young Suns experiencing the postseason for the first time and veterans who have been through countless playoff games alike.
That’s why it’s reasonable to wonder if — or conclude that — the Suns have quickly created the NBA’s best home-court advantage during these playoffs.
“This crowd is crazy,” Paul said. “To have the fans in there, the energy, there’s nothing like it.”
This is what Paul and the Suns have been working toward all season. Phoenix was a rare team that did not rest (or “load manage”) players throughout the regular season, with Paul emphasizing to teammates the importance of winning every game possible. The Suns finished with the league’s second-best record, earning homecourt advantage against every team except the Utah Jazz.
Still, it was fair to question if this fan environment would be possible less than six months ago, when the NBA season began in empty arenas during the COVID-19 pandemic’s winter spike.
The Suns used a steady ramp-up to invite supporters back to their transformed home, starting with about 1,500 healthcare workers on Super Bowl Sunday and ending the regular season with a capacity of about 8,000. Yet with widespread vaccination during the spring, along with the CDC’s guidance that those inoculated no longer need to social distance indoors, capacity rose to 11,500 for Games 1 and 2 of the Suns’ first-round series against the Lakers.
Capacity has now reached 16,219, the fullest the arena can currently be given distancing requirements from the court for spectators without a recent COVID-19 test, for Game 5 of the Lakers series and Game 1 of the Nuggets series.
“They’re helping us play like this,” third-year big man Deandre Ayton said. “Coming out every night. They show the support they have … this was the loudest game, to be honest, that I’ve ever played in.”
For many who have been entrenched in The Valley, the wild crowd is a callback to the past and a reminder that this is a Suns town.
Dave Pasch has been around since 2002, when he began as the play-by-play announcer for the Arizona Cardinals while also calling Suns games on ESPN. Watching the Suns throughout these playoffs and hearing that roar from the stands has brought back memories for Pasch of the days when Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion suited up for the Suns.
Whether it was watching the Suns battle it out during a Western Conference Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers or witnessing the Cardinals’ run to the Super Bowl in 2008, Pasch has seen up close what Valley sports fans are capable of on a nightly basis. And while Phoenix may often get overlooked as one of the best sports fanbases in the country, Pasch said, “living here, we know different.”
“When the Cardinals are good, when the Suns are good, when the D-backs are good, when whatever team that is located in the Valley is having a special season,” Pasch said, “you could make the case at that moment in time, the fans here are as loud, as boisterous, as energetic and as passionate as any.”
This was part of the reason why Monty Williams chose to coach in Phoenix. As both an opposing coach and player, including with the heated-rival San Antonio Spurs during the mid-2000s, Williams experienced first-hand the X-factor that the Suns fans provide, making their home arena a dreaded place to play.
“You want to be in a place that loves their team. Suns fanbase is second-to-none,” Williams said. “… When that place was rocking, it was different. If you could come out of here with a win, you felt like you almost won a playoff game and it was the regular season, because the fans were so crazy.”
Williams was reminded of this when he walked out of the locker room during warmups for Game 1 against the Lakers. The fans quickly showered the Lakers with a fury of boos and “Beat LA” chants as they took the court, while greeting the Suns with a standing ovation before the game even tipped off.
“When I came out and saw that many people and heard the noise, I was like, ‘Holy smokes, this is pretty cool,’” Williams said. “I had to get myself under control emotionally because I hadn’t been in that environment in a long time. It certainly helped us tonight to have our fans, as crazy as Suns Nation is, going nuts like that for our guys. It was pretty cool to be involved in that.”
A Paul dunk during pregame ignited the fuse, and a Charles Barkley cameo during the intro video set off the explosion — and set the tone for the game, the series and the playoffs as a whole.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling, man,” said All-Star Devin Booker, who has been with the Suns for his entire six-year NBA career. “This city has been waiting on this for a very long time and you could feel that tonight.”
John Gambadoro is as connected to Valley sports as anyone because of his role of host of Arizona Sports’ Burns and Gambo show. He has witnessed multiple Suns trips to the Western Conference Finals since arriving in 1997, but said the excitement inside the arena is “as good as it’s ever been.”
