Chris Paul was on the floor for only four of six games in the Western Conference finals, then revealed after the game of his life that he had a new wrist injury. Devin Booker reluctantly wore a plastic face shield over his broken nose for three games until he finally ditched it.
Paul, Booker and the Phoenix Suns achieved West supremacy late Wednesday, finally finishing off the short-handed and stubborn Los Angeles Clippers, but the Suns felt the strain. Phoenix needed Paul’s near-flawless 41 points, eight assists and zero turnovers in its 130-103 Game 6 win, partly because the team was not whole: After shooting 70 per cent from the field and 53 per cent on three-pointers for the series, Cam Johnson was unexpectedly scratched because of illness.
No longer, then, can the Suns’ success simply be rationalized as the work of the league’s healthiest contender, as it was by skeptics (and Las Vegas oddsmakers) for much of the regular season. After eliminating the Clippers four games to two, Phoenix proceeds to the NBA Finals far from intact.
If you prefer instead to brand the Suns as this season’s luckiest contender, given the various stars Phoenix was spared from facing en route to just the third finals berth in the club’s 53-season history, that’s a different discussion. Downgrade their championship worthiness, if you wish, based on the absence of the L.A. Lakers’ Anthony Davis for 2½ games in the first round. Or the total unavailability of Denver’s Jamal Murray in the second round and the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard in the conference finals.
There is certainly a strong case to be made that the Suns would not be headed to a title shot next week, against Milwaukee or Atlanta, without those absences. Just know this: Phoenix may be the franchise least likely to apologize.
“You never know if you’re going to be in these positions,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
After the Suns’ rout of the Clippers, the coach was reflecting on the nine-year gap between coaching Paul for one season in New Orleans and reuniting with him in Phoenix. Williams hadn’t been a first-time conference champion for even a half-hour when he told reporters that “you just realize it’s a blessing.”
There’s too much painful Suns history to feel otherwise, dating all the way to the coin flip in 1969 that allowed Milwaukee to draft Lew Alcindor, the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, leaving Phoenix to select Neal Walk.
These Suns who just reached the championship round are the first team in league history to do so after missing the playoffs for 10 – yes, 10 – consecutive seasons. Long-suffering basketball devotees in the desert are also apt to insist the decade that preceded the drought was even more excruciating, because of copious amounts of playoff agony endured by the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, led by Steve Nash and coach Mike D’Antoni. That period left a franchise, and its fan base, fearful that it might forever be married to heartbreak.
“We’ve seen the bottom – the bottom of the bottom for multiple years,” Booker said.
Rick Welts, who this week completed a championship-filled decade with the Golden State Warriors, is equally sympathetic. In his last days before stepping down as team president of the Warriors, having enjoyed all of their recent titles from close range, Welts had been keeping an eye on his old team. He has retained a deep fondness for the Suns after working as their president from 2002-11.
Even after three championship rings and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals in the Bay Area, Welts said he still couldn’t stomach the league’s decision to suspend Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in a second-round series against San Antonio in 2007. Stoudemire and Diaw received suspensions for Game 5 for leaving the bench to check on Nash, who had been hip-checked into the scorer’s table by the Spurs’ Robert Horry late in Game 4. Welts said this week, nearly 15 years later, that he continues to believe the rulings “changed the outcome of the playoffs.”
Yet with each passing day in these playoffs – with an assist from that inviting landscape that has opened up so wide because of injuries – this season’s Suns look like the team equipped to finally heal some of those wounds. Or maybe help fade some of the lingering scars from the 2005 playoffs. During that run, Joe Johnson sustained a broken eye socket, at a time when Phoenix had what many regarded as its strongest team of the Nash era.
“I have lost my voice rooting for them in at least two games so far,” Welts said. “So excited.”
No one quite knew it at the time, but the Suns’ improbable rise began when, before the 2019-20 season, Williams chose Phoenix over the L.A. Lakers’ job to work with Booker and Deandre Ayton, whom Phoenix selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. What followed was an 8-0 run last summer in the Walt Disney World bubble in Florida, and then the November acquisition of Paul. With Paul, Booker and Ayton all meshing so well under Williams, Phoenix is a ridiculous 71-25 when you combine its bubble, regular-season and playoff records since July, 2020.
Yet Booker, still not sorry, made it clear he won’t be satisfied unless the Suns go one round further and fully capitalize on the glorious opportunity they’ve been given. Especially considering the uncertain health of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Atlanta’s Trae Young.
“This is nice and all,” Booker said, “but we’re going for the Larry for sure.”
He was referring to the Larry O’Brien championship trophy. Having shed that pesky face shield, at risk to his exposed nose but for the benefit of peak vision, Booker must see it clearly: Phoenix may never have a better opportunity to win it all.