EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
64 moments that shaped the Suns’ historic 64-win season
Apr 12, 2022, 8:44 AM | Updated: 9:17 am
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Coming off the team’s third NBA Finals appearance and motivated to win their first championship, the Phoenix Suns bested their regular-season franchise win total by two games in 2021-22.
The team was built on continuity and doubling down on what worked a year ago. But a new year is a new year, and the regular season took on its own form that will dictate how Phoenix fares in the playoffs that for them begin Sunday.
So to review how the Suns got to this point, here is one sentence on 64 moments spanning the clock ticking to 0:00 in Game 6 of the 2021 NBA Finals until the regular-season finale on Sunday.
1. Devin Booker said ‘damn’ – July 20
Devin Booker as he watches the Bucks celebrate their NBA championship: “Damn.”
This is just part of the making of Devin Booker’s legacy. pic.twitter.com/zL7tw3q5MH
— Suns Are Better (@SunsAreBetter) July 21, 2021
Why: Untucking his jersey after the Milwaukee Bucks sealed their NBA title, Booker was caught by ESPN’s cameras expressing disappointment in the most confident way possible, and it foreshadowed how the Suns would attack the regular season to follow.
2. Suns’ Willie Green hired as new head coach of New Orleans Pelicans – July 22
Why: The man that head coach Monty Williams credited so much for implementing the team’s defense — and the good friend who Chris Paul said helped him in the playoffs by urging the vet point guard to push the pace — left a void on the bench.
3. The Phoenix Suns and Jeff Bower parted ways – July 24
Why: We don’t know how much input the vice president of basketball operations had in his two years on the job because he was largely behind the scenes, but his departure made it clear that general manager James Jones, who joined the organization in 2017, had a firm grasp leading Phoenix — in case the Finals run didn’t say that.
4. Booker made his Olympic debut in same week as Suns’ NBA Finals exit – July 25
Why: Booker’s willingness to put his likely burned-out body on a flight to Tokyo after the Finals showed his commitment to hoop.
5. Suns dealt for Landry Shamet over drafting late in 1st round – July 30
Why: This was a sign Phoenix was doing as the Los Angeles Rams did by saying “(Vulgar word) them picks,” trading draft selections for ready-to-go players.
6. Paul returned on new contract, and it was about more than 1 window of contention – Aug. 2
Why: Paul opted out of one year and signed on for four, giving the Suns some outs but keeps the point guard on the team should his health hold up.
7. Cam Payne agreed to re-sign with Suns on 3-year contract – Aug. 2
Why: Beyond Booker and Paul, Payne’s role as a primary ball-handler and creator couldn’t be mentioned enough during last year’s playoff run as Paul battled injuries and a COVID-19 absence.
8. JaVale McGee, Suns agreed to terms on 1-year deal – Aug. 2
Why: Phoenix wanted to double-down by having a defensive anchor even with Ayton off the court.
9. Frank Kaminsky re-signed – Aug. 5
Why: Perhaps Kaminsky is underappreciated, but Williams’ offense thrives with a ball-moving center among a versatile group of big men.
10. Booker won Olympic gold medal – Aug. 6
Why: By the end of his Olympic run, Booker had developed a glue-guy-like role for Team USA that expressed his willingness to do things other than score.
11. Elfrid Payton signed with Suns – Aug. 9
Why: Ball-handlers are important, and so is depth.
12. Booker returned to Suns after COVID-19 stint – Oct. 1
Why: Booker missed a good chunk of camp that may have hurt continuity but could have been a blessing in disguise considering his heavy workload in the Finals and Olympics.
13. Mikal Bridges agreed to $90 million extension – Oct. 17
Why: Non-action by the Suns’ front office headlined by the Deandre Ayton extension rumors was a worrying sign, but this move cemented the best complementary piece of the roster would be around for four years.
14. Suns agreed to extend Shamet – Oct. 18
Why: While it came before he even suited up for the Suns, a four-year, $43 million extension for the journeyman signaled the team wants to commit to the right type of basketball player to keep their roster sustainable, even if it puts into question how sustainable it’ll be financially.
15. Ayton ‘disappointed’ with no extension but focused on making Finals run – Oct. 20
Why: While Ayton’s lack of an extension agreement consumed much of the offseason, it was all basketball over business when the season began.
16. Suns called an unpublished story accusing owner Robert Sarver of sexism and racism full of ‘lies’ – Oct. 22
Why: The biggest storyline off the court began with a few tweets and a response by the team before allegations were published, but the day nonetheless shed a dark light on the franchise just after its biggest on-court moment in years.
17. Suns fell to 1-3 on the year as Kings hit a buzzer-beater – Oct. 27
Why: The Sarver scandal and the Suns’ quick turnaround from the past season might’ve had a hand in early adversity.
