DALLAS — For the better part of the season, the Phoenix Suns have had one of the more entertaining, eye-popping pregame routines in the NBA. Amidst all the amusing handshakes, mini dance-offs and general commotion, any spectators in the vicinity just before the Suns take the court have been transfixed by their bold pregame ritual.
The specifics change, but at the center of it all is usually the center hype man, JaVale McGee, saying they’ve got to “bring the dogs” before declaring the Suns to be the “best team in the motherf**king world!”
Between the barking, the unbridled joy of that pregame circle and McGee’s audacious claim, it’d be easy to misinterpret Phoenix’s enthusiasm for arrogance. Plenty of arena staffers within earshot on the road have reacted with shock or outright disdain to hearing those proclamations, but until the last few weeks, they’ve been true: The Suns won a league-best 64 games, posted the NBA’s best point differential, were the only team with a top-five offense and defense…the list goes on and on.
But now, in the Western Conference semifinals, that title of “best team in the world” is being put to the test, and Game 7 may be their last chance to prove it still fits.
On Thursday, the Suns followed up a dominant Game 5 performance with a humbling, withering Game 6 outing, losing 113-86. The Dallas Mavericks nearly made as many 3-pointers (16) as the Suns attempted (18), beat them 21-8 in fast-break points, and committed just 6 turnovers while forcing Phoenix into a whopping 22.
“I don’t have enough time to talk about everything that’s eating at me,” coach Monty Williams said afterward. “I didn’t think we understood the desperation they were going to play with, and you couple that with the turnovers that we had tonight, it’s a recipe for what we just got.”
Those 22 Suns turnovers fueled 29 points off turnovers for the Mavs, while Phoenix got only 6 points off turnovers. Williams said it was as unorganized as he’s ever seen his team on offense.
“Just a realization that, one, they played harder than us, and we typically don’t allow that,” he said. “And then, two, we understand that we turned it over and we did not have the focus. Our concepts in our defensive coverages tonight was nowhere near average. They just kept going. They want to get to the paint, and you just saw them go down to the paint a number of times tonight.”
All season, as the Suns chugged along at a league-leading and franchise record-setting pace, it felt like this team was ramping up for their first-ever championship run. They had felt the sting of losing the NBA Finals last year, and they had come back bigger, better and stronger than ever. They were on a revenge tour, and at their best, it felt like no one could beat them four out of seven times.
But in the first round, against a 36-win New Orleans Pelicans team, they needed six games to advance. Sure, Devin Booker missed three of those games with a hamstring injury, and yes, the Pels were a deceptively good 8-seed considering how they turned their season around and added CJ McCollum and Larry Nance Jr. midseason. But it was at that point that the once-invincible Suns suddenly looked very human, and it’s carried over to the second round.
The Mavs were a better team than the Pelicans, but they figured to be an easier matchup. Deandre Ayton wasn’t Rudy Gobert, who could be played off the floor by a five-out offense. They didn’t crash the offensive glass or get to the free-throw line the way New Orleans did. And as good as Luka Doncic is, Booker was healthy and Chris Paul was coming off a flamethrower of a series. After convincing wins in Games 1 and 2, it felt like the series would be over in five games at most.
But then the Suns got smoked in Game 3. And then again in Game 4. And even after a bounce-back, blowout win in Game 5, they followed it up with their worst outing of the postseason. There was something of a shell-shocked air to the whole night.
“Just that we lost,” Devin Booker responded, when asked what bothered him most about Game 6. “Like I said, we’ll let the air clear then what went on and I’ll have a better understanding. Right after a game, it’s kind of hard to tell what happened and what we need to work on.”
One thing that was clear, and that’s become painfully obvious more than anyone anticipated during this playoff run, is that the Suns simply don’t look like themselves. Deandre Ayton didn’t mince his words about their performance.
“It’s gotta be a together thing where everybody’s on the same page, and it wasn’t like that tonight,” Ayton said. “It was a lot of mistakes. Felt like a regular-season game with all the mistakes we had today. And the turnovers? Terrible, unacceptable. It’s that type of game where it’s just unacceptable. Them dudes, they wanted it more. I think after every loss we’ve had, they’ve shown that they wanted it more. We just was the team that didn’t want it. And it showed. Dramatically.”
So why is this team that was laser-focused in its execution and effort during the regular season suddenly faltering at the time of year that matters most? How are they getting outworked by other teams that “want it more,” and why are these “uncharacteristic” performances suddenly becoming so frequent?
Williams admitted he was surprised his team followed up their Game 5 rout with that kind of lackluster outing, but said the Suns can’t waste time dwelling on it.
“It’s frustrating any time you lose,” Williams said. “You have to address it, and then you gotta move on. You can’t hold on to it, because you’re gonna play the biggest game of your life in a matter of 48 hours.”
Last year, the Suns were excellent in closeout situations on the road. They eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round behind 47 points from Devin Booker, swept the Denver Nuggets in the second round thanks to Chris Paul’s 37 points, and then finished off the LA Clippers behind CP3’s 41-point masterpiece.
