Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams, center, hoists the trophy as he and his players celebrate after defeating the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
LOS ANGELES — Both have gone down different paths since the start of their NBA careers. One is 36 years old, the other 24.
For Chris Paul, it’s been a whole lot of winning along the way.
For Devin Booker, it’s been a whole lot of losing along the way.
Those paths for the Phoenix Suns’ All-Star backcourt adjoined last summer, and in their first year together, they will be crossing the threshold of appearing in their first NBA Finals together, a milestone moment in any player’s career.
The Suns beat the Los Angeles Clippers 130-103 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday night to take the series 4-2.
The victory for Paul means it’s time to figure out a new name for the best player to never appear in the league’s championship.
The achievement is one he came close to a few times in his 16-year journey. As a reporter rattled off a few of the agonizing bad breaks for Paul, he said where it happened after each and that he “could run ’em off to you.”
“It’s been a lot … Ton’, our equipment guy in Houston, I remember we was up 3-2 and I didn’t get to play those last two games in Houston — Ton’ had a t-shirt and a hat, I never got a chance to get it,” Paul said. “I’ll never forget that. Never forget that. Jay (Gaspar), our equipment manager here, Jay texted me a couple days ago and said, ‘C, I got the t-shirt and I got the hat. All you got to do is your part.’ That’s the only thing I was thinking about, is that process.”
Booker went through a historic five years of lows with the Suns. As ESPN Stats & Info chronicled, the Suns’ .302 winning percentage for the five years prior to this season make that the lowest ever for a team to make the championship round.
All through that, there were never reports of the young star being unsettled or pressure mounting on the organization from him.
“I tell people all the time, Phoenix is my third home,” Booker said. “And they have embraced me that way since day one. I put my head down, I worked and I’ve been through a lot of (expletive) honestly. But, just being who I am and seeing the bigger picture, having the tunnel vision you know, what this can be … So the love has been there since I’ve been here, even when we were at the bottom.
“Even when we were at the bottom, it still showed up to games, love around the city’s always been there. So Phoenix is my city.”
In the Suns win, Paul scored 31 of his 41 points in the second half. On 16-of-24 shooting, Paul also posted four rebounds, eight assists and three steals. He did with torn ligaments in his hand he’s had since Game 3, refusing to let this be another moment added to that list he could recite, all after spending 11 days in COVID-19 protocols.
Booker played a team-high 42 minutes, and against a defense that had been giving him problems nearly all series, he ruthlessly attacked the basket and picked up 12 of his 22 points in the paint. He grabbed seven rebounds as well, making his playoff average now a team second-best 6.4, a new element he’s added to his postseason game in the name of winning.
After the Suns’ offense had completely stalled out to the tune of 17 straight quarters failing to reach 30 points, Phoenix hit that mark in all four on Wednesday.
Through much more pace and flow to the ball and player movement, the Suns led by nine at halftime, doing a much better job of incorporating Deandre Ayton into the offense.
From there, the Point God wasn’t going to let another chance slip.
With 1:28 left in the third quarter, a Paul three-pointer increased the Suns’ lead from seven to 10. Over 3:49, Paul would score 14 of the Suns’ next 16 points during a 16-3 run that put Phoenix up 20.
Paul kept going, assisting a Booker jumper before his own four-point play, setting up Ayton for a dunk, knocking down a five-foot push shot and then another trey ball.
With Phoenix now up 26 with 5:49 left, it was curtains on the series, and if you didn’t know that, a shove from the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley to Paul that got him ejected made it clear.
“They broke. We know we broke them,” Suns forward Jae Crowder said. “There’s no better sign of defeat than knowing that moment, that moment where it’s like competition meets and we just– you can’t do anything else to help your team overcome that situation. He just broke.
“That’s what we were trying to reach. We were trying to reach that point without even trash-talking. There’s basketball trash-talking, but we just wanted to reach a level of togetherness and competitiveness to overcome whatever comes with this game.”
Crowder’s emphatic statement on the Clippers’ end also nicely represents the Suns winning their way. Phoenix had only 27 assists and nine turnovers in the offensive resurgence, playing head coach Monty Williams’ 0.5 style with an aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball that thrives through team play.
Ayton learned from his Game 5 outing and responded with 16 points and 17 rebounds. Crowder was terrific with 19 points, and Torrey Craig had a monster impact off the bench, putting in a great shift defending Los Angeles’ Paul George. Craig in 31 minutes was a game-high plus-28 and George was a game-low minus-25 with 21 points.
I am woefully unequipped to go on about what this moment means to these players and coaches, winning the opportunity to get a ring after each went through so much in their respective paths.
Williams is much more fit for that job, and he said it with assistant coach Randy Ayers next to him, a coach who has been with him since his first days as a head coach in New Orleans. Because that’s how much this moment matters.
“You never know if you’re going to be in these positions and you watch guys get there three, four, five times,” he said. “Some people get there more than that, and you’re like, ‘Man, I worked my tail off.’ Then you just realize it’s a blessing, because everybody works at it. So if you get a chance to be a part of it, you realize you’ve been unbelievably blessed.”
Sometimes that one time is it. Suns fans should know that was the case for Charles Barkley. Steve Nash never even got a go.
Crowder could have joined Barkley in that group after losing in his first NBA Finals with the Miami Heat last year. At the age of 30, he knows he’s on the back-nine of his career and those chances are even slimmer for him now.
But now he’s back, so close once again in his career-long chase.
“I’m chasing it. I was chasing it,” Crowder said of being back in this position. “That’s all can I really tell you. That’s my motivation. That’s what I’ve been preaching to the guys. Yeah, we’re a good regular-season team, but we’re preparing for something bigger and that’s the postseason. That was my message pretty much the whole season when things got tough in our regular season.
But for myself, yeah I’m chasing that. I’m chasing that feeling again. I’m chasing that moment. I was two games away from hoisting a trophy. It definitely hurt but it definitely gave me some motivation and I’m glad to be back here playing for it all again.”
Crowder found the right group to do it with, a batch of young players he described as fearless that could help him complete that chase.
“You don’t have to be the guy that scores to feel like you did something for a win. He’s that type of dude,” Ayton said of Crowder. “It’s contagious because all our guys are like that. We just want to win, man. We don’t care who drop 30, to be honest.
“We just want to win and win the right way. Coach and the coaching staff really instilled something, like a certain culture where we compete, we share the ball, play defense, man, that’s what we do.”