FIFTEEN MINUTES REMAIN before tipoff inside 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 specifies. “Without the leash.”
But before Ayton can complete his center-to-canine transformation, a chaotic yet beautifully orchestrated few minutes ensue inside the Suns’ tunnel.
Mikal Bridges pretends he’s slipping on Iron Man’s armor — complete with an imaginary Arc Reactor shoved into 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 he smashes into the concrete wall.
Former Baylor tight end turned NBA power forward Ish Wainright cradles an invisible football and rushes a few yards forward before Ayton, still upright at this point, stops him in his tracks with textbook tackle form.
Fifteen players simultaneously execute 14 unique handshakes — curated for every teammate — in a dazzling display of synchronized muscle memory so impressive that the Euro steps and step-back 3s that follow on the court seem almost simple.
“It loosens it up a little bit,” backup big man JaVale McGee says. “Everybody doesn’t have to be 100 percent serious when they go into the game, but focused. Focused and serious are two different things.”
As pressure mounts on top-seeded Phoenix to close out the series heading into Thursday’s Game 6 of its Western Conference semifinal against the Dallas Mavericks (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), the playful pregame routine has become a welcome release.
And a message to the rest of the league.
“We’re the circus, and we pack up and move every day,” backup point guard Cameron Payne says, “because it’s the greatest show on Earth.”
AS WILD AS the scene might seem, there is a pregame structure that must be followed.
First come the Iron Man demonstrations, the football tackles and the handshakes — which can morph to include a dance move or meme-inspired gesture found on Instagram and DM’d to a willing teammate before the game.
Then, it’s Chris Paul’s turn to address his team, the presence of the 17-year veteran point guard commanding the attention of every player.
But then, an interruption.
“Hey, motherf—ers!” McGee shouts as he forces his way into the scrum, reciting his opening line with a delivery even Samuel L. Jackson would applaud.
If the Suns’ pregame huddle is a circus, McGee is undeniably its ring leader and proud originator of the show.
No pregame huddle is complete without an energizing speech from JaVale McGee. Jim Poorten/NBAE
The soliloquy 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 “motherf—ing world,” to be precise.
“I was saying, ‘We’re the best team in the world,’ when [our record was] 0-0. Before we even scored a point,” McGee says. “I’m a big believer in speaking things into fruition.”
A three-time champion from his days with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, McGee knows setting a tone before the game can be just as important as setting a screen. The Suns even FaceTimed McGee into the scrum when he couldn’t travel to one midseason road trip due to bronchitis.
“He’s the main event,” Payne says of McGee. “There’s a lot of little shows before, but he’s the main event.”
So far, McGee’s huddle directives have become reality. Phoenix set a franchise record for wins, going 64-18 during the regular season — not only securing the league’s best record but distinguishing itself as the only team to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2021-22.
Monty Williams was named Coach of the Year. Bridges finished second for Defensive Player of the Year. Devin Booker received MVP buzz, with Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid giving him a shoutout Tuesday when discussing the award.
And the seemingly silly ritual has been a backbone behind all of it.
Thursday, May 12
Heat at 76ers, Game 6 (7 p.m.)
Suns at Mavs, Game 6 (9:30 p.m.)
Friday, May 13
Celtics at Bucks, Game 6
Grizzlies at Warriors, Game 6*
*If necessary | All times Eastern
“We have a real team,” forward Jae Crowder says. “We have camaraderie. We play for one another. We’re all on the same page. I think that keeps us connected.”
And they also have something that doesn’t come around so often in professional basketball.
“It feels like a college team sometimes,” Ayton says, “but we get so much money for this.”
Adds Paul: “I’ve been in this league so long that I done seen teams that don’t do anything [pregame]. If you’re on another team and you see that, you’re like, ‘Damn, we ain’t got that.’
“That right there has sort of been our little sacred space.”
PHOENIX HAS SOMETHING that is part Chicago Bulls’ “What time is it? Game time! Whoop!” from the 1990s, mixed with the spectacle of Warriors star Stephen Curry’s pregame shooting display a half decade ago. It has become a must-see experience for fans.
“It’s just grown. Fans started to pick up on it, they started to notice it,” Suns chief marketing and communications officer Dean Stoyer says. “[Fans] may even just come in here to be in their seats and see [the huddle on the video board] and then get up and go buy a T-shirt, get a drink and come back to their seats.”
There’s a rejuvenating element to the huddle. The micro impact can turn a sluggish 37-year-old point guard on his fifth franchise into a wired warrior.
“There were many games this year where we might be on a back-to-back or the fourth game in five days and you come out and you’re just trying to find it,” Paul says.
“Boom. That’s my energy boost right there.”
Dario Saric, left, and Mikal Bridges share a unique handshake before taking the court. Jim Poorten/NBAE
Its macro reach can restore a player’s dignity. Early on in Payne’s career, he was mocked for the sideline dances he shared with Russell Westbrook with the Oklahoma City Thunder because they were accompanied by only 13.2 minutes per game.
“I guess when you’re not producing or if you’re not playing, they ain’t trying to see that,” Payne says.
Now? Crowder beams with appreciation when dubbing Payne as “the best dancer on our team [with] the best handshakes.”
“That’s what my goal is now, just make sure I produce on the court, but also be myself off the court,” Payne says. “Can’t take that away. As soon as you take it away, you don’t get that full guy.”
There’s a galvanizing element, too.
“I just make sure that we know that we’re all together and we don’t rock with nobody else,” McGee says. “We don’t care if your brother’s — your twin brother’s — on the other team. We don’t rock with ’em once we cross these lines.”
The Suns are all they got. The Suns are all they need.
“My friends are my teammates,” Ayton says. “Some of my best friends.”
Adds McGee: “We’ll have friendships for life, even after this.”
Thursday night inside Dallas’ American Airlines Center, the Suns will fill the hallway outside the visitor’s locker room 15 minutes before tipoff.
Handshakes will fly, McGee will shout, Ayton will bark and a team will take the court together, looking to get one step closer to its championship goal with a win that will put the Suns back in the Western Conference finals.
“On the road, I like [the pregame huddle] the best,” Payne says. “I know at home is cool because the fans can see us, but we got built-in energy already. On the road though, it’s us and all our energy.
“Like, it’s us against the world and we’re going to show the world why we’re the best.”