This year, the Phoenix Suns had one edict: be entertaining, because wins might be hard to come by.
Ever since their defeat in the 2010 Western Conference finals, being a Suns fan has meant waiting for the bottom to fall out. The writing was on the wall for Steve Nash’s decline and departure. He started to miss games the following season as his back problems flared up, which led to Phoenix trading Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to Houston for Aaron Brooks in the misguided hope that the former Most Improved Player could provide the kind of offensive spark to get the Suns into the playoffs.
That plan failed. Horribly. For the first time since Nash arrived in Arizona, the Suns finished a season under .500. Phoenix went 33-33 in the lockout shortened season of 2012, and that was that. The man who defined the organization for nearly a decade was shipped off to Los Angeles for draft picks, and the vertigo of several seasons on the edge came to a crashing conclusion for Suns fans.
Like two sine waves slightly out of sync, it seemed that rock bottom would come twice for Phoenix. Last season was the emotional trough. The Suns, it must be understood, have an odd relationship with winning. The team has the fourth highest cumulative winning percentage in NBA history, a bit of trivia that any Phoenician can snap off in two seconds flat. Despite all that regular season success and two thrilling Finals series in the franchise’s history, however, the team’s yet to win a title. It’s a dichotomy that informs the Phoenix fan experience: championships would be amazing, but sustained stretches of victories and highly entertaining basketball is more than acceptable. That’s not to belittle the Suns’ desire to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, but history and environment have a strange way of contextualizing expectations. Wins matter for fans in Phoenix; so, too, does having a team simply worth watching.
2012-13 offered neither. The Suns were a mess, which many had seen coming. More egregiously, though, there was little redeeming value in the on-court product. Phoenix finished with the fourth-worst record in the league, but the season as a whole felt much, much lower than that.
This year was supposed to be different, for better and for worse. The second bottom was supposedly in store, with the team competing for the worst record in the league. The emotional curve, however, was trending upward. Phoenix hired a new braintrust and coaching staff in Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek who could steer the organization through the rough waters of a rebuild. There were young, likable players whose growth could coincide with that of the franchise.
And there was Gerald Green. If any one player can stand as a symbol for all that’s gone right for the Suns this year, it’s Green. Seven teams in seven years, and journeys across the seven seas for stints in Russia and China — it’s a history that makes Green right at home in Phoenix, where P.J. Tucker, with a similar resume, has become the heart and the soul of one of the most entertaining teams in the league.
Because of players like Green and Tucker and Miles Plumlee and the Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, and Channing Frye and Eric Bledsoe and, of course, Goran Dragic, that second rock bottom never came. Retrospectively, the curves synced last year, where record and reputation both reached their minimum. That preseason edict to be entertaining has been met with resounding success, to the point that Phoenix has become the darling of the NBA this season. And the Suns have jumped light-years ahead on their developmental curve as a team, vying for a playoff berth in the same season most expected outside of the team expected 20 wins.
It’s a narrative ripped straight from reverie, though one that’s seen its fair share of dark clouds. Yet each time reality threatened to infringe on the Suns’ dreams, Green stood ready to keep Phoenix in its trance. The quick start to the season seemed doomed by injury to Bledsoe, which itself followed a bout of back-and-forth missed games from Bledsoe and Dragic. Instead, Green stepped into the fray in Bledsoe’s absence, ably filling his spot in the starting rotation.
And last night, with the Suns staring into the face of two straight losses to the elite of the Western Conference and a tough schedule to close out the season, Green once again came to the rescue. He dropped 25 points in the third-quarter with Phoenix trailing by double-digits, a Herculean effort that staked the Suns to a three-point lead after three quarters of play. All told, he scored 41 points on the night, a career-high, including 8 three-pointers, which left him one shy of tying the team record for most threes in a game. With his now-standard mix of deep triples and psychologically scarring rim attacks, Green channeled the confidence that coach Hornacek has shown in him into devastating on-court results. Though the game against the Thunder wasn’t quite a must-win, each victory Phoenix can squeeze out against the teams it’s not supposed to beat brings them one step closer to the postseason. Truth be told, that’s been the story of their season — the list of teams they’re “supposed” to beat has simply kept growing.
After the game, Green was effusive in his praise for his coaches, teammates, and the organization that’s treated him like family. He told Tom Chambers and Tom Leander on the postgame show that he would be nearly the player he is today if it weren’t for the Suns. He campaigned for Hornacek as Coach of the Year and Markieff Morris as 6th Man of the Year. Even after scoring 41 points, though, Green couldn’t bring himself to say what those who’ve watched him this season are thinking. Green himself is deserving of consideration for some hardware this year, the Most Improved Player on the most improved team in the league.
Thanks in part to those 41 points, the Suns find themselves seventh in the Western Conference, up a half-game on the Mavericks — with the Grizzlies just another game back of Dallas. Phoenix has traded losses for wins, draft odds for playoff matchups. It’s not because of Gerald Green, but trading for him certainly didn’t hurt.
Green and the Suns have taken their marching orders to heart. Be entertaining? Sure. Few things are as fun to watch as a playoff race, after all.