NBA schedule gives Booker, Suns an early shot at redemption

Most rivalries come from the same bloodline. They are born from geography and tradition. They stand the test of time.

But the best rivalries are volcanic eruptions, spontaneous combustions, spawned from the fires of contempt. They burn hot and they burn out fast, when a score is finally settled.

They are Jordan’s Bulls against the Bad Boy Pistons. They are Terrell Suggs’ Ravens against Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers.

They are the Suns and the Mavericks, a grimy grudge-fest that will resume on Opening Night in Phoenix, a rivalry best defined by the names on the back of the jerseys.

When last seen, the Mavericks were whooping and hollering their way out of Footprint Center, having dealt the Suns one of the most embarrassing losses in NBA history. The Suns trailed by 30 points at home, at halftime, in a Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals. The crowd was stunned, shocked and reduced to audible gasps. Those in the building will never forget those awful sounds.

When it was over, many of the Dallas players were openly mocking Phoenix fans who sang “Suns in Four!” after Game 2.

“Suns in what?” they collectively sang after Game 7. “Suns in what?”

I watched them all thunder their way to the locker room. And then I saw Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd throw me a wink, a former player who once ran the show in Phoenix, who knew exactly what he had done to the Suns.

The series was full of antagonists. After a scorching victory that staked the Suns to a 2-0 series lead, Devin Booker and Chris Paul seemed to identify Luka Doncic as the pigeon, the weak link on the opposing defense. During Game 5, Booker trolled Doncic by playing dead under the basket, only to raise his head, glance at a fan and call his performance the “Luka Special.”

In retrospect, it was an embarrassing and extremely rare display of immaturity.

Doncic responded with the force of Thor’s hammer. He called out the Suns for being classic frontrunners, for yapping when things are going their way. He had as many points at halftime of Game 7 as the entire Suns team (27). He put Booker in his place, something few NBA players have ever been able to accomplish.

This isn’t the first time the Suns/Mavericks have flashed as a rivalry. In a previous era, Steve Nash badly wanted to prove Mark Cuban wrong, the Mavericks owner who wouldn’t pay Nash over fears of his long-term health. Nash settled that score by winning consecutive MVP trophies.

As fruits of the 2018 NBA Draft began to bloom, a Suns-Mavericks rivalry seemed inevitable and unavoidable, forever tied to the careers of Doncic and Deandre Ayton, who was selected No. 1 overall and two spots ahead of the Mavericks superstar.

Now, it has gone from simmer to boil. They have JaVale McGee. We have an NBA team in desperate need of revenge. We have a point guard who might still be angry over the treatment of his mother at American Airlines Center. But moving forward, it’s really Doncic against Booker. Heavyweight against heavyweight. The way the NBA demands.

Kobe Bryant once wrote the words, “Be Legendary” on a pair of shoes he gifted to Booker. But Doncic showed Booker how it’s done, temporarily booting him from the head table of the NBA elite. And now it’s time for atonement, starting with a pound of flesh on Opening Night.

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