Midsummer Musings: Ode to the Suns
For just the third time in franchise history, and the first since 1993, the Phoenix Suns are playing for the NBA title. A championship would be the team’s first.
The Suns are in the Finals. Phoenix is a finalist. The Phoenix Suns have advanced to the final round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. No matter how you say it, the Suns’ success this season almost doesn’t sound real.
After just barely qualifying for the NBA Bubble™ last season (22 teams — the eight from each of the two conferences that qualified for the playoffs, along with any team that was deemed in close enough contention for a spot), Phoenix won all eight of their games against the bubble teams. However, even though they went undefeated, the Suns somehow failed to qualify for the playoffs. Consider that success alongside the fact that, that year, their second-year No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton — a 7 foot tall, broad-shouldered Adonis of an NBA center — served a 25-game suspension without pay for violating the league’s Anti-Drug Program by testing positive for a diuretic.
With Ayton back in full force this season — and a major contributor in these playoffs, for that matter — along with one massive addition to the roster, the Suns have vaulted from the West’s “intriguing young team” to a true championship contender. Of course, that’s pretty obvious considering the fact that they’re now four wins away from capturing the title this year.
That “one massive addition?” Chris Paul, the 36-year-old and 16-year NBA veteran who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer upon his retirement. Not enough can be said about his impact on the Suns. Since his trade from Houston to Oklahoma City back in 2019, Paul has done nothing but lead his squads to victories. His Houston teams did very well in their own right, reaching the Western Conference Finals, and his otherwise young OKC team outperformed expectations — making the playoffs and forcing a first-round Game 7 against Houston. Those accomplishments — an impressive track record as a first option in his later years — pale in comparison to what CP3 is doing with Phoenix today.
In the Suns’ game on Wednesday, leading the Clippers 3-2 in the seven-game series, Paul scored 41 points to go along with four rebounds and eight assists in a 130-103 shellacking of Los Angeles. The win — his win — secured Phoenix its first Finals trip since 1993. Fun fact: only six players on the Suns’ roster were even alive the last time the franchise reached this championship.
This year, the Suns entered the playoffs as the second seed in the Western Conference, breaking a 10-year playoff drought. On their way to their current position (the Finals, as if that could be said enough), they knocked off the defending champion Lakers in the first round, swept this year’s MVP Nikola Jokić and his Denver Nuggets in the second, and on Wednesday, defeated the L.A. Clippers who — albeit without their best player in Kawhi Leonard — put up a serious fight in the Conference Finals and were previously considered one of the favorites to reach the championship. The Suns had an indisputably impressive playoff run.
The success they’ve had is because of the confluence of many factors. Head coach Monty Williams, after narrowly missing the playoffs last year, has coached this squad to perfection, finishing second to the Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau in Coach of the Year voting this year — which, as a Knicks fan, I am contractually obligated to take a moment to celebrate.
My coach — Coach of the Year! Bright Future Knicks! WOOOOO!
Okay, let’s keep going.
Along with their excellent coaching and Paul’s outstanding play, the Suns have benefited all year, and in this postseason, from the play of their role players and the playoff ascendance of the 24-year-old Devin Booker.
I wrote about Booker’s postseason triumphs last week, so please read that if you want to hear more about the young scoring supernova who has led the Suns all year. Now, though, I’m going to talk about the less-heralded players who have been just as important in guiding Phoenix to the NBA Finals.
First, the two other starters: Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges, two three-and-D wings at the opposite ends of their career arcs. Crowder, 30 years old, was signed last summer following his run to the Finals with the Miami Heat. He’s provided Phoenix with much of the same production he brought to Miami: stalwart defense on the perimeter to go with a near-40% clip shooting from beyond the arc. The 24-year-old Bridges, meanwhile, was the No. 10 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft by Philadelphia, but was promptly traded to Phoenix on draft night. For the Suns this year, Bridges was a knockdown sharpshooter, an explosive finisher, and a tough and intelligent defender with a knack for poking the ball away from his man. Both of these guys served as linchpins for a surprisingly potent Phoenix defense all year, while also spacing the floor to allow their stars to cook.
Phoenix has no shortage of contributors coming off the bench, either. There’s Cameron Payne, a dependable backup point guard and even a spot starter in the games when Chris Paul was unavailable. He was a player most famous before this season for his pre-game handshakes with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and was almost out of the league before he arrived in Phoenix. Now, he’s played a key role in playoff victories and this Finals run, particularly with Paul missing Games 1 and 2 versus the Clippers due to COVID-19 protocols.
There’s also the other Cameron: Cam Johnson. Johnson was a much-derided lottery pick in 2019, but became a solid contributor to the Suns in the regular season this year. Then the playoffs arrived, and he decided to shoot the ball a full 10 points better from behind the arc, becoming an incredibly dependable shooter off the bench.
And there’s Torrey Craig, acquired in a trade with the Bucks, providing another steady hand to run the backcourt when Paul and Booker take spells of rest, as well as even more elite three point shooting.
Those are only three examples, but they indicate why the roster that Phoenix constructed this year has found such incredible success. Obviously, the Suns are in this position (THE FINALS!) because of the play of their stars. Devin Booker has ascended to superstar status in front of our eyes, Deandre Ayton has looked every bit worthy of the No. 1 pick in the draft, and the guiding hand of Chris Paul has brought everything together, coalescing a talented team into one beautiful unit. But stars alone don’t win titles.
Outside of those three, the Suns have constructed a deep roster full of strong defense, perimeter shooting, and players who do what it takes to win. A roster that was capable of stepping up when one of the team’s stars had to miss time or had a poor game. A roster that has been just as important to this astounding Finals run as any of those three stars.
Now that roster has some time to rest. Milwaukee and Atlanta are each playing tough, and the series has all the makings of one that might go the distance. Until that series is decided, all Phoenix can do is prepare, getting their minds and bodies right before a Finals series that the team hopes will yield the franchise’s first championship.
With the team they’ve got, and the play I’ve seen so far, I like their chances.