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When asked at shootaround what it’s been like to have Kevin Durant as his new teammate, Devin Booker struggled to explain it.
“It’s just something that you gotta be around,” he said. “It’s a feeling when you’re around greatness, when you’re around one of the best to ever do it. It’s just a different look, it’s a different feel. It’s kinda hard to put to words, but I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Phoenix Suns fans got their first taste of that sensation a few hours later.
Although Durant was still sidelined by a right MCL sprain for Tuesday’s game against the Sacramento Kings, the Footprint Center was positively buzzing ahead of the matchup and throughout the evening. The sense of anticipation and excitement was palpable in the arena.
Part of it was the Suns finally being back in town after a five-game road trip. Part of it was Devin Booker playing in his first home game in nearly two months. But the majority of it was Durant, one of the greatest NBA players of all time, being in the building for the first time as a Phoenix Sun.
Even coach Monty Williams couldn’t help but notice the atmosphere.
“It’s pretty cool to have a guy on your team that pretty much everybody on the team looks up to,” he said. “We basically have two of ’em, with Chris [Paul] and KD. And so I think it creates something, and I can’t even explain it. It’s just pretty cool to watch.”
That indescribable feeling of being around greatness emanated from the Suns bench all the way up to the upper decks of the arena as soon as Durant took his place near the court for tipoff. Everyone in the vicinity whipped out their phones, trying to catch a photo or video as a way of pinching themselves: Yes, Kevin Durant is a Phoenix Sun.
Kevin Durant is excited before the start of tonights Suns game, and the fans are excited about Kevin Durant: pic.twitter.com/igWYcHBjB4
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) February 15, 2023
Durant was all smiles, clapping from the bench after made buckets and giving his new teammates high fives during timeouts. When he thought Booker got fouled, KD stood up and started barking at officials. And when he got introduced on the Jumbotron to a roaring ovation, he gave a reserved salute to the crowd.
Given the way things ended in Brooklyn, perhaps the enthusiasm he was greeted with in Phoenix caught even a 13-time All-Star off-guard.
“I was watching him more than anything,” Booker said of Durant receiving that response. “I don’t think people realize what it is until you’re in it. I think he got two standing ovations, and it’s not gonna be the last one.”
Suns fans welcome Kevin Durant to the Valley: pic.twitter.com/HkbSQaELuK
— Gerald Bourguet (@GeraldBourguet) February 15, 2023
Ironically enough, the night crescendoed over free chicken sandwiches. In the fourth quarter, the Suns run a promotion where everyone in attendance gets a free chicken sandwich from Chick Fil-A if an opposing player misses two consecutive free throws.
It often draws one of the biggest cheers of the night regardless (because who doesn’t like free food?), but when Kevin Huerter missed his first free throw midway through the fourth quarter, Durant immediately got the memo, egging the crowd on to cheer for another miss. The fans got a kick out of the two-time Finals MVP latching on to their thing and participating, and when Huerter missed the second free throw, the place went bonkers.
Durant and Book celebrated with the crowd from the bench, and Suns Twitter was gifted with its latest favorite GIF to use over and over again. It couldn’t have summed up the night any better:
“I know the fans are super excited,” Deandre Ayton said. “I mean, they came out there to see him; just imagine when he suit up and ready to play! It might be standing room only.”
Ayton could be on to something…especially if the Suns continue to play the way they did on Tuesday. In a 120-109 victory over the Kings, Phoenix won its 11th game in the last 14 tries, moving within one game of catching Sacramento for the 3-seed in the Western Conference.
Watching Booker go off while playing with a minutes restriction, Ayton continue his recent stretch of dominant performances and Chris Paul flirt with 20 assists felt like a poignant message to Durant, the fanbase and the rest of the league: We’re already good, and we don’t even have Kevin Durant out there yet.
“That’s one of the greatest to ever touch a basketball,” said Damion Lee, Durant’s former Golden State Warriors teammate. “So it’s just the respect and understanding of what he brings, what he commands when he’s out there on the court, and knowing that you have to make sure you’re on your P’s and Q’s if you’re playing with one of the greats.”