Throw in Paul’s 33 points against the Pelicans this year, and all four playoff series the Suns have won under Monty Williams came on the road. Heading into Thursday’s game, that felt reassuring, especially for a Suns team that went 32-9 away from home this season, the fifth-best road record in NBA history.
But Game 6 couldn’t have been further from that blueprint. Booker finished with 19 points on 6-of-17 shooting to go with 8 turnovers, while Paul had just 13 points and 4 assists to go with 5 turnovers.
Williams believes comparing those past closeout games on the road to this Game 6 is a pointless exercise; all that matters now is embracing the challenge of Game 7, which will be a first for this group.
“Thankfully, we have a group of guys who understand it,” he said. “They were talking about it before I even came in there. This situation has to be embraced. That’s why I’m a proponent of the regular season, because you work your tails off all year long to have home-court, and it will pay off in this situation.”
Heading back home, the Suns are still in the driver’s seat. They went a league-best 32-9 at home during the regular season and are 5-1 at home during the playoffs so far. A few years ago, having a Game 7 at home with a chance to go to the Western Conference Finals would’ve felt like a dream, and now, Phoenix simply has to protect its home floor to get there.
“It’s win or go home,” Chris Paul said. “I feel like we worked as hard as we did all season to get home-court. Just ’cause you have home-court doesn’t guarantee you’re gonna win the game, but we’d rather play at home than play here.”
History is also on their side: Excluding four Game 7s played at a neutral site during the 2020 NBA bubble, the home team has won 108 out of 139 times in Game 7, which is 77.7 percent of the time. While Booker admitted he — like any playoff competitor — would’ve rather swept the series, the basketball historian in him couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of his first Game 7.
“It’s the greatest two words in sports,” Booker said. “I’ve been watching ’em since a kid, and in my short playoff stints that I’ve had, I’ve never got the opportunity to be in one. So I’m excited to feel the energy, I’m excited to be a part of it. It’s a great opportunity.”
The Suns shouldn’t be excited about a do-or-die game in a series they should have closed out much sooner, but Ayton similarly relished the idea of being put to the test.
“It means a lot,” he said. “Finding the grit to where — not to say I don’t have the grit, or the team doesn’t have the grit, but knowing that this could be the last game, only time I’ve had that feeling was last year in the Finals. We’re just gonna have to accept it and embrace that there is a Game 7 in Phoenix, and we’re gonna have to bring it. There is no room for mistakes in this one, at all.”
The Suns will be hoping this elimination game goes a lot better than their last one, Game 6 in the Finals last year. That was on the road, but it’s worth noting that home-court advantage hasn’t been full-proof over the last decade or so. Excluding four instances from the NBA bubble, the road team has won Game 7 10 out of 31 times dating back to 2012, or 32.3 percent of the time.
Coming off yet another game where the Suns hardly looked like the best basketball team in the world, they’ll be hoping the formula for this series really is as simple as the home team reigning supreme.
“Best thing about all these playoff games is you don’t carry a 20-point lead into the next game, you know what I mean?” Paul said. “Each game has a personality of its own, and now it’s down to one game, Game 7.”
For the first time all series, the Suns will have an extra day to plan and think about where they need to be better. The first six games were played every other day, but for a group of “sore losers,” as Williams calls them, who always stew on their losses, Game 7 is as good an opportunity as any to bounce back.
“We need to sit on this,” Williams said. “We need to understand that that team is a really good basketball team. And we also need to understand how good we are. But we’re good because we play a certain way, and so I think the time in between games will allow for that.”
The potential for slander is at an all-time high. A loss on Sunday would add this franchise-record, 64-win season to the list of haunting Suns “what-ifs,” quite possibly at the very top, because make no mistake about it: This would be one of the greatest upsets and most shocking disappointments in NBA history if Phoenix failed to even reach the conference finals. It would tarnish Williams’ well-deserved Coach of the Year award, serve as comeuppance for a fanbase chanting “Suns in 4” after two games, and turn that postgame workout video into fodder for NBA Twitter trolls.
“Frauds” is a strong and unfair word, but it would be fair to question how the fastest runners in the league tripped and fell flat as soon as the real race started.
And even if Phoenix pulls it out as expected, a Game 7 win at home against a Mavs team that won 12 fewer games would do nothing to alleviate concerns. This current iteration of the Suns, which has come crashing back down to earth after almost every good performance, no longer looks like the juggernaut that’d be favored against the Golden State Warriors or Memphis Grizzlies. The goal is still a championship, and anything less than that would be an objective failure for a 64-win team.
But as much as they haven’t reached their normal, lofty standards on a consistent basis in this playoff run, the Suns have still looked like title contenders when they actually graze their ceiling. Game 7 represents their last chance to crash through it entirely, because even if they take care of business, it doesn’t get any easier from here.
The next two days are an opportune time for reflection. As they let an embarrassing Game 6 performance marinate, it’s time for the Phoenix Suns to decide if they’re ready to let this memorable season go out with whimper, or if they’re ready to start looking like the “best team in the motherf**king in the world” again.