PHOENIX — Dave Thaker was 11 when the Phoenix Suns last made the NBA playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference Finals in the 2009-10 season before falling to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Since then, Thaker and Suns fans have endured a drought that has felt drier than the Mojave Desert. Phoenix posted a 306-489 (.384 win percentage) record in the last 10 seasons, finishing at the bottom of the Western Conference (three times) more times than they had a .500 or better mark (twice).
With the second-longest postseason drought in the NBA, the Suns have often made optimism scarce for their fanbase. However, Thaker and others were abundant with hope ahead of Phoenix’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 10, its third contest with a maximum capacity of 1,500 fans in attendance at Phoenix Suns Arena.
With a 17-10 record, the Suns rank fifth in the Western Conference and are on pace to snap their playoff skid. They were enjoying a six-game winning streak before falling to the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, Feb. 16. Five of those victories came in front of their home fans.
The Suns were set to increase their capacity at home games to 3,000 fans for Tuesday’s game against the Nets, who are coached by arguably the Suns’ best player in franchise history, Steve Nash.
”I’ve been repping my Suns since day one, so it’s hard to keep wearing that stuff but I’m glad to be a Suns fan,” Thaker said. “I’ve always been glad to be a Suns fan.”
Thaker and his girlfriend, Kaitlin Husa, traveled from Iowa to attend the Suns’ 125-124 win over the Bucks last Wednesday, which was the first time they saw them in person. They began dating nine months ago, which is when Thaker started to share his love for his favorite team.
Husa has since inherited that passion, still “striving” to get to Thaker’s level. Once they heard the Suns were allowing fans at home games, they didn’t hesitate to make the trip.
“We’re like, ‘We’re coming here this week,’ so I bought tickets like instantly,” Thaker said. “This is like a dream come true for me.”
Thaker and Husa weren’t the only fans to travel far for the game. Dave Weinbach, who is from Madison, Wisconsin, and has won 148 medals as a professional pickleball player, reports usapickleball.org, came to support the Bucks, though he said he appreciates the Suns since they have a former player who played at the University of Wisconsin, starting forward Frank Kaminsky.
Weinbach said he and his three sons are also fans of Phoenix guard Devin Booker, who received Western Conference Player of the Week honors on Monday after averaging 32.3 points and 5.3 assists and 56.3 percent shooting in his team’s last four wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic.
“Everybody loves D-Book,” Weinbach said. “Besides the great stats, what I love about D-Book is he’s a winner. The guy will do what it takes to win. It’s not always points. He’s just such a winner, I love that guy.”
Sam Sheridan, who grew up in Nebraska and has been a Suns fan for the last three years, attended Wednesday’s game with Corey Kruger, who moved to Arizona in January. Kruger did not grow up around a professional basketball team but said that Suns point guard Chris Paul has long been one of his favorite players, adding to his excitement to attend a game in person.
“He knows how to win basketball,” Kruger said. “That’s something the Suns were missing and I think Devin Booker has really benefited from it and the entire team just looks more fluid playing together.”
Jared Zeyouma might have been the longest-tenured fan at Wednesday’s game, saying he followed the Suns for 43 years dating to when they played at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum from 1968 to 1992. Having cheered for Phoenix’s team that advanced to the NBA Finals in the 1992-93 season, Zeyouma felt that this year’s group has a good chance to end its playoff drought.
“Seems like they’ve got their stuff together this year,” Zeyouma said. “They’ve got some great people and they’re all doing team things.
“It seems like every year, they’re rebuilding. But if they can keep with this team, stick with it, they’re going to, I think, do some things.”
With their fans back in the building, the Suns used a 20-2 run to overcome a 12-point third quarter deficit and beat the Bucks, who rank second in the Eastern Conference. Phoenix’s 120-111 win over Philadelphia on Saturday gave it two wins against either of the top two teams in the East for just the third time since the 2009-10 season.
The Suns’ players credited their fans for a late boost against Milwaukee, as Booker hit a go-ahead free throw with 32.6 seconds left and they forced a missed jumper from star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo as the buzzer sounded.
“That was a real good game for us,” Paul said. “It was intense, nice to have the fans in there, really nice to have the fans in there. I think that gave us a little extra boost. I don’t think, I know it did. So good we could pull that out.”
The energy from the fans was palpable.
“That’s what it really is, the fans, man,” Suns center Deandre Ayton told reporters after his team’s win over the Cavaliers last Monday. “It’s that energy, I’m telling you it’s that energy that we’re feeling in there.”
As one of 14 teams by Feb. 11 who have submitted plans to have fans in attendance moving forward, according to NBA.com, the Suns will attempt to keep benefiting from their crowd as they push for a playoff appearance. Most of those who attended felt the Suns are on the cusp of breaking through.
“I’m saving up for playoff money, at this point,” Sheridan said. “They’ve frontloaded the backcourt, so I don’t see why they can’t make a run.”