Obviously, Durant isn’t actually on the court yet. While he’s looked spry and had plenty of burst in his post-practice workouts, he hasn’t played any 3-on-3 of 5-on-5 yet and is officially out until after the All-Star break.
With that being said, he’ll have plenty of time to check all the right boxes before the Suns’ first game out of the break. And as silly as it feels to wax poetic about a guy who was simply taking in the sights and sounds of his new home arena in street clothes, having him in the building had an undeniable effect on Phoenix’s effort.
“When you have high-character, high-level basketball players in your gym that love the game, and they want to get better every day and they want to see guys around them get better, again, I don’t have a word for it, but I know when I’m in the gym, I can feel it,” Williams said.
After the emotional roller coaster of the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline that saw fan favorites like Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Dario Saric traded away, the Suns took advantage of a few off-days to collect themselves. Since then, there’s been an electric energy in the gym, and it carried over to Tuesday’s game.
Ayton was a monster, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds, 4 steals, 2 blocks and 2 assists on 13-of-17 shooting against an All-Star in Domantas Sabonis. CP3 racked up a whopping 19 assists to go with 17 points. Josh Okogie chipped in 19 points in the starting role, shooting 8-for-13 from the floor and 3-of-4 from downtown.
And Booker, who had shot a combined 13-of-33 in his first two games since returning from his left groin strain, notched 32 points in just 30 minutes while going 13-of-20 from the floor.
From brutally difficult midrange jumpers to authoritative dunks in transition, Book not only had his burst back, but his spark as well.
“He’s just got a bounce about him,” Williams said. “We don’t even have him to his full complement of minutes yet, and that’s gonna take us some time to build him up to that point. But I just think the ability to make shots that no one else can make on your team is something that not every team has. And I think when he makes shots like that, it gives everybody a lot of confidence.”
“That’s a welcome back for sure,” Ayton added. “You could tell, I know he been on his little restriction time or whatever, but he be fired up.”
He wasn’t the only one fired up. From Book and DA to CP3 and Saben Lee, everyone on the Suns played at a frenetic, hyper-focused pace. KD’s return won’t be for at least another week or so, but walking in the practice facility and seeing the Slim Reaper working out still feels surreal to some of the players too.
“That’s the question I’m trying to answer my damn self,” Ayton replied when asked how excited he is to play with Durant. “I’m really speechless, to be honest. We got KD! Ain’t that something? That’s what I ask myself all the time. Only thing I can do is possibly just make sure I’m ready to play, ’cause he’s gonna come ready to play and do what he gotta do every night.”
That admiration resonates throughout the roster. Okogie said sometimes he sits and watches Durant work out just to be inspired. T.J. Warren called playing with Durant in Brooklyn “basketball heaven,” and since the trade, Booker’s contacts have been blowing him up with a similar message: “Oh, that’s what y’all are on?”
"I don't talk to many people, but people reach out and go, 'Is that what y'all on?'"
Devin Booker on what he's heard from guys in the league about Kevin Durant trade.
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) February 14, 2023
For their part, the Suns are doing their best to make Durant feel comfortable, giving him an gym environment where he can come in and decompress from all the trade noise by simply hooping. But there’s no question his arrival comes with a great deal of fanfare, signaling a complete departure from where this franchise was just a few years ago.
“I think we’ve built something that the league has picked up on,” Booker said. “We were probably the laughingstock of the NBA about four or five years ago, and just turning that around to something serious, to championship contenders, is a quick turnaround for us. So we take a lot of pride in what we’ve built here, and for this to be a destination that Kev wanted to come to is a big sign of that, to show respect of what we’ve done so far. We still have more to do, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
That build-up of momentum, that wind in their sails, that inevitable excitement over what comes next? It was all in the air Tuesday night, in a game where Durant didn’t even play. It was only an appetizer for the extravagant meal that will soon follow, but it provided a tantalizing taste of what’s to come — for the Suns, the fanbase and even KD himself.
“He deserves that [ovation], he’s a legend in this game, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, everything all the way down the list, MVP,” Booker said. “And I’m glad he’s here. Hopefully he can call this home one day and rock out here the rest of the time.”
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