In the loss, Devin Booker said the young Phoenix Suns had hoped to avoid many of the brutal roadblocks that can quickly defeat a team with championship aspirations.
Like a broken hand. Or a finnicky hamstring. Or come across a juggernaut of a team led by perhaps the greatest shooter of all time.
Booker’s veteran teammate Chris Paul has experienced them all. The loss in the NBA Finals this season was the last and most piercing disappointment of his stellar career.
“I’m doing a pretty good job of staying in the moment,” said a prescient Paul after the Suns took what many thought was a 2-0 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in the final. “Maybe a lot of the guys on our team, this is their first playoff series, they don’t know heartache or heartache. They are just playing. So for me I know how quickly things can change. I know how a possession or a coin can change the dynamics of a whole series.
The generational performance of Giannis Antetokounmpo because Milwaukee dashed Phoenix’s hopes for its first championship more than any game or possession. Paul, who played his first NBA Finals, put in a superb performance throughout most of the series and the playoffs, sorely failing to get the only omission from his resume.
In Game 6 of the Finals, facing elimination, Paul displayed channeled desperation, his shooting ability in the end almost single-handedly keeping Phoenix within reach.
“For me that just means getting back to work,” Paul said after Tuesday’s 105-98 loss that sealed the championship for the Bucks. “Back to work. Neither more nor less. There are no moral victories or what. We kind of saw what it takes to get there, and I hope we’ll see what it takes to get there. overcome that. “
This is a pivotal moment for Paul, 36, in a career that has had so many. He’s had enough adversity to survive his 16-year NBA, with New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston knowing firsthand that an injury out of nowhere can derail a franchise. It was about his broken hand and hamstrings with the Clippers; hamstrings, again, (and the filming of Golden State’s Stephen Curry) in Houston.
The loss in the final was the fourth time that one of Paul’s teams has allowed an opponent to recover from a 2-0 deficit.
“It’s difficult,” said Paul. “Great group of guys, one hell of a 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 will, where his game likely earned him another lucrative long-term 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’re asking for,” he said. ” It’s finish. So back to work. “
It took a long time for the stars to finally align simultaneously and idle for Paul.
On the way to the championship series, the Suns ousted a Los Angeles Lakers team with a limited Anthony Davis, a Denver Nuggets team without Jamal Murray and the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers.
Across each series, Paul racked up a resurgent regular season worthy of nomination for the MVP award by establishing offense and supplementing Booker’s score.
He has passed the main defenders, exploiting the lags, regularly looking for his mid-range bread and butter rider.
“He got us this far,” said Suns third-year center Deandre Ayton. “We know the kind of detail that we really have to insist on 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 throwing at you, things like that, CP has added to everyone’s arsenal.
Paul recovered from a shoulder injury to help take out the defending champions 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 of the Western Conference Finals after missing the start of the series due to coronavirus health and safety protocols.
None of those opponents featured a perimeter defender like Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday, brought to the Bucks for the specific purpose of trying to bottle up players like Paul and Booker.
At times Milwaukee’s pressure on Paul all over the field seemed tiresome, especially in Game 4, when Paul committed five costly turnovers in a key loss. In the series, Paul averaged 21.8 points and 8.2 assists.
Suns coach Monty Williams has argued that a career like Paul’s should be appreciated for what it is, rather than dissected for what it isn’t. Today’s players understand the importance of cementing their legacy with a championship. The hair salon debates begin and end on the subject.
“It’s laughable to talk about guys like Chris who have had these unreal careers and yet they are penalized for not winning a title,” Williams said, adding: “It’s hard enough to reaching the NBA, let alone an all-time great, is what he is.
Booker, listening to Williams’ comments, added, “It’s complete nonsense for the real hoopers out there. But our group, we’ve been supporting Chris all the way, he’s been leading us all season and this is our first year together.
The momentum that fueled the Phoenix Suns’ run to the NBA Finals started in last season’s bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida. The team’s record – 26-39 when the regular season ended 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, but Phoenix still failed to advance to the playoffs, for the 10th consecutive season.
The abridged appearance both convinced the organization that he was a veteran star short of legitimate playoff claims and convinced Paul – under contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder – that Phoenix could be. a destination worthy of interest.
In November, the suns landed Paul in a successful contract with the Thunder, dropping a substantial package.
In Phoenix, Paul reunited with Williams, who had coached him a decade earlier in New Orleans. The couple had their reunion aspirations high, a vision few others shared. Phoenix has made a few additions to its young, untested core outside of Paul and Jae Crowder.
Phoenix then went from the draft to the lottery to the final in a matter of months.
“He’s a generational player,” said Williams. “I said that 11 years ago when I coached him in New Orleans. And everywhere he went, the team won. They got better. He was close. It was one injury away from getting here before, but he and Book, to lead a team that has never been there before, says a lot about their talent, their dedication, their will to win.
It is in Paul’s hands if he returns to Phoenix to rebuild himself after his new grief.