Chris Paul and Devin Booker sat on top of a car as it rolled through the throng of outstretched arms, some holding smartphones to capture the encounter on camera and some with bare hands hoping to land a high-five.
Paul recently recalled that “special” night, when thousands of fans gathered at Sky Harbor International Airport around midnight as the Phoenix Suns touched down with the Western Conference Championship trophy. Though it was a scene and accomplishment worth soaking in, Paul said, it was also fleeting.
“Then after that it was like, ‘OK, cool,’” Paul said. “We still got work to do. I think we’ve got a really good team (and) really good leadership on our team where we understand that we lock back in.
“That moment is over, and now it’s on to the next.”
“Locked in” is a popular phrase used across sports at all levels to describe being singularly focused on the immediate task at hand. After a grueling 72-game regular season and three thrilling playoff series, it has never been more important for these Suns to exercise that mental approach. They will open the NBA Finals Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, embarking on their last stretch toward the ultimate summit.
The Suns are locked in on a formidable opponent.
They are locked in on maintaining their style of play and everyday habits that got them this far.
They are locked in on seizing four more wins, and clinching the first NBA title in franchise history.
“This is nice and all,” Booker said while glancing and pointing at the West trophy following Phoenix’s series-clinching win at the Clippers. “But we’re going for Larry (the Larry O’Brien NBA championship trophy), for sho’.”
The concept of locking in goes hand-in-hand with the other pillars of the Suns’ culture. It requires a deep sense togetherness on and off the court. It requires a constantly relentless approach. And it requires a sharp understanding that everything counts. Unsolicited, Williams, Paul and Booker all uttered the phrase to describe how the Suns are preparing for the Finals.
Locking in does not only happen on game days. It happens every day, through detailed film sessions and practices, through nutrition and hydration, through rehab and recovery.
Williams said that, even when he gave players two days off after closing out the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, many still showed up at the Verizon 5G Performance Center to work on their own. They all intently watched Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Bucks and Atlanta Hawks. Williams took notes on rotations and adjustments throughout the series, checked in with assistant coaches who scouted both teams during the regular season and talked with Paul.
Williams has praised his team’s mental stamina all season. It helped the Suns finish with the NBA’s second-best record during a regular season filled with constant COVID-19 testing at strange hours and little practice time. Phoenix lost three games in a row only once all season, and went nearly three months without losing back-to-back games. They were one of two NBA teams to rank in top 7 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and have boasted the second-best defensive rating during the playoffs (106.7 point allowed per 100 possessions). That ability to push through was perhaps most evident on a late-April trip against five East playoff teams, starting with a dramatic overtime win at Milwaukee.
Reserve wing Torrey Craig said it’s not difficult to find that inner motivation to prepare each day because “we all love our job … and to be on a winning team in the NBA Finals, that just adds the extra glamor to everything.” Starting center Deandre Ayton added another layer, that “when the city got you, that’s when you really locked in.”
“You’re playing more than just for your family and the organization and your teammates,” Ayton said. “You’re playing for the fans. You’re putting on a show for them. Get them something to talk about and have a little step when they walk.”
Yet Williams still needs to remind himself that less is more, that overloading himself or players can be more detrimental than beneficial. It’s a tactic he learned from his time working for legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. So on the Suns’ off day between Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles, Williams “filled his cup” between film sessions with non-basketball conversations with his sons who also made the trip.
“That’s a valuable time for me as a father and a husband,” Williams said, “to be able to talk to my boys about life and listen to their questions. Especially on the road, there’s nothing to do. I’m not going out to eat, so my time (in Los Angeles) has been with my boys in my room or watching film or just kind trying to get ready for the next thing in front of us.”
Then as game time approaches, players and coaches use a variety of ways to lock in.
Craig takes a pregame nap. Williams purposely stays busy by leading staff meetings, watching television shows created by Dick Wolf (of Law & Order franchise fame), listening to Christian rock band Casting Crowns and texting with his wife, Lisa, and children. In the minutes before tip-off, Paul sits by himself holding a ball on the opponents’ bench after making three free throws, wraps his arm around teammate Jevon Carter as they both walk to the line for the national anthem and bangs his back against the basket stanchion three times right before the jump ball.
Those rituals create a sense of routine, calm the mind and prepare the Suns for the intense on-court battle to come.
Booker, in particular, frequently applies the “locked in” phrase to many scenarios.
It’s how he described the way Ayton attacked his matchup against NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic during the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets. It’s why, for Game 6 against the Clippers, Booker removed the mask that protected his nose broken in three places and dealt with the pain from being getting swiped across the face by Paul George. And when the Clippers staged a run that night to slice a 17-point Suns lead to seven, locking back in was the message in a timeout huddle.
“(We) said, ‘Don’t lose our head,’” Booker said. “Right there, you kind of have a decision to make, which way do you want to go. This group right here, I feel like we’re tested and we’ve been in those situations, especially Chris and Jae (Crowder). So we locked back in as a team, and we got it going.
“Chris hit a 3 to put us up 10 again and the rest was history.”
Paul then went into hyperdrive, scoring 24 of the Suns’ next 30 points to push Phoenix’s lead back up to an insurmountable margin. As that advantage grew, Crowder kept asking Paul, “You taste that?”
“I’m like, ‘No, no, no,’” Paul recalled, “I was like, ‘Nah, I’m gonna stay locked in.’”
“He go back out, bang! Hits a top-of-the-key 3,” Crowder said. “I’m like, ‘All right, he’s still feelin’ it.’ … It took us until getting subbed out of the game in the fourth quarter. He was like, ‘I taste it now! I taste it now!’”
Paul and his teammates celebrated in the postgame locker room, on the plane ride home and with the fans who gathered at the airport. Williams echoed his point guard’s appreciation for what that airport scene meant to the players and the city, saying it was “unlike anything I had ever seen before.”
“As soon as I got past the last person, my mind went right back to (that) we’ve got more work to do and more to come.”