18. A 50-12 run in heart of win over Cavaliers shows tides turn – Oct. 30
Why: About that response to the 1-3 start: This moment was the beginning of traction that would lead to a franchise-record 18-game winning streak.
19. Suns declined Jalen Smith’s 3rd-year team option – Nov. 1
Why: A young top-10 pick who didn’t make sense as a fit at the time officially looked like he’d be on the way out despite hardly having any playing time to improve.
20. Paul passed Steve Nash for 3rd in NBA all-time assists – Nov. 2
Why: From an NBA-wide historical glance and within Phoenix, it’s a big deal when someone passes Two-Time.
21. NBA opened investigation into owner Robert Sarver, Suns’ culture – Nov. 4
Why: ESPN’s detailed story about allegations of racism and sexism in the Suns’ offices dropped, and the NBA promptly announced an investigation would begin.
22. Bridges’ tweet pointed to his connection with Booker – Nov. 9
Why: Bridges (26th) and Booker (fourth) ranked well NBA-wide in transition points per game, and it remains a huge piece of the Suns’ defense-to-offense strength.
23. Frank Kaminsky’s stellar play continued in Suns’ 6th straight win vs. Blazers – Nov. 10
Why: Kaminsky’s 31 points and seven boards playing backup to McGee with Ayton out was a sign of the team’s depth and dynamic offense.
24. McGee’s take foul exposed a bad rule and the Suns’ savvy – Nov. 24
one of the worst take fouls you’ll see this season. Cavs are in the middle of a big run and the ref stops the play to rule THIS an away from the ball foul on JaVale McGee. Osman’s 3 taken off board, Cavs ball side out. this STINKS @NBA. pic.twitter.com/fcnLGRW0C0
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) November 25, 2021
Why: It’s Exhibit A of how these Suns are just savvy and enjoying being savvy, and that specific rule loophole looks like it’s going to change before next year.
25. Suns rallied to beat Warriors after Booker exits with a hamstring injury – Nov. 30
17 straight! Footprint Center was rocking tonight as the #Suns defeat the #Warriors 104-96. Here are some of Al McCoy's best calls of the 2nd half. #ValleyProud pic.twitter.com/5DwOrKutY1
— 98.7 Arizona Sports (@AZSports) December 1, 2021
Why: Booker went down, but the Suns picked up a statement win against a team expected to be there at the end of the season.
This sequence is so perfectly Suns.
Ayton switches onto Steph in space and handles himself just fine.
Bridges switches into the post and jumps the passing lane.
CP pushes in transition.
Bridges drive and kick on secondary break.
CP extra pass.
Crowder corner three. pic.twitter.com/6BT52cS1YY
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) December 1, 2021
26. Suns won franchise-record 18th straight game with victory over Pistons – Dec. 2
Why: Injuries to Ayton and Payne on the frontend and Kaminsky and Booker on the backend didn’t impact the roll this team was on.
27. Suns’ winning streak ended at 18 games with loss to Warriors – Dec. 3
Why: Bridges injured his finger, and beyond threatening his ironman streak, the event impacted the game as the team’s perfect run from Oct. 30 to this point ended.
28. McGee hits his 1st 3 – Dec. 10
JaVale McGee looks sad AF that he made a 3 pointer. 🏀 Bruh. #NBA #Suns #Celtics #Phoenix #Boston #basketball pic.twitter.com/jj1EIgRH35
— Casey Tanner (@CTann21) December 11, 2021
Why: Yes, McGee has taken three-pointers before, but you know the Suns give their dudes the ultimate green light when he’s heat-checking.
29. Booker’s return after 7 games (hamstring) boosted Suns to 31-point beatdown of Hornets – Dec. 19
Devin Booker finished with 16pts in his first game back from injury. Here he is after the game. #ValleyProud pic.twitter.com/t0Ngk6rPJv
— 98.7 Arizona Sports (@AZSports) December 20, 2021
Why: Another hamstring issue — he had one in Game 3 of the Finals — had popped up, but Booker took a careful path back that appeared to pay off when he returned.
30. Suns head coach Williams placed under COVID-19 protocols – Dec. 27
Why: Six Suns would join Williams on the COVID-19 list over the next several weeks as the Omicron wave hit the NBA hard, forcing Phoenix to sign Emanuel Terry, M.J. Walker, Paris Bass, Bismack Biyombo and Justin Jackson on 10-day deals while elevating Kevin Young to acting head coach.
31. Paul defended 10-day signee Emanuel Terry, changed heckler’s tone – Jan. 7
Why: In case you were wondering how quickly new players are initiated into the tight-knit culture of the Suns, here’s your answer.
32. Kaminsky had procedure on right knee, out at least 8 weeks – Jan. 7
Why: It was a hit to the depth and took away a key bench advantage.
33. Suns signed center Biyombo for rest of season – Jan. 11
Why: Biyombo may appear redundant, but his 10-day addition showed that he’s a little more switchable as an alternative to McGee off the bench.
34. Booker upset at Raptors’ mascot trying to distract him – Jan. 11
Why: An empty Toronto arena led to a meme that Booker embraced.
35. Booker led Suns with season-high 48 points in win vs. Spurs – Jan. 17
Why: Confirmed as a crazy competitive guy, Booker embraced the dinosaur hate going viral and went on a tear thereafter.
36. Suns extended the contract of general manager James Jones – Jan. 25
Why: The architect of the team had done a great job, and it was deserving.
37. A 10th win in a row via a small-ball lineup meant a ton – Jan. 30
Why: A new lineup, clutch shooting, a comeback that clinched the Suns’ coaching staff’s duties as All-Star coaches — because Phoenix would have the best record at the All-Star break — also saw Paul drop 19 dimes and Bridges score 26, which marked a huge uptick in his scoring as February began.
38. Bridges got meme’d – Feb. 7
Why: As the Bulls attempt to poke at Booker’s dino-aversion during pregame warmups, Bridges stepped in front of cameras to create yet another meme-able moment.
😂😂😂😂😂😂 just the beginning of our handshake @elfrid https://t.co/6Psj957XoK
— Mikal Bridges (@mikal_bridges) February 8, 2022
39. Phoenix opted to run it back with Torrey Craig in no-brainer acquisition – Feb. 10
Why: Continuity is key, and everyone should have predicted that the 2022 Torrey Craig trade deadline deal was just the 2021 Torrey Craig trade deadline deal.
40. Aaron Holiday traded from Wizards to Phoenix Suns for cash – Feb. 10
Why: Payton continued to be a wonky fit in off-the-ball roles due to his lack of deep shooting, and Holiday’s pest-like defense gave the Suns another depth option at point.
41. Barking dogs played like ’em
Chris Paul leads the dog pound without JaVale McGee. Iffe Lundberg gets a kick out of his introduction to the pregame ritual pic.twitter.com/TILhOhflRs
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) March 27, 2022
"They say you got to watch out for the gators out here. I brought my m'fing dogs." JaVale McGee.
"WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF!"
And yes, that's Deandre Ayton in a 3-point stance as #Suns took floor to face #Pelicans. pic.twitter.com/4AlK9xtqpr
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) March 16, 2022
Why: It’s another example of team camaraderie, and even when they were missing a key contributor in McGee, they phoned their teammate (Warning: explicit language) to get juiced before games.
42. Ayton threw down a poster alley-oop over Bucks’ Giannis – Feb. 10
Why: Paul posted 19 assists that game, and Ayton got Giannis Antetokounmpo back for his memorable block of the Suns center in the Finals.
43. Suns’ Cam Johnson, Mikal Bridges made a Super Bowl LVI wager – Feb. 13
Why: The twins do not like each others’s NFL teams, and there would be consequences.
44. Another clutch win, this time dooming the Clippers – Feb. 16
Why: Just look at these stats:
In one of the few close games from Tuesday's NBA slate, the Suns showed their dominance in clutch time once again.
Their +45.0 net efficiency in clutch time is not only the best in the NBA this season, but is on pace to be the best over the last 25 seasons. pic.twitter.com/4pJgBjc05I
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 9, 2022
45. Suns ground through a messy game, Paul’s ejection to defeat Rockets – Feb. 17
Why: The Point God added another weird hand injury (right thumb avulsion fracture) to his career going into the All-Star break and got ejected at the same time.
46. Nikola Jokic gave big praise to Williams – Feb. 21
Why: In case you were wondering about why the Suns are one of the best executing and most motivated teams in the league, the potential NBA MVP Nikola Jokic rolled some heavy praise out for his All-Star game coach.
47. Booker thrived as ‘Point Book’ in Suns’ 1st game without Paul – Feb. 24
Why: In their first game out of the All-Star break without Paul, Booker managed 12 assists while the Suns got arguably the best combination of games from wings Bridges, Johnson and Crowder to smoke the Oklahoma City Thunder by 20.
48. Jae Crowder, Williams took blame for no timeout called vs. Jazz – Feb. 27
Why: It’s not all roses without one of the best clutch players in the league, and that showed when a late-game snafu spoiled a potential win — but coach and player took accountability, a sign of how the Suns don’t make such excuses.
49. Johnson fulfilled bet with a lemonade stand for hundreds of Suns fans – Feb. 28
#Suns F Cam Johnson is serving up lemonade to pay off his Super Bowl bet with Mikal Bridges (📸: @JGSports_6) pic.twitter.com/glfSKcIuUC
— 98.7 Arizona Sports (@AZSports) February 28, 2022
Why: Cincinnati Bengals fan Johnson not only paid off his debt to Los Angeles Rams supporter Bridges but connected with the Phoenix community in the process.
