PHOENIX – Road trips can be exhausting or exhilarating, dreadful or wonderful. They can bring athletes together, and they can drive them apart.
The Phoenix Suns’ most recent trip could not have gone better.
“It’s all we talk about, man. Turn a good trip into a great trip,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “Anytime you can go over .500 or better on a road trip is big time, and if you can sweep it, obviously there is nothing better than that.”
The Suns bring this momentum to the Footprint Center tonight when they host the Dallas Mavericks. After going 3-0 on the road to put their winning streak at nine, the club’s longest in over a decade, the Suns can equal their 10-game streak from March 14-April 2, 2010.
In the time since, the New Jersey Nets became the Brooklyn Nets, the New Orleans Hornets became the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Charlotte Bobcats became the Charlotte Hornets.
After stumbling out of the gates with only one win in their first four games of the season, the 10-3 Suns now sit in second place in the Western Conference, behind the resurgent Golden State Warriors at 11-2.
The last Suns’ loss came on Oct. 27, a 110-107 thriller at the Footprint Center to the Sacramento Kings that sent Phoenix fans home crestfallen. The Suns held a 12-point lead late in the first half, but a 29-15 third quarter brought the Kings back and they held a 13-point lead with only 5:40 left to go in the fourth.
A furious comeback by Booker and Mikal Bridges helped the Suns tie the game at 107-107, but Kings forward Harrison Barnes buried the catch-and-shoot three from the left wing to steal the win from the jaws of overtime.
After the loss, Suns center Deandre Ayton shared his disappointment in their collective play. It was early, but a slow start was not on the team’s agenda.
“We played with our food a little bit,” Ayton said. “That third quarter was unprofessional, it wasn’t us. We were just a step behind them.
“They were playing hard, getting a lot of 50/50 balls. There were a lot of offensive rebounds in that third quarter as well, second-chance shots, and a lot of 3s. They just felt real comfortable, they didn’t feel us at all.”
His disappointment carried over to the offensive side as well.
“I think it’s just us not sharing the ball,” Ayton said. “We’re a team that shares the ball, moves the ball. We try to get at least 30 assists. That’s Suns basketball.”
Ayton’s critiques were well-founded. The Suns only racked up 23 assists that night against the Kings and had only eclipsed 30 assists once in their first four games, with 31 in the victory against the Los Angeles Lakers.
During their current winning streak, the Suns have won the assist battle every night and have recorded over 25 assists seven times. But the team has only hit 30 once on the win streak, with 32 assists in their 112-100 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.
The defense has improved as well, holding opponents to below 40% shooting from the field in four of the nine victories, and shooting over 45% from the field in seven of the nine victories. Coach Monty Williams praised the team’s improved defensive efforts throughout the streak.
“It’s a staple of our program,” Williams said.
While the streak began with four wins at home, the opportunity to hit the road for the next three games could not have come at a better time. The team was able to get away from some of the noise surrounding Suns owner Robert Sarver and the NBA’s investigation stemming from an ESPN report alleging Sarver’s tenure with the club has been rife with racism and misogyny, resulting in a toxic work environment.
“We’re just locked in,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said. “It’s easy to get distracted.”
“We’re just taking it one day at a time, you can’t look too far ahead, can’t look too far back either… Coach is doing a good job of keeping our minds and head where it needs to be.”
The team has shown tremendous mental fortitude through the streak, navigating questions about Sarver and the ongoing investigation while figuring out how to win without the Suns’ starting center. Ayton has been in and out of the lineup during the streak, missing six of the team’s victories as he recovers from a lower right leg contusion.
In Monday’s 99-96 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ayton made an emphatic return to the court, posting his fourth straight double-double with 22 points and 12 rebounds, including seven offensive boards. Booker led the way for the Suns with 29 points, converting 13-of-15 attempts from the free throw line, while “The Point God” Chris Paul posted 21 points and eight assists.
In a scrappy, tightly contested game where both teams shot below 40%, the Suns were able to focus in the fourth and convert in the clutch. Down by five with 3:40 left to go, the Suns went on a 16-8 run to close out the Timberwolves, with Booker and Paul scoring five and seven points respectively down the stretch.
While it’s still early in the season, these performances help illustrate the difference between a good team and a great team. The Suns are showing an extra level of focus that is required to beat the best, and no one on the Suns knows that better than JaVale McGee, a three-time NBA champion.
“I’ve seen us ‘locking-in’ in that fourth quarter, being extremely focused when it comes down to the little things of the game,” McGee said.
“We’re just tryna stay focused and do it as a team, not just put it on one person’s back. I feel like in this nine-game winning streak, we’ve had glimpses of greatness from a lot of different people, so it’s just showing the world that as a team, the Phoenix Suns are ‘the one.’”
Booker shared this sentiment and emphasized the importance of continuing the momentum.
“It’s good energy for us moving forward. Going back home, we’ve a tough opponent, Dallas two times and Denver coming to our home arena,” Booker said, referring to the club’s next opponents. “So we’re locked in.”