Phoenix Suns facing Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day in battle of NBA's top 2 teams

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  • Devin Booker
    Devin Booker
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  • Jae Crowder
    Jae Crowder
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This is how long it's been since the Suns played on Christmas.

Their franchise player, Devin Booker, was 13 years old at the time.

Phoenix ran away with a 124-93 home win Dec. 25, 2009, over the Los Angeles Clippers highlighted by Grant Hill's 70-foot heave to end the first half.

A little more than a decade later, the Suns will finally return to that Christmas stage.

"I'm looking forward to it," Booker said after Friday's Christmas Eve practice. "I think it's an honor for us. It's a big deal. I know as much as we want to talk it down, if you love the game and live in that Christmas tradition of watching the games throughout my whole life. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Not only are the Suns (26-5) back playing on this special holiday, they're facing the Warriors (26-6) in a matchup of the NBA's top two teams that makes this not only the biggest game of the day, but of the season to date.

"I feel like I should thank the NBA for gifting me with playing on Christmas Day," Suns center Deandre Ayton said. "A lot of guys that's not playing on Christmas are going to be opening up their gifts. Probably working out, probably getting ready for the next game, but me, I got kids waking up to go see Deandre and the Phoenix Suns play. That's an honor. You can't take that for granted, either."

The Suns came into this season championship contenders after reaching the NBA finals last season, but even they didn't see them having just five losses through 31 games.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drives past Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drives past Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

"I can't say that I did," Suns forward Jae Crowder said. "We came out the gate struggling a little bit, but I knew we were capable. I just didn't know if it would turnover as quickly as it has, but I knew we were very capable of playing the basketball that we're playing right now."

Now they're about to face the Warriors for a third time this season before what should be an roaring sellout home crowd Christmas Day at Footprint Center.

"It’s going to be fun," Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne said. "Lost to them last time. So obviously, we’re ready to play. I feel like every time we play them, it’s playoffs. We’re 1-1. It’s like a series. It’s going to be fun, man. Everyone’s families is going to be here. It’s going to be a high-intensity game.”

Phoenix won the first matchup, 104-96, Nov. 30 at home, but dropped the Dec. 3 rematch in San Francisco, 118-96, as Booker was sidelined after straining his left hamstring the first half of their first meeting.

Nov 30, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) talk into their hands at Footprint Center.
Nov 30, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) talk into their hands at Footprint Center.

"When we play the elite teams in the league, just playing isn't enough," Suns All-Star point guard Chris Paul said. "You've got to be a lot more cerebral and playing against Golden State, they always make me think. Playing against the Lakers, Milwaukee, all those good teams, they're going to make you think the game. So it' always a good test for us."

Golden State has three players under health and safety protocols in Damion Lee, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins, but are 5-1 in its last six games.

"The Warriors play a certain way, they play a certain style of basketball," Crowder said. "No matter who is on the court, they're going to play the same style of basketball. So you're preparing for the style. Obviously, you're going to know personnel, you're going to know the guys that's on the court, but they have a certain style they want to play and we know how they want to play. So you got to try to take away that."

Paul and Crowder have both played on Christmas before.

Boston Celtics' Jae Crowder reacts after hitting a three-point basket during the first half of the NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016 in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Boston Celtics' Jae Crowder reacts after hitting a three-point basket during the first half of the NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2016 in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Reliving his first game on the holiday, Crowder recalls being with the Celtics and having to guard Carmelo Anthony when Boston played the Knicks in Madison Square Garden in 2016.

"I was nervous," Crowder said. "I was nervous. I was starting. I wasn't scared, but I was nervous. I was like man, this is a special day. I remember growing up watching these games."

Anthony scored 29 on 24 shots while Crowder went for 16, hitting 3-of-6 from 3 as the Celtics won, 119-114.

"That was special," Crowder said. "We got the win, too. Carmelo was high usage, shooting 30 times a game. That was my assignment. It was great, it was great.

Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker, center right, is pressured by Los Angeles Lakers' Russell Westbrook during first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker, center right, is pressured by Los Angeles Lakers' Russell Westbrook during first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

While Paul and Crowder have played on Christmas before, their younger teammates Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Booker haven't.

Until Saturday.

"As a youngin', it was always a dream for me," Booker said. "Once I got into the NBA, it became a goal, something to go after."

Crowder doesn't want the younger Suns to take this opportunity for granted.

"These days don't come often," Crowder said. "Embrace it and cherish it."

Johnson remembers being a kid watching Christmas games back in Pennsylvania with family, friends and a full belly from eating his mom's home cooking.

"Everybody is sitting there laying back," said Johnson, leaning back in his chair during an interview following Thursday's win over Oklahoma City. "Games are on and we're just watching, watching, watching. I remember those Christmas uniforms. It was Adidas Christmas uniforms that they always used to roll out."

Now Johnson is hours away from playing on the holiday with his family in Phoenix.

"Last Christmas, I was by myself and we traveled to Sacramento," said Johnson, referring to the Suns playing the day after Christmas last year against the Kings. "I was low on food in my freezer at the time and obviously, no restaurants are open so I had to scrap for my lunch, but to have my family here now and mom's home cooking on Christmas Eve and mom's home cooking on Christmas night, which we'll get if we play the 3 p.m. game."

Dec 13, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Cameron Johnson (23) is defended by LA Clippers guard Brandon Boston Jr. (4), forward Justise Winslow (20) and center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) in the first half at Staples Center.
Dec 13, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Cameron Johnson (23) is defended by LA Clippers guard Brandon Boston Jr. (4), forward Justise Winslow (20) and center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) in the first half at Staples Center.

The NBA will look to make schedule adjustments if Christmas games are postponed due to teams not having enough players because guys are in its health and safety protocols.

So Johnson certainly has COVID-19 on his mind as he's praying for the health and safety of everyone including his family so they can fully enjoy the holidays.

"Christmas Eve and Christmas, I just love it," Johnson said. "I love just being with my family."

Johnson loves the food, too.

"They're to be some type of turkey, some type of beef," Johnson said. "The traditional collard greens, mac and cheese. Rice and beans and whatever else my mom decides to cook up, but the collard greens, rice and mac and cheese combo for me is my mom."

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton kisses his son, Deandre Jr., with his girlfriend Anissa Evans watching after beating the Milwaukee Bucks 118-108 in Game 2 of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena July 8, 2021.
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton kisses his son, Deandre Jr., with his girlfriend Anissa Evans watching after beating the Milwaukee Bucks 118-108 in Game 2 of the NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena July 8, 2021.

Ayton is not only playing in his first Christmas game, but this will be the first Christmas with his son of the same name who was born in March.

Gifts galore for Deandre Jr.

"Oh I bought a lot," Ayton said. "Bought a lot of learning toys for my son cause I realize he just like to drive the car around, but it's like, nah, nah, we need something, something to talk to you to say, you know, 'That's the color blue. That's the shape of a triangle.' Stuff like that. I did some dad shopping and got some stuff for him."

Monty Williams has been in Ayton's role for years as he has kids that are now adults, but he still gets joy in seeing how they react to opening their gifts.

"I guess I'm getting old cause I have an appreciation for those kind of things," said the 50-year-old Williams said. "Just having my family all in one room is a special time for me."

After that, Williams will head to the arena for his first NBA Christmas game as a head coach.

"I could sit here and say it's another game on the schedule, but I was excited when I found out we were going to be playing on Christmas Day," Williams said. "Being in the league for a while, you understand the level of importance of this particular day. All these game are marquee games. To be in this position says a lot about our players and how they've worked. We've won a lot of games to get this kind of recognition so we can be playing on Christmas."

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Suns face Warriors in Christmas Day battle of NBA's top teams

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