This was a long-awaited breakthrough for both Paul and the Suns, who last reached the Finals in 1993, when Michael Jordan found John Paxson for a title-winning jumper to beat Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle and Co. Twenty-eight years and several near-misses later, the Suns are finally back on basketball’s biggest stage. They will open the Finals as hosts next week because they boasted a better regular season record than the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks, the two Eastern Conference finalists.
“I was just happy and proud of our team,” Paul said. “I experienced covid just a week ago. I was at my home and couldn’t be there with my teammates. That’s what you call next man up: they won two games without me. I wanted it not just for myself, but for everyone in that locker room.”
With the win, Phoenix completed a 12-4 run through the Western Conference that included series victories against the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Clippers. The Suns, who secured the West’s second seed with a 51-21 regular season record, have thrived on disciplined team basketball while taking full advantage of their opponents’ health issues. The Lakers lost all-star forward Anthony Davis to a groin injury in Game 4 of the first round, the Nuggets were without starting point guard Jamal Murray for the entire second round because of season-ending knee surgery, and the Clippers lost all-star forward Kawhi Leonard to a knee injury before the West finals.
“[This moment] is hard to describe,” Suns Coach Monty Williams said. “You’re grateful for it. We know we have more work to do. What I have in my heart right now is a lot of gratitude.”
The Clippers battled throughout the series despite Leonard’s absence, digging out of an 0-2 hole thanks to impressive performances from Paul George and Reggie Jackson as well as successful small-ball lineups. George finished with 21 points and nine rebounds in the Game 6 loss. Marcus Morris Sr. scored a team-high 26 points in defeat.
While Phoenix enjoyed better health than many of the West’s other leading contenders, it has kept rolling despite Paul’s shoulder injury in the first round and Paul’s coronavirus-protocol absence and Cameron Payne’s ankle injury in the conference finals. The 36-year-old Paul, an 11-time all-star guard playing for his fifth franchise, has had more than his fair share of playoff heartbreak, narrowly missing the 2018 Finals after suffering a hamstring injury during a heated Western Conference finals battle with the Golden State Warriors.
“[Paul] has a number of contemporaries who have won championships,” Williams said. “All he wants is to be a part of winning. He’s persevered through a lot. Injuries. Playoff heartbreak. Getting close in Houston and not getting a chance to compete for a title. I know that burned him. If you can learn anything from Chris Paul, it’s to keep going. Don’t quit. Serve others. He cares about his teammates.”
Wednesday’s victory also extends a dramatic turnaround for the Suns, who finished with the West’s worst record in 2018-19 and hadn’t made the playoffs since 2010. The franchise reached the conference finals in 2005, 2006 and 2010 with Steve Nash but went home each time. Suns General Manager James Jones, who acquired Paul in a blockbuster trade last November and signed forward Jae Crowder in free agency, was named executive of the year for finalizing a well-balanced roster that won the West.
This year’s Suns bear little resemblance to Nash’s “Seven Seconds Or Less” group, which regularly led the NBA in pace and offensive efficiency. After ranking seventh in offense, sixth in defense and 24th in pace during the regular season, Phoenix has leaned heavily on its physical and cohesive defense in the postseason. The Suns boasted the second-best playoff defense through Tuesday, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks, and they held the Clippers to 80 points in a decisive Game 4 win Saturday.
In addition to Paul, all-star guard Devin Booker, starting center Deandre Ayton and Williams will all be making their Finals debuts. This season marked the first time that a Williams-coached team advanced out of the first round during his three postseason appearances. As for Booker and Ayton, recent lottery picks who emerged as central building blocks during an extended rebuilding effort, both will get to play for rings during their first postseason trips.
“We sit back and get some rest,” said Booker, who added 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists. “We watch Atlanta and Milwaukee and see who our next matchup is, and prepare that way.”
The Suns will face the winner of the Bucks and Hawks, who will play Game 5 in Milwaukee on Thursday. The series is tied 2-2, and Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful for Game 5 after he hyperextended his left knee Tuesday. Atlanta star Trae Young missed Game 4 with a bone bruise in his foot after spraining his right ankle in a Game 3 loss Sunday.
With those injury concerns in mind, Phoenix will probably be favored to win the first championship in franchise history.
“This is not our journey,” Suns owner Robert Sarver said while accepting the Western Conference championship trophy. “Our journey is to bring the Larry O’Brien [Trophy] back to Phoenix. That’s our journey.”