Monty Williams had not thought about the coincidental scheduling symmetry. That the Suns will open the second half of the season at Portland Thursday, the same place they played nearly a year ago to the day — the night before the NBA suspended its season and life as we knew it changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I mean, look at me,” said the Suns’ coach, referring to the mask covering much of his face while conducting yet another interview session over Zoom. “ … It’s been an interesting year for us. A hard year for so many. I think about that a lot, how many people have been affected. I look at the numbers of people that have passed away, how many families have changed because of this deal.
“I also think about how basketball can bring some joy to people, and that’s where my mind goes. I hope our fans and the fans of the NBA are enjoying the product that we’re putting on the floor.”
Indeed, the Suns have brought pride to The Valley during a trying calendar year.
They ripped off eight consecutive wins in the 2019-20 restart in the Orlando bubble, turning longshot playoff odds into a narrow postseason miss. They channeled that momentum into a massive offseason trade for future Hall of Famer Chris Paul. They ended the season’s first half with the NBA’s second-best record, and are poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The franchise’s resurgence has turned the Suns into a national feel-good story.
March 11, 2020: NBA suspends season
Following that loss to the Blazers, the Suns’ next scheduled game was on March 14 at Dallas. But less than 24 hours later, a game in Oklahoma City between the Thunder and Utah Jazz was abruptly called moments before tipoff. Jazz center Rudy Gobert (and, later, guard Donovan Mitchell) had tested positive for COVID-19, and the league swiftly suspended its season.
Suns guard Devin Booker epitomized NBA fans’ stunned reaction to the breaking news when, while live-streaming him playing the video game Call of Duty: Warzone, he exclaimed, “Bro! Bro! What the (expletive) is going on?”
It would take nearly five months for NBA basketball to return.
March 13, 2020: Arena transformation underway
When it became clear that the NBA season would not restart in the spring in home markets, the scheduled $230 million transformation of the Suns’ and Mercury’s home began nearly two months ahead of schedule. Crews worked on infrastructure upgrades such as electric and plumbing, along with massive cosmetic improvements for fans, players and staff to enjoy.
Some highlights: the reimagined pavilion surrounded by LED screens and featuring Arizona’s largest sports bar; two corner bars that look directly into the arena bowl; a new center-hung video board that is six times larger than its predecessor; an upgraded sound system and Musco theater lighting; and new club spaces.
“So far, it’s turning out to be exactly what were (hoping for),” Rowley said in May. “Frankly, better. When I first walked in and saw all this stuff down, in my mind, I just said, ‘Wow, I think we’re gonna outkick our coverage here. This is pretty awesome.'”
During the transformation, the Suns moved offseason workouts to Veterans Memorial Coliseum, aka the Madhouse on McDowell.
April 11, 2020: Devin Booker tops Deandre Ayton to win NBA 2K players’ tournament
During this stretch with no live NBA games, the Suns had already gotten creative by “playing” out the rest of their season on live-streaming platform Twitch with the help of current players such as Mikal Bridges and Frank Kaminsky, Valley sports figures such as Brittney Griner and Byron Murphy and professional NBA 2K gamers.
Turns out, Booker does indeed excel on the sticks — and showed no mercy against one of his real-life teammates. Booker showcased his video-game skills on national television, winning the 16-player NBA 2K players’ tournament and $100,000 to donate to the coronavirus-related relief effort of his choice.
Booker never lost a game during the tournament, beating Michael Porter Jr., Rui Hachimura and Montrezl Harrell before sweeping teammate Ayton in the best-of-three Finals.
“I said in the beginning that it was going to be Deandre and I in the championship — and that’s the way it ended up,” Booker said.
May 31, 2020: Monty Williams’ open letter
When the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery ignited social unrest throughout the country, Williams leant his voice to the conversation. In an open letter, he revealed “I’m angry. I’m afraid. And I’m in pain” while calling for systemic change within our country’s institutions.
“I’m distraught as I look at my boys — two are African American and one is Caucasian — because too many people see them differently,” Williams wrote. “None of them should have to think about how law enforcement will treat them if pulled over for rolling through a stop sign. None of them should be followed through a department store by security. None of them should feel the sweat rolling down their back when a cop follows them for blocks. Alas, their worlds are different, and something is wrong with that.”