“There is nothing that can compare to the Suns winning in this town,” Gambadoro said. “Not the Cardinals, not the Coyotes, not ASU, not the Diamondbacks — nothing. This team is the original. They are the team that everybody is dying to see win a championship. … Nobody else has the history and the tradition that the Suns have.”
Gambadoro concludes part of the reason this crowd is so special is that many of the historic Suns playoff memories — Barkley’s 1993 shot over David Robinson, Tim Thomas’ 2006 3-pointer against the Lakers and series-clinching wins against San Antonio (2010) and Dallas (2005) — all took place on the road. He also believes that Suns fans aren’t just excited that this team is back in the postseason, but that they also love this specific group.
“There's so much to like about this team,” Gambadoro said. “There's a lot of teams in the NBA that you may not like the players. You may not like the coach. You may not like the way that they play. This team is none of those things. …They play the game the right way. I think the crowd has really taken to this team.”
Williams appreciates that, during a postseason already with several unacceptable fan-player incidents across the league, the Suns’ home crowd has remained safe and respectful to the opposition. In turn, that collaboration between players and fans has already hatched several memorable moments through the playoffs’ first four home games.
After Payne drove past LeBron James and knocked down a floater to give the Suns a 40-26 lead with 10:40 left in the second quarter of Game 5 against the Lakers, he passionately hollered, “We in the Valley!”
When an impromptu “Let’s go Suns!” chant broke out as Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky” played during a second-quarter timeout of Monday’s Game 1 against the Nuggets, the game presentation crew swiftly cut the music to allow the rallying cry to organically echo through the arena.
That enthusiasm kept ascending with every basket during a decisive 42-14 second-half run, reached a fever pitch when Craig threw down that alley-oop dunk and continued down the stretch of the 122-105 victory.
“You get chills watching it,” Pasch said. “I was sitting there watching that Deandre Ayton dunk, the Booker 4-point play, the Crowder shot when he gets fouled. When the directors pan into the crowd and you're just seeing people of all ages, young, old, women, men just fired up. It's how it should be all the time.”
Added Gambadoro: “The crowd fed off of every play and every basket… (My wife) said the building was shaking.”
But the celebration didn’t stop at the final buzzer. As TNT sideline reporter Chris Haynes began his postgame interview with Paul, the overbearing noise and social distance between them meant Haynes could not even tell when Paul was finished answering a question. The volume in the arena maxed out his headset, he said.
“It's the rowdiest crowd I've experienced this season,” Haynes said. “ … It's a homecourt advantage that not many teams left can duplicate. For that, it's a tough environment. You could see it with the players, how they respond to momentum runs.”
Haynes, who has covered the league for the past decade, now ranks Monday night as one of the top five NBA environments he has witnessed.
“I’m not going to lie, I was very impressed,” Haynes said. “Even leaving the arena, fans are packed right outside downtown. They're chanting, still high-fiving one another. They're singing and dancing. The atmosphere extends outside as well. ... This puts them among the elite fans in the league.”
The following morning, that boisterous scene also drew the admiration of one of the country’s most prominent sports media voices. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith spent a large chunk of a First Take segment about the Suns’ win commending the crowd, and later tweeted that he planned to attend Game 5 of the Nuggets series (if necessary) to experience it himself.
“They have a true, real homecourt advantage,” Smith said. “I’m telling you right now, I understand COVID is going on and all of this other stuff, if other teams that play against them don’t find a way to get their fans in their arenas, and they’re like that, you ain’t beating Phoenix.
“I’m telling you right now, that crowd is the proverbial sixth man. It is special to see. It’s a treat.”
Another sold-out crowd is expected for Wednesday’s Game 2 against the Nuggets. It’s the next chance for The Valley’s fiery passion for the Suns to converge in downtown Phoenix, creating arguably the best home-court advantage in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
“This organization has some deep-rooted fans that this has been in them for a very long time,” Booker said. “A lot of people have memories as young kids growing up in Phoenix and going to the games and seeing the crowd and feeling that energy. We might have some new fans, the bandwagon fans that enjoy the good basketball, but this city is full and rich of some deep-rooted Phoenix Suns fans.”