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Padding the Stats: Savoring Success After a Decade of Despair

May 19, 2021

I didn’t have a favorite NBA team in the early 2000s. My parents were big Bulls fans during the ‘90s because of Michael Jordan, but after he retired they kind of lost interest in the league. The Bulls fandom didn’t stick with me.

I started to get back into the league in the mid-2000s, though, and I became captivated watching a long-haired Canadian whip passes all over the court for the Phoenix Suns. I started following the Suns that next season and got to see them make the playoffs three times in four years (narrowly missing the fourth despite winning 46 games).

The third of those playoff runs was the most enjoyable as the Suns made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals behind the Nash-Stoudemire pick-and-roll and a young, energetic bench unit.

Little did I know as I was watching Jason Richardson go off for 42 points in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers, Goran Dragic explode for 23 points in one quarter during a first-round sweep of the San Antonio Spurs or, unfortunately, the Suns fail to box out and secure the rebound on a Kobe Bryant air-ball in game five that it would be the last time I’d get to see the Suns in the playoffs for a very long time.

Amar’e Stoudemire left in free agency after that 2009–10 season, Nash departed a couple of years later and the Suns fell into the Western Conference cellar. They made a brief resurgence, winning 48 games in 2013–14 behind an All-NBA season from Dragic, but even that wasn’t enough to make the playoffs in a ridiculously stacked Western Conference.

Phoenix won 39 games the following year, then failed to reach 25 wins in the next four seasons culminating with a 19-win campaign.

Things finally started to turn last season as the addition of Ricky Rubio helped stabilize the young Suns featuring Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, and while the team’s 8-0 run in the Bubble down in Orlando wasn’t quite enough to get it back into the postseason, it showed the rest of the league the Suns were ready to compete once again.

The Suns traded for future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul and signed veteran Jae Crowder as a free agent, and 51 wins later (during a 72-game season) the Suns have secured the No. 2 seed in the West (and second-best record in the entire NBA) and await their first-round opponent.

For the first time since May 29, 2010, the Suns will play a playoff game on Sunday, and I couldn’t be more excited. Though I hopped on the Suns bandwagon during a high point for the franchise, I’ve spent more of my life intently following the lottery than I have the playoffs.

During the 10 seasons between playoff appearances, I’ve witnessed six different coaches (including an interim), nine losing seasons, 489 total losses including countless blowouts and 118 different players donning Phoenix uniforms (technically, it’s 119 if you include Caron Butler suiting up during the Suns’ new jersey reveal in 2013; the Suns traded Butler away before he ever played a game, though).

I lay all of this out to say that this season of Phoenix Suns basketball has been one of the most enjoyable of my life as a sports fan.

Devin Booker has toiled in obscurity for his entire career with his accomplishments and talent being discounted by many because of the team’s record, and now he’s finally getting a chance to show how good he is on a winning team. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Playoff Booker.

I’ve long been a Chris Paul admirer, but I don’t think I truly appreciated the intricacies of his game ands overall impact until I got to see him on a game in and game out basis. He’s known as the Point God for a very good reason.

Mikal Bridges, long billed as a 3-and-D prospect, has blossomed into something much more than that this season, and at this point I’m not even sure where his ceiling lies.

Cam Payne, the former late lottery pick who busted out with a number of different teams, has become one of the best back-up point guards in the league and is one of the best stories of the 2020-21 season league-wide.

There are so many other stories big or small on this team, and I’ve enjoyed each and every one of them all the more because of the decade of despair I—alongside so many other Suns fans—trudged through.

The Suns’ reward for nearly securing the best record in the NBA is a first round meeting with either the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers led by of of the greatest players in league history in LeBron James or the Golden State Warriors led by the greatest shooter of all time in Stephen Curry. It’s going to be tough either way, but no matter what happens I’m going to do my best to savor every second of postseason basketball.

Because as I’ve found out the hard way, success cannot be assumed or taken for granted. I know Nebraska football fans have had that lesson pounded into their skulls relentlessly over the past however many years.

I’ll be surprised if the Huskers make the same kind of leap this season as the Suns did to become title contenders, but perhaps they can duplicate what Phoenix did in 2019–20, which is to lay the foundation for future success.

I truly hope you Husker fans will soon be able to share in the kind of joy the Suns have given me this season. It certainly beats the heck out of the feeling the previous decade gave me.

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