The Suns are at a new crossroads. They are at the dangerous intersection of survival and scorn.
For nearly two full seasons, they have been the objects of our adoration. They are a hardcore, boastful, goofy, fun-loving bunch that barks in the hallway and dances through pregame warmups. A team full of lifelong friends and legendary moments.
Lose Game 7 to the Mavericks and what do they become?
Much will be in the air on Sunday night: Chris Paul’s legacy; the validity of Devin Booker’s MVP candidacy; the merits of Monty Williams’ Coach of the Year trophy; and the inescapable indignities that come with losing to Luka Doncic in the biggest basketball game of the season.
Anxiety grips the Valley. We all know the stakes.
For the rest of the NBA audience, the Suns have become the team in black hats. They flop. They play dirty. They kick you in the groin and push you down from behind if the ref isn’t looking. They are currently living up to their reputation as a “try hard” team that padded its record by giving too much of themselves to the regular season. To a game that barely resembles postseason basketball.
But to the people of Arizona, this basketball team is special. It’s royalty. It’s a wild mix of great personalities and character. They arrive at the arena like a team of superheroes in the MCU, displaying their styles and their expensive methods of transportation. They have a servant leader at the helm, loyal too fault.
The current Suns also have a raw edginess. It’s not always pretty. Booker bickers too often. And it’s becoming clear that it wasn’t the best idea to clown Doncic and the Mavericks in the riotous moments of Game 5.
But for generations of Valley fans who were always and ultimately disappointed by those soft and cuddly Suns teams that were so exciting but never played defense, the 2021-22 Suns are exactly what we want.
Win Game 7, they earn the big whew and the big reprieve and a chance to play the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Lose and it gets really complicated.
In their debut season with Paul, the Suns won nine consecutive playoff games. They held a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals. That team elevated, meeting the moment, shining at the summit.
This year has been a slog. The Suns have been explosive and pedestrian. They roared to 9-0 leads in the first two home games. They scored 40 points in the fourth quarter of Game 2. They allowed only 34 points in the second half of Game 5.
At times, they have been the two-way powerhouse that was simply too much for the rest of the NBA in the regular season. When basketball is a one-night stand, not a series full of adjustments.
This is also true:
Since beating the Warriors on March 30, improving to 62-14 overall, the Suns have been something of an imposter. They are 9-9 ever since that hallmark victory. They have committed 56 turnovers in three road games this series alone, allowing 16 steals in Game 6.
After the first eight playoff games, Paul was the NBA’s postseason MVP. Now it feels like another episode in an ongoing postseason course. For him to lose his powers on his 37th birthday feels entirely too random. Either way, Paul hasn’t been the same since. And you hope there’s something wrong, something that can heal quickly. You hope this isn’t age finally catching up with a 37-year-old man trying to play point guard in the NBA on a vegan diet.
One of the most alarming scenes on Thursday night came after the game, when Paul seemed grateful beyond belief for the extra day off. For getting two days of rest before a Sunday night tipoff. Something is clearly wrong. Something is weighing on him.
We all take comfort in the game we think we’ll see: a high-energy, second-half blowout from a Suns team because they will be razor-focused and fueled by one of the best home-court advantages in the NBA. Because role players always play better at home. Because a 64-win team that barked so loudly during the regular season simply can’t afford to lose a Game 7 to the Mavericks.
Otherwise, the love affair is going to take a serious hit.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 am – 10 am on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.