Former Suns center Aron Baynes followed with his own letter, detailing his experiences growing up in small-town Australia and now in an interracial marriage and while raising bi-racial children. Williams and the Suns continued to speak about social-justice issues during their time in the NBA Bubble — and beyond.
Last month, a Black History Matters mural featuring Williams, Chris Paul, Jevon Carter and Mercury players Brianna Turner and Skylar Diggins-Smith was unveiled on the west side of Phoenix Suns Arena.
June 04, 2020: Suns invited to NBA Bubble
After Arizona’s stay-at-home order was lifted, the Suns began individual player workouts — complete with strict health and safety protocols — unsure if they would ever resume their 2019-20 season.
But the NBA Board of Governors on this day approved a July 31 restart with 22 teams — including the Suns — playing eight “seeding” games, then the playoffs, at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
Williams called it a “monumental” opportunity to grow as a team on the floor, build camaraderie off of it and fight for a playoff spot.
“We’re not going to ride on Space Mountain and do the Disney thing,” Williams said before the team departed for Orlando. “This is freakin’ ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Gladiator’ stuff that we are trying to will onto other teams, and that’s the mindset.”
We all know what happened next.
Aug. 4, 2020: Devin Booker’s game-winner sinks Clippers
With the seconds ticking down, Booker’s spinning, fading, buzzer-beating jumper stunned the Clippers and pushed the Suns’ Orlando mark to 3-0.
The game-winner sent #NBATwitter ablaze on a weekday afternoon in August. It capped a 35-point, eight-assist performance for Booker on a national stage. And it created an iconic image of Booker laying on his back as the shot went swish, then tipping his head back to the hardwood as teammates rushed in to celebrate.
“This is Book,” Williams said. “He puts a lot of work into his game. He’s serious about his craft. He has these moments in his ability. He’s not afraid of it.”
Aug. 13, 2020: Suns finish 8-0 in Orlando Bubble
The Suns capped their perfect Bubble run with a 128-102 victory over Dallas, a run marked a relentless style, a blossoming young core, complementary players thriving in their roles and a star turn from Booker. Williams was named the Coach of the Seeding Games, and earned national respect after his final postgame speech went virial.
The Suns narrowly missed the playoffs when Portland beat Brooklyn later that night, but the franchise’s positive momentum was palpable.
“We’re not the Suns of old,” Williams said.
Nov. 12, 2020: The Valley uniforms unveiled
The Suns debuted a new black Nike City Edition jersey that pays homage to the passion, swag and pride for where the team and its fans call home. It features pixilated bright colors representing The Valley’s iconic sunrises and sunsets, and jagged lines outlining Camelback Mountain.
Accompanying the jersey is the first alternate court in franchise history, used each time the Suns wear the jersey for weekend home games and while playing on national television.
““The Valley is special, and this just adds one other brand extension for us,” said Brooke Campbell, the Suns’ VP of Marketing & Brand Strategy. “It’s not just about the jersey. ‘We are The Valley’ is a movement.”
Nov. 16, 2020: Suns trade for Chris Paul
The Suns were at the center of the biggest blockbuster trade of a condensed 2020 offseason, acquiring Paul and reserve wing Abdel Nader in exchange for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a future first-round draft pick.
In Paul, the Suns added a future Hall-of-Famer and perennial All-Star known for his playmaking, perimeter defense, clutch shot-making and bona fide leadership.
“He’s a guy that he expects greatness out of us,” Booker said of Paul. “ … We can all learn from Chris in that way, of being vocal and letting people know where they need to be. Competing with people and doing it with love, doing it with care.
“Not doing it with intentions of showing somebody that they messed up, but intention to really get better and learn and not make the same mistakes again.”
The Suns also added Jae Crowder, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway in free agency, and re-signed key contributors Dario Šarić and Jevon Carter, immediately heightening expectations for the 2020-21 season.
Nov. 18, 2020: Verizon 5G Performance Center unveiled
In the convenient neighborhood near Camelback Mountain now sits the Suns’ new practice facility. It could be considered a basketball oasis, complete with high-end player amenities and technological capabilities to collect data that make players, coaches and staff smarter and more efficient.
