DAN BICKLEY

Suns’ playoff drought may have been worth the wait after Game 1 win

May 23, 2021, 4:54 PM | Updated: 9:47 pm
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) dunks as he drives past Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davi...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) dunks as he drives past Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) during the first half of Game 1 of their NBA basketball first-round playoff series Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Exhale, Arizona. It has been 11 years since we’ve had a moment like this. It might’ve been worth the wait.

Remember the feeling? It all came flooding back in Game 1 of the Western Conference playoffs. Chris Paul provided the toughness and inspiration. Devin Booker delivered the superstar content. The Suns survived an ominous injury, an ejection, a skirmish and all the pressure that comes with the playoff cauldron.

But the bigger story is us.

Like most of the country, the Valley has been oppressed by a pandemic and torn apart by political division. Not on Sunday. Not when a sports franchise brought us all together under one tent, making the Valley feel more connected than we’ve been in years.

That’s the power of sports. And in Phoenix, that’s the power of the Suns.

“It was the first time it felt like the Phoenix Suns I used to play against,” Paul said.

It wasn’t just the noise. It was the energy. It was a celebration of being normal, of being together and united by a common cause. It was the feeling of being in love with our basketball team and having a platform to show just how much. Like riding a bike, we remembered in an instant the glory and pathos of being a Suns fan.

LeBron James was booed mercilessly on most every occasion. At one point, the Lakers had a 17-0 advantage in free throws, and we remembered just how much we despise NBA officiating. This game was why you don’t sell your playoff tickets. It was a reminder that it’s so much better to scream together than at one another.

“I had to get myself under control emotionally because I hadn’t been in that environment in a long time,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “As crazy as Suns Nation is, going nuts like that for our guys, it was pretty cool to be involved with that.”

Those in attendance on Sunday will never forget the 9:19 mark of the second quarter. A fluke injury felled Chris Paul, and he was suddenly on the floor, flopping and writhing in pain. All the energy in the building was instantly muted, and the silence was literally nauseating.

Most Valley sports teams are fueled by bandwagon fans who disappear when the losing begins. But the Suns are different. Over the years, fans on Planet Orange have bonded through shared torment, injustice and terrible misfortune in the playoffs. Paul’s injury was just the latest, and for a few minutes, it seemed like the cruelest twist of them all.

Then Paul returned to a standing ovation. He struggled to dribble. His shots were more like shot puts. During halftime warmups, he struggled to make a basket from a few feet away. But the Suns never lost their grip. Deandre Ayton had a couple of daffy moments, but mostly solid throughout. And Booker was simply sensational in his playoff debut.

“Book was great,” Paul said. “I was just out there mad at myself that I couldn’t help him more. Everybody (has) been waiting to see him in a playoff game, and you got to see it.”

Obviously, Paul’s status remains a serious concern, despite his assurances to the contrary. After contact with LeBron James, the point guard said he “heard like a crack.” Truth is, the Suns may have absorbed a fatal blow on Sunday, an inconvenient truth currently wrapped inside a gritty, delicious victory. We may end up lamenting our misfortune all over again.

But not today. After 11 long years, another journey has begun. Hopefully, this one will last a while.

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