Here is a list of prominent Phoenix Suns players with a common trait: Deandre Ayton. Devin Booker. Mikal Bridges. Cameron Johnson. Cameron Payne. Dario Saric.
What’s that trait? None of them were born the last time the Suns reached the NBA Finals.
That is, the last time the Suns reached the Finals before Wednesday—because now the Suns are back in the championship round, after 10 seasons away from the playoffs. Now, they’ll search for their first title, following a 130-103 win in Game 6 in Los Angeles to clinch their spot. No other team in NBA history has made the Finals after such a rotten recent run of results.
Chris Paul’s laborious trip to the Finals rivals the franchise’s own, counting 16 seasons, five teams, and just as many playoff collapses. There was no more fitting capstone to that journey than his Game 6 outburst, against the very franchise with which he’d suffered so many painful defeats, in front of the fans who once called him their own.
Paul paid them back by just about reaching into the collective Staples Center’s chest and yanking out its heart. He has waited his entire career to play in his first Finals, and he wasn’t going to wait any longer: He scored 41 points on 16-for-24 shooting (7-for-8 from distance), tying a career playoff high and nearly outscoring the Clippers by himself in an electric fourth quarter, when he notched 19 points to the Clippers’ 20.
Paul baited Patrick Beverley into an early ejection; he silenced the crowd, again and again as the Clippers’ latest comeback effort sputtered; he tormented DeMarcus Cousins in the pick-and-roll and nailed layups and 3s and midrange jumpers without a single turnover to his name. Afterward, he left his postgame ESPN interview early to celebrate with his team.
“I’m just so happy for all the people around me.” @CP3 reflects on his journey to his first Finals. pic.twitter.com/mWm757SlTv— NBA TV (@NBATV) July 1, 2021
That team is a well-rounded collection of players—by style, by size, by age and experience. The Suns are a modern group, with four perimeter players starting; they are also an incredibly traditional unit relative to the rest of the league, with a true center and two midrange mavens in the backcourt. The roster is a clean mix of all those young players listed above with a pair of veterans pushing the roster over the top.
Despite plenty of losing seasons, which meant ample draft opportunity, the Suns didn’t always nail the top of the draft, from the disastrous Dragan Bender–Marquese Chriss double in 2016 to Josh Jackson a year later. Even in 2018, when they won the lottery and nabbed Ayton, who has improved by leaps and 6-foot-11 bounds just in the past month, they passed on Luka Doncic, a far greater prize.
Yet Phoenix experienced much more success later in the lottery. Booker was a no. 13 pick. Bridges went no. 10 and shuffled to Phoenix in a lopsided draft-night deal. Johnson was a much-derided selection at no. 11, but immediately carved a role as a shooting specialist off the bench.
The young players coalesced in the bubble last summer, producing a perfect 8-0 run that wasn’t quite enough to push the Suns into the playoffs, but will now be remembered forever as a franchise turning point nonetheless. GM James Jones didn’t question the validity of that small-sample performance; he doubled down with veteran upgrades in the offseason, signing Jae Crowder to a three-year deal and swinging a home-run trade for Paul, then 35.
In a postseason characterized by horrific injuries, the Suns have definitely benefited from mishaps for opposing stars: Anthony Davis for the back half of the first round, Jamal Murray for the second, Kawhi Leonard for the third. Yet they can only beat the opponents in front of them—that’s more than the Trail Blazers and Jazz did, after all—and it’s not as if the Suns have escaped the scourge of absences this postseason, either.
Paul missed the first two games of the conference finals due to COVID-19 protocols and struggled upon his return; he also played with one functional arm for most of the first round. Anyone citing the Lakers’ 2-1 lead in the first round before Davis’s injury also needs to acknowledge that Paul was healthy for all of one quarter in that series. The teams never truly battled at full strength.
Analysis of the 2020-21 Suns in a vacuum suggests they are a most deserving Finalist. Phoenix grabbed the no. 2 seed in the competitive West, with the third-best net rating in the NBA and top-seven marks on both offense and defense. Monty Williams’s roster was deep in average-or-better players—never underestimate the importance of just not having to play any negatives—helping to navigate a brutal season schedule and stay fresh in the playoffs, even as competitors crumbled under too many games in too few days.
The Suns aren’t done yet; the trophy case in Phoenix is still awaiting its first Larry O’Brien. But the Suns will now be able to rest some more while the Bucks and Hawks finish exchanging star injuries in the East, and they’ll hold home-court advantage and be favored against either opponent.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Paul said postgame, “but we’re going to enjoy this.” He could have been speaking for himself, or his new team, or the entire fan base that hasn’t experienced such delirium in a generation.