PHOENIX – After watching their team compile a franchise-best 64 wins during the regular-season, eight games better than any other team in the NBA, Phoenix Suns fans are hoping this is the season their team finally breaks through to win its first championship.
On three previous occasions, the Suns have reached the NBA Finals, and in each of those seasons, their fans have raised their games to another level, too.
And those fans were ready to let out more than a half century of playoff frustration when the Suns opened the postseason with a 110-99 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans Sunday at Footprint Center to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series.
“It was really cool to hear the crowd differentiate from the regular to the postseason,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “You can tell there was a difference in the electricity and it was like, ‘Here we go.’
“There are not many places, if any, that are as crazy as our fans this time of year.”
The atmosphere at Phoenix games – and restoring it – was something that Williams cited often during his early days as Suns coach, and he wasn’t the only one who noticed the energy of the crowd Sunday.
During the game, Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma tweeted, “Phoenix best crowd in the league.”
While his take was met by a Twitter outcry from fans of the Warriors, Bulls, Timberwolves and especially Lakers – for whom Kuzma previously played – the Valley of the Sun has a long history of supporting its NBA team.
From their days playing at “The Madhouse on McDowell,” as Veterans Memorial Coliseum was known, to their move to a new downtown arena in 1992 with the arrival of Charles Barkley, to the “Seven Seconds or Less” era of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire to last year’s unexpected run to the Finals behind Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns hold a special place with Arizona sports fans as the state’s first major professional franchise.
When the Suns unexpectedly reached the NBA Finals in 1976, their late-evening flight into Phoenix Skyharbor airport was greeted by thousands of fans who crammed into what was then a small airport terminal when the Suns returned from their Game 7 victory over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
In 1993, the Suns lost in six games to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals, but the City of Phoenix threw a parade anyway. The city anticipated about 100,000 fans would crowd into downtown that late June day when the temperature was expected to reach 114 degrees.
Instead, an estimated 300,000 fans braved the heat and packed the downtown area to celebrate what almost was.
And over the last two seasons, Suns fans have rallied around the team’s “The Valley” marketing campaign and alternative jersey, launching a new era for the Phoenix fan base which has patiently waited for this season’s playoffs after the team fell in six games to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals.
A sea of orange was waiting for the playoff opener Sunday night and the crowd erupted after every made bucket, waving their orange playoff towels.
“The playoff energy is unmatched, and I think we got the best home court,” said Suns forward Cam Johnson, whose fastbreak slam off of Torrey Craig’s lob in the first half ignited that home crowd.
The Suns led by 19 at the half, but New Orleans rallied with a big third quarter to cut the deficit to single digits. However, Suns point guard Chris Paul took over in the fourth quarter just as he did so many times during the regular season, and the Suns prevailed.
“The man is a true competitor,” Suns guard Devin Booker said of Paul. “A true winner. He wants it that bad. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody, he’s built for these moments.”
Paul made five straight shots during one stretch in the fourth quarter and the crowd was back in the game. Paul said he tries to read the game and feed teammates with the hot hand.
“You just try to keep that energy there, and if that means I got to score, then so be it,” he said, adding that Jamal Crawford, a former Suns player and a past teammate of Paul’s, approached him at halftime.
“Book and them guys stay on me (to shoot), they talk to me all the time,” Paul said. “But Jamal Crawford … came up to me at halftime and was like, ‘Shoot the ball.’ That’s what he said to me and Book and so, I started shooting.”
He scored 19 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, and his effort along with the playoff atmosphere, put the Pelicans away down the stretch. The crowd even snuck into some comments from the Pelicans.
“We missed open shots, which is part of the game, part of playing in a tough atmosphere…” said Pelicans guard C.J. McCollum.