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Dan Bickley

Suns’ biggest moment in years comes Tuesday against Clippers

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams talks with Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22), guard Jevon Carter (4) and forward Cameron Johnson (23) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

The Suns have spent a decade in distress. They haven’t played a meaningful basketball game in six years.

That changes Tuesday inside the bubble.

The Suns will face the Los Angeles Clippers in Orlando, in an August litmus test on Planet Orange. Are they ready for a moment of this magnitude? For a must-win game in the dog days of summer?

The Suns have already been granted a reprieve from the NBA, gifted a spot inside a basketball tournament staged inside a pandemic. They do not deserve to be in any playoff conversation. But if they beat the Clippers, a playoff berth will suddenly take shape on the horizon.

Are they ready to seize a brand new destiny? Sports fans love pleasant surprises, and the Suns are proof. Their players practically disappeared during the NBA’s shutdown. Devin Booker went road-tripping with a celebrity girlfriend from L.A. Deandre Ayton played video games deep into the night. The organization mysteriously skirted all important questions, including who was in the gym on any given day.

There is the lingering mystery surrounding Kelly Oubre Jr. Majority owner Robert Sarver clearly expected Oubre to play in Orlando while the player clearly thought otherwise. In sum, the civic disconnect and apparent disinterest shaped the Suns into what they’ve been for most of the past decade – a disappointment in waiting.

The opposite is unfolding before our eyes, on the court, between the lines.

Booker looks better than ever. Just like he does after any extended break. His physicality and aggression are his new tools, and his fury is too much for most opponents. Especially when driving to the basket, overpowering them at the finish line, a trait he shares with LeBron James.

Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are growing before our eyes into winning players, rotational pieces on a championship team. Ricky Rubio looks rested for the first time in five years, darting around the basket, creating offense out of thin air.

Ayton remains a conundrum. His performance on Sunday was abysmal. Mavericks star Luka Doncic scored 33 more points and shot 17 more free throws than the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Doncic practically put the entire Suns lineup in foul trouble. He got all the calls, a testament to his star power. Meanwhile, Ayton seemed interested in nothing more than setting screens.

But he’s also come a long way. Which really makes you wonder once again why the Suns didn’t draft Doncic in the first place.

Truth is, the Suns didn’t whiff on Ayton. They whiffed on Doncic. Badly. They had the perfect head coach (Igor Kokoskov) to sell them on Doncic, but they wouldn’t listen to a word that head coach had to say. Same goes with Kokoskov’s players, who tuned him out even earlier.

I know this. Ayton owes the Suns a monster game after his shriveling performance against Dallas, and the Clippers would be the perfect time for payback.

Over the past 10 years, the Suns haven’t been compelling theater. They’ve given us a few precious moments, like Ring of Honor ceremonies for Al McCoy and Steve Nash. They’ve provided safe haven for the lesser brothers of the world, from Miles Plumlee to Seth Curry, from Zoran Dragic to Robin Lopez. They sold off T.J. Warren and a G League team for cash. And they’ve treated us to a constant churn of emotional carnage, from head coaches to general managers to malcontent players.

If the Suns beat the Clippers, they’ll improve to 3-0 inside the Disney Bubble. They will find themselves in contention for a play-in series that will determine the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. Their audacious start is the best story in town at the moment, overshadowing the Coyotes, who actually won a playoff game on Sunday.

Some think the Suns haven’t tasted glory since the Western Conference Finals in 2010, a series that turned on a Kobe Bryant airball, when Jason Richardson forgot to box out his man. That’s not exactly true.

The Suns were in playoff contention deep into the 2013-14 season. They finished 48-34 in the first year of Jeff Hornacek, but fell out of playoff contention in the final 10 games of the season. They let a moment slip out of their hands.

The Suns can reverse that history starting Tuesday, righting a lot of wrongs in the process. They can ignite a far-fetched dream, along with a region waiting for their NBA team to rise from the ashes.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier