PHOENIX — 15 minutes to tipoff at Phoenix’s Footprint Center, and Deandre Ayton is on all fours outside the locker room barking like a dog.
“I’m the big dog,” Ayton clarifies. “Without the leash.”
But before Ayton can complete his middle-to-canine transformation, there follows a chaotic but beautifully orchestrated few minutes in the Tunnel of Suns.
Mikal Bridges pretends to slip Iron Man’s armor – complete with an imaginary Arc Reactor in his chest and palm repulsors that levitate him from one side of the tunnel to the other – where he’s caught by a sea of Suns players , before smashing into the concrete wall.
Former Baylor tight end-turned-NBA power forward Ish Wainright cradles an invisible football and rushes forward a few yards before Ayton, who is still standing at the time, scoops him up with textbook tackle form in his tracks stops.
Fifteen players simultaneously perform 14 unique handshakes – curated for each teammate – in a scintillating display of synchronized muscle memory so impressive that the Euro Steps and Step Back 3s that follow on the court seem almost easy.
“It loosens it up a bit,” says tall backup man JaVale McGee. “Everyone doesn’t have to go into the game 100 percent seriously, they have to be concentrated. Focused and serious are two different things.”
As the pressure mounts on top-ranked Phoenix to end the streak ahead of Thursday’s game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Dallas Mavericks (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), the pre-game routine is at one become a welcome relief.
And a message to the rest of the league.
“We’re the circus, and we’re packing up and moving every day,” says backup point guard Cameron Payne, “because it’s the biggest show in the world.”
AS WILD AS The scene may seem there is a foreplay structure that needs to be followed.
First come the Iron Man demonstrations, the football tackles and the handshakes – which can morph into a dance move or meme-inspired gesture found on Instagram and DMed to a willing teammate before the game.
Then it’s Chris Paul’s turn to address his team, with the presence of the 17-year-old veteran point guard catching every player’s attention.
But then an interruption.
“Hey, mother!” McGee screams as he pushes his way into the scrum and recites his opening line with a delivery that even Samuel L. Jackson would applaud.
If the Suns’ pregame huddle is a circus, McGee is undeniably its ringleader and proud originator of the show.
The monologue that follows varies from game to game, but McGee always includes two statements: the Suns are “dogs” and “the best team in the world” — well, the best team in the “mother’s world.” to be exact.
“I said, ‘We’re the best team in the world’ when it came down to it [our record was] 0-0 Before we even scored a point,” says McGee. “I really believe in making things happen.”
As a three-time champion from his days with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, McGee knows that setting the tone before the game can be just as important as setting the screen. The Suns even FaceTimed McGee when he was unable to travel to a mid-season road trip due to bronchitis.
“He’s the main event,” Payne says of McGee. “There’s a lot of little shows before that, but he’s the main event.”
So far, McGee’s huddle instructions have become a reality. Phoenix set a franchise record for victories with 64-18 in the regular season – not only securing the best record in the league, but also becoming the only team to finish in the top five on both offenses and defensive efficiency in 2021-22.
Monty Williams was named Coach of the Year. Bridges came second for Defensive Player of the Year. Devin Booker received MVP cheering, and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid gave him a shout-out Tuesday while discussing the award.
And the seemingly silly ritual was the backbone behind it.
“We have a real team,” said forward Jae Crowder. “We have camaraderie. We play for each other. We’re all on the same page. I think that keeps us connected.”
And they also have something that doesn’t happen that often in pro basketball.
“Sometimes it feels like a college team,” says Ayton, “but we make it work so much money Therefore.”
Paul adds: “I’ve been in this league for so long that I’ve seen teams that don’t do anything [pregame]. If you’re on another team and you see that, you’re like, “Damn, we don’t have that.”
“This was sort of our little sacred space.”
PHOENIX HAS SOMETHING that’s part of the Chicago Bulls “What time is it? game time! Whoop!’ from the 1990s, mixed in with the spectacle of Warriors star Stephen Curry half a decade ago before the game. It has become a must for fans.
“It just grew. Fans started picking it up, they started noticing it,” said Dean Stoyer, Suns chief marketing and communications officer. “[Fans] can even just come here to sit in their seats and watch [the huddle on the video board] and then get up and buy a t-shirt, have a drink and come back to their seats.”
The huddle has a rejuvenating element. The micro-impact can transform a sluggish 37-year-old point guard into a wired warrior in its fifth franchise.
“There’s been a lot of games this year where we might have a back-to-back or fourth game in five days and you come out and you’re just trying to find it,” says Paul.
“Boom. That’s exactly my energy boost.”
Its macro range can restore a player’s dignity. Early in Payne’s career, he was ridiculed for the side dances he shared with Russell Westbrook at the Oklahoma City Thunder because they only accompanied 13.2 minutes per game.
“I think if you’re not producing or not acting, they’re not trying to see that,” says Payne.
Now? Crowder beams with approval as he calls Payne “the best dancer on our team.” [with] the best handshakes.”
“That’s my goal now, just making sure I’m playing on the court but also being myself off the court,” Payne says. “You can’t take that away. Once you take it away, you don’t get that full guy anymore.”
There is also a galvanizing element.
“I’m just making sure we know we’re all together and we’re not rocking with nobody else,” says McGee. “We don’t care if your brother – your twin brother’s – is on the other team. We don’t rock with them once we’ve crossed those boundaries.”
The suns are all they have. The suns are all they need.
“My friends are my teammates,” says Ayton. “Some of my best friends.”
McGee adds, “We will continue to have friendships for life afterward.”
On Thursday night at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the Suns will fill the hallway outside the visitors’ locker room 15 minutes before takeoff.
Handshakes will fly, McGee will yell, Ayton will bark and one team will take the field together to move one step closer to their championship goal with a win that will propel the Suns back into the Western Conference Finals.
“I like traveling [the pregame huddle] the best,” says Payne. “I know home is cool because the fans can see us, but we already have built-in energy. On the road, it’s us and all our energy.
“For example, we’re against the world and we’re going to show the world why we’re the best.”