50. Al McCoy honored for 50 years as voice of Phoenix Suns – March 2
Why: The voice of the Suns enjoyed the historic year calling his 50th season, and he was honored in what happened to be the team’s 50th win.
51. NBA players danced to NBA Youngboy
Why: It would seem the Suns are sure having fun rolling opponents when organic dancing to NBA Youngboy’s “Nevada” happens in pregame warmups.
52. Johnson’s 38 after an altercation with Julius Randle led comeback vs. Knicks – March 4
Here is Al McCoy calling Cam Johnson's buzzer-beater 3 to walk it off for the Suns! #ValleyProud
(Via @espn) pic.twitter.com/Er6nguFXj0
— 98.7 Arizona Sports (@AZSports) March 5, 2022
Why: The usually stoic Johnson took a few elbows from the Knicks’ Julius Randle personally, and the rare angry Cam became a flamethrower who dropped 38 points and a game-winning three-pointer.
53. Suns’ tremendous shorthanded effort was nearly enough to upset Bucks – March 6
Why: Down Booker (COVID-19 protocols), Johnson (quad contusion) and Paul (thumb), the Suns went blow-for-blow against a motivated Milwaukee squad that had just enough juice to win a nationally televised game.
54. A 21-point blowout vs. East-leading Heat gave Suns redemption – March 9
Why: Phoenix avenged a 23-point loss in January with a blowout of the Heat to end a road trip on the second night of a back-to-back as Booker returned from a four-game COVID-19 absence.
55. Booker amused by Lakers’ Anthony Davis saying Suns got away with one – March 13
Why: Anthony Davis suggested before the game that the Suns got away with winning over the Lakers in the playoffs last season, which was noticed by Booker, who after the Suns cruised to a win threw out the saying, “If if was a fifth, we’d all be drunk,” which is one of the smoothest burns we’ve heard of late.
56. Williams vouched for Mikal Bridges winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year – March 20
Why: The Suns got ahead of the disrespect train with their head coach pointing out that Bridges, who ended the season as the league’s minutes leader, takes on the most challenging individual defensive assignment each game while becoming one of five players league-wide to not miss a game.
57. Crowder’s dustup with KAT ignited the Suns – March 23
Why: Karl-Anthony Towns too-smalled Crowder in the first half, then disappeared from then on as Phoenix woke up hearing some Minnesota smack talk.
Here is the 14-3 Suns run on 6 straight possessions that was all Devin Booker to close out the game. Tough pocket pass, tougher finish, 30-footer, pass off the glass to Bridges, hockey assist for a Shamet 3 and the jam/dagger. Bad man. https://t.co/eKih7S57QG pic.twitter.com/VqXj20hi3o
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) March 24, 2022
58. Booker felt disrespected by Nuggets game operations using Amir Coffey’s picture – March 24
Why: Booker scored a season-high 49 points after he again found pregame motivation when Denver’s game-ops crew put Clippers guard Amir Coffey’s picture in place of Booker’s during introductions (Whoops!).
59. Fellow players began vouching for Booker’s MVP credentials – March 26
Why: Following Isiah Thomas’ complaints in defense of Booker about how the criteria changes for NBA awards, fellow star guards Ja Morant and Kyrie Irving offer their Book-for-MVP support online.
60. Great offense always beats great defense – March 30
Why: A win over the Steph Curry-less Warriors came with Phoenix’s offense clicking against a championship-level defense to this tune:
Ball movement 🤌 pic.twitter.com/NgohX8sp2e
— Bally Sports Arizona (@BALLYSPORTSAZ) March 31, 2022
61. Suns eliminated Lakers for franchise-record 63rd win – April 6
Why: Fitting it becomes as the Lakers lose their fourth game of the year to the Suns and fall out of postseason contention on the same night Phoenix sets a new franchise mark with 63 regular-season wins.
62. Booker gave Al McCoy signed jersey after Suns set franchise record – April 6
Why: Booker handed out his respect to the Suns supporters who’ve been here longer than anyone, gifting McCoy a signed jersey, while Williams gave long-time head equipment manager Jay Gaspar the game ball.
63. Suns waived Kaminsky – April 7
Why: A huge part of the Suns’ rebuild into a team that features ball movement, continuity and sacrifice, the rehabbing Kaminsky was let go as the team prepared its playoff roster.
64. Suns converted Ish Wainright’s contract – April 10
Why: The 27-year-old former football player’s NBA journey continues after his two-way deal is converted to make him playoff eligible, giving Phoenix a switchy, strong wing who before earning the promotion put up 20 points, eight boards, four assists and three steals against the Clippers.