It’s quite an upgrade from the now-demolished practice court in the basement of Phoenix Suns Arena.
“The 5G Lab keeps the Suns and Mercury on the cutting edge,” general manager James Jones said. “Verizon’s powerful 5G technology is seamlessly incorporated throughout our facility in a way that is unprecedented in the NBA and American professional sports today. That cohesion provides our staff with unparalleled opportunities to efficiently unlock each athlete’s fullest potential.”
Later that night, the Suns also selected versatile Maryland big man Jalen Smith 10th overall in the NBA Draft.
Dec. 23, 2020: Season-opener against Dallas
The Suns began their new era with a 106-102 victory over the Mavericks, playing inside their glitzy home but without fans in the stands.
Booker and Paul both hit clutch shots in the final two minutes to seal the victory. Mikal Bridges provided an immediate glimpse of his breakout season to come, compiling 18 points (4-of-7 from 3-point range), seven rebounds and two blocks while guarding star Luka Dončić.
Phoenix began the season 5-1, including wins at Utah and Denver on back-to-back nights, signaling the Suns would be a factor in the competitive Western Conference.
Feb. 07, 2021: Suns host healthcare heroes as first fans
The first fans to walk through the transformed Phoenix Suns Arena were the most important — the healthcare heroes who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic.
“I woke up with them on my mind, just knowing that they’re the first people who are gonna be out here,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “They’re the real MVPs, they’ve been holding it down all along, to be honest with you. Lord knows what they’ve seen and went through with their families.
“(We’re) waking up a couple times a day just to do a test, but those people are actually in contact, helping people and being there for them. All we can do is just say thank you from the bottom of our hearts and just put a smile on their face and perform.”
Cam Johnson, whose mother is a nurse, took the mic to welcome those honored guests. DJ Automatic spun a musical tribute while those workers stood to be recognized with a rousing cheer. And after the Suns finished off 100-91 win over Boston, Booker waved to those fans as he ran into the tunnel.
Feb. 27, 2021: Chris Paul, then Devin Booker, named NBA All-Stars
For the first time since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010, two Suns were selected to the All-Star team.
Paul was chosen by the coaches, who clearly recognized his immediate leadership impact on Phoenix in addition to his 16 points, 8.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game. Booker, who was immediately dubbed nationally as the coaches’ biggest snub, made the team less than 24 hours later as an injury replacement for Anthony Davis. A few days later, Booker was named Western Conference Player of the Month for February.
Booker (24.9 points, 4.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds per game while shooting 49.6 percent from the floor) did not play in the All-Star game due to a minor knee sprain. But Paul’s 16 assists Sunday made him the All-Star game’s all-time leader in that category (128). Paul also got in on the fun side of the basketball celebration, connecting on an alley-oop dunk from Steph Curry and winning a jump ball at center court against Mike Conley.
“Shout out to my brother, the late Kobe Bryant,” Paul said. “I only know one way to play, and that’s to win. You know what I mean? We kept talking about it over there (on the bench). It’s a game. Everybody wants to stay healthy. But we want to win, so we competed and we won.”
Mar. 04, 2021: Suns roll into All-Star break
Phoenix thumped Golden State 120-98 in its first-half finale to enter the All-Star break with the NBA’s second-best record at 24-11. The Suns have won 16 of their last 19 games, and have not lost two games in a row since late January.
“We don’t ever really talk about our expectations, but we sort of expected our team to be here,” Paul said. “And we got a long way to go.”
The first half’s final week included a marquee road win against the Lakers, playing most of the second half without Booker after he was ejected for picking up two technical fouls.
Mar. 11, 2021: Second half begins at Portland
Starting Thursday, 37 regular-season games remain as the Suns work to Rally the Valley on their march toward the postseason. A five-game homestand begins Saturday, including a rematch against the Lakers on March 21.
Other schedule highlights: A home-road back-to-back against Utah (April 7) and the Clippers (April 8); a five-game Eastern-Conference road trip at Milwaukee (April 19), Philadelphia (April 21), Boston (April 22), Brooklyn (April 25) and New York (April 26); key late-season games against the Clippers (April 28), Utah (April 30) and at the Lakers (May 9); and the home finale against Portland (May 13).