In defeat, Devin Booker said the youthful Phoenix Suns had hoped to skip many of the ruthless roadblocks that a team with championship aspirations can quickly defeat.
Like a broken hand. Or a finnicky hamstring. Or encounter a juggernaut from a team led by arguably the best marksman ever.
Booker’s veteran teammate Chris Paul has been through them all. The defeat in this season’s NBA Finals provided the latest and most pervasive disappointment of his brilliant career.
“I’m pretty good at staying in the moment,” said a far-sighted Paul after the Suns took what many believe to be an impressive 2-0 streak over the Milwaukee Bucks in the final. “Maybe a lot of the guys on our team, it’s their first playoff series, they don’t know the heartache or the heartbreak. They’re just playing. So for me I know how quickly things can change. I know how a possession or a play can change the dynamics of a whole series.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s performance for Milwaukee crushed Phoenix’s hopes for his first championship more than any game or possession. Paul, who played in his first NBA Finals, performed brilliantly throughout most of the series and in the playoffs, falling painfully short to secure the sole omission of his career resume.
In Game 6 of the Finals, facing elimination, Paul showed a channeled desperation, his shooting skills at the end almost single-handedly keeping Phoenix at striking distance.
“For me it just means going back to work,” said Paul after Tuesday’s 105-98 loss that sealed the championship for the Bucks. “Back to work. Nothing more, nothing less. There are no moral victories or anything. We’ve seen a little bit of what it takes to get there, and hopefully we’ll see what it takes to get past that.”
This is a pivotal moment for Paul, 36, in a career that has had so many. He’s endured enough adversity to survive his 16 NBA years with New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston knowing firsthand that an injury can derail a franchise out of the blue. It was his broken hand and hamstring at the Clippers; the hamstring, again, (and the shooting of Stephen Curry of Golden State) in Houston.
The loss in the final was the fourth time one of Paul’s teams had an opponent recover from a 2-0 deficit.
“It’s hard,” said Paul. “Great group of guys, a great season, but this one is going to hurt for a while.”
Paul has a player option to stay in Phoenix for $44.2 million. He can also explore free agency, where his playing has likely earned him another long-term, lucrative contact, an unlikely scenario just a few years ago.
Still fresh from the latest loss, Paul declined to disclose any future plans with reporters before making a statement.
“I’m not retiring, if that’s what you want,” he said. ‘That’s out. So back to work.”
It took a lot of effort to finally align the stars and make them inactive for Paul at the same time.
Heading into the championship series, the Suns ousted a Los Angeles Lakers team with limited Anthony Davis, a Denver Nuggets squad without Jamal Murray, and the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers.
Through each series, Paul piled on a resurgent regular season worthy of being nominated for the Most Valuable Player Award by putting the offense on the table and topping up Booker’s score.
He shot past primary defenders and took advantage of mismatches as he routinely hunted down his bread-and-butter midrange jumper.
“He brought us all the way here,” said Deandre Ayton, Suns’ third-year center. “We know the kind of detail that we really have to emphasize to have consistency, to play at this level, and the type of competitor he is, it was contagious. Knowing your opponent, knowing what the team likes, knowing what teams are up to throwing you, that sort of thing, CP added to everyone’s arsenal.”
Paul recovered from a shoulder injury to help steer the defending champion Lakers. He scored 37 points in the game that ended Denver’s season. He sent the Clippers home by scoring 31 of his 41 points in the second half of Game 6 in the Western Conference final after missing the start of the series due to coronavirus health and safety protocols.
None of those opponents had a perimeter defender like Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday, who was brought to the Bucks for the specific purpose of bottlenecking players like Paul and Booker.
At times Milwaukee’s full-court pressure seemed exhausting to Paul, especially in Game 4 when Paul made five precious turnovers during a key loss. In the series, Paul scored an average of 21.8 points and 8.2 assists.
Suns Coach Monty Williams argued that a career like Paul’s should be valued for what it is, rather than dissected for what it isn’t. Today’s players are aware of the importance of cementing their legacy with a championship. Barbershop debates are started and ended on the topic.
“It’s laughable when you talk about guys like Chris who have had these unreal careers and yet are punished for not winning a title,” Williams said, adding: “It’s hard enough to make it to the NBA, let alone a all-time great, that’s what he is.”
Booker, listening to Williams’ comments, added: “That’s complete nonsense for the real hoopers out there. But our group, we supported Chris all the way, he led us this whole season and this is our first year together.”
The momentum that fueled the build-up to the Phoenix Suns NBA Finals began in last season’s bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida. The team’s record – 26-39 when the regular season was interrupted in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic – barely qualified the Suns for the NBA restart that summer.
An 8-0 effort at Disney World impressed, yet Phoenix failed to make it to the playoffs, for the 10th consecutive season.
The shortened appearance convinced the organization that it was a veteran who had no legitimate playoff fight, and convinced Paul — under contract to the Oklahoma City Thunder — that Phoenix could be a destination worth considering.
In November, the Suns landed Paul in a blockbuster deal with the Thunder, relinquishing a substantial package.
In Phoenix, Paul was reunited with Williams, who had coached him in New Orleans ten years earlier. The pair set their reunion ambitions high, a vision few others shared. Phoenix has added little to its young, untested core other than Paul and Jae Crowder.
Phoenix then went from drafting in the lottery to the finals in a few months.
“He’s a generation player,” Williams said. “I said that 11 years ago when I coached him in New Orleans. And everywhere he’s been, the team has won. They’ve improved. He’s been close. He was injured before he came here before, but he, along with Book , leading a team that has never existed before, says a lot about their talent, their dedication and the will to win.”
It’s in the hands of Paul whether he returns to Phoenix to recover from his latest heartbreak.