CLEVELAND — The Phoenix Suns’ winning streak began at home last month, on Devin Booker’s birthday. He made sure it continued on to New York, through Thanksgiving.
Booker, the centerpiece of the Suns’ present and future, helped beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 120-115 Wednesday night with 35 points — his second-largest scoring output in a streak that is now 14 games long.
“I wish I could be playing a little more efficiently, but I’m just trying to find ways to win,” Booker told me Wednesday. “That’s what it comes down to. That’s the reputation I’ve been trying to break after my first few years in the league, of being at the bottom of the NBA, so if you want to see winning basketball, you tune into the Suns. We play together. It’s a ‘we score’ mentality. We have a lot of talented players, and any night could be anybody’s chance.”
Booker entered the game leading the NBA in clutch shooting (shots taken with the score within five points and under five minutes to go), and drilled two of his three attempts in this latest tight game. We spoke hours before tipoff in Cleveland, and he was lamenting his slightly below-average (for him) scoring for the season (23.1 points) and lower field-goal percentage (.437). But the Suns’ reputation he referenced has, of course, entirely changed over the past year, and he deserves a ton of the credit for that. This season alone, he’s seen an uptick in rebounds (5.5 per game, a career high). Chris Paul, 37, a catalyst of the Suns’ present, is leading the NBA in assists (10.4 per), and delivered 12 more with 17 points against Cleveland. It’s a deep, balanced team with a strong bench, made even stronger by the addition of JaVale McGee, an Olympic gold medalist and three-time NBA champion.
The Suns’ current streak is tied for third-longest in franchise history. It’s one short of the second-longest, a mark the team could tie on Black Friday against the Knicks, and it follows last season’s surprise Finals bid. The streak has also lived on almost entirely while the organization has been in the shadows of an NBA investigation into allegations of racist, misogynistic and belligerent behavior from team owner Robert Sarver.
ESPN detailed those allegations, levied by former Suns coach Earl Watson and more than 70 unnamed sources, in a 7,000-word report on Nov. 4 — five days after the winning streak began. Through press releases, Sarver has strongly denied the allegations. In the aftermath, Suns players met with coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones as a group. The purpose: for information, for venting and for resolve.
“We have a communicative group,” Booker said. “We talk to each other a lot. We keep everything in house. It’s a tight-knit group. We speak on everything, and we share with each other how we feel about it, and nobody else finds out how we feel about things.”
To the extent that the Suns players have said anything about Sarver in light of ESPN’s report, they have only said they hadn’t witnessed any of the alleged behavior in their time here. Booker is Phoenix’ longest-tenured player, in his seventh season on the Suns. But it was made clear Wednesday what Suns players had read and heard about the team owner bothered them.
Devin Booker drives to the basket Wednesday, during the 14th game of the Suns’ streak. (Ken Blaze / USA TODAY Sports)
“They know the door was open for them to come talk to me about anything if they needed to, and we did — there were private conversations,” Williams said. “We’ve said wins and losses and nothing will affect our culture. That’s how we approach it. That doesn’t mean we aren’t aware of the allegations and all of that stuff, but we just kept it moving as far as our culture, but we also were aware that there was some serious business being handled, and the league was going to take care of it.”
The weight of losing a Finals can be a heavy burden to carry, and on the first day of camp, Williams called the players together and “shared my hurt.”
“The vulnerability in front of the players was something I felt like I needed to do, and I’ve turned the page,” he said, insisting the Suns haven’t talked about the Finals since.
But the first four games of this follow-up campaign were not good for Phoenix. The Suns lost three of those games. And there was drama. Deandre Ayton did not get the lucrative contract extension he wanted just before the regular season began. A controversy like the one involving Sarver could easily have been the ingredient that shoved the Suns down a bad path.
“First and foremost, I think that’s just coincidence,” Paul said. “Our plan wasn’t to start out 1-3. … We just got a great group, a great locker room. Players, coaching staff, everybody. I’ve never seen anything like it. You just enjoy being around each other.
“We talk about everything. Ain’t no guessing how this guy feels. It’s nice to be with a group like that.”
When the season started poorly, Williams said he was concerned he was “complicating things” for the players. Booker said he wanted to draw on his Olympics experience, playing for coach Gregg Popovich and winning gold in Tokyo, to help the Suns turn it around. Things like trying harder, talking more, diving for a ball, stretching a little farther to try and tip a missed shot back to a teammate — all of the things that were stressed to a collection of NBA stars in the fight of their lives to squeak out (which is what happened) a gold medal.
The Suns’ road stop before Cleveland was actually San Antonio, where Popovich still holds a day job coaching the Spurs. “It’s something I’ve reflected on a lot, and I usually don’t reflect on things this early or this fresh,” Booker said. “Even talking to Pop before the game, and playing against Keldon (Johnson, a Spur and end-of-bencher for Team USA), and JaVale is on our team. It’s memories everywhere.”
Phoenix plays the Knicks Friday and then faces a tough back-to-back the next night against Kevin Durant, Team USA’s top player, and the East-leading Brooklyn Nets. After that, it’s home for the West-leading Warriors. If they win all those games, the Suns will have tied the franchise’s record for winning streaks.
It’s a big “if,” but so was coming this far, given everything they were dealing with as the season began.
“I like our chances in a lot of games,” Booker said.