LOS ANGELES — The emotions hit Monty Williams around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, when a reflective conversation with longtime assistant and confidant Randy Ayers brought the Suns' coach to tears.
They hit Chris Paul when he unleashed a “YEEEES!” as he checked out with 2:01 to play in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, after the greatest postseason masterpiece of his Hall of Fame career.
They hit Deandre Ayton when he busted out dance moves on the Staples Center floor, then ran into the stands to give the commemorative cap to his mother, Andrea.
And they hit Devin Booker when he set the giant ball-shaped trophy on a chair next to Paul, then reminisced about all he had been through with this organization to reach this point.
This euphoric Suns season is about to hit its final push toward the franchise’s first NBA title. Phoenix is officially the Western Conference champion after blasting the Los Angeles Clippers 130-103 in Wednesday’s Game 6 to clinch its first trip to the NBA Finals since 1993. The Suns await the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks, which is tied 2-2 heading into Thursday’s Game 5.
“Out there on the floor talking to a few of the guys, they were, like, trying to figure out the feelings we were all having,” Williams said. “I remember being in those moments when I was in San Antonio. It’s hard to describe. You’re just grateful for it. We know we have more work to do, but it’s hard to describe it in the moment. …
“To be able to win a game like that is huge for the organization, the city, all of that stuff. That’s what I have in my heart right now, just a lot of gratitude.”
The Suns got a blistering 41 points from Paul to tie his career playoff high, another double-double from Ayton and a second-half scoring avalanche to eliminate the gritty, resilient Clippers, who extended the series with an impressive Game 5 performance Monday in Phoenix. The Suns’ emphatic close-out victory in Los Angeles continues this organization’s dramatic revitalization, which has ignited The Valley and endeared the team to fans around the world because of its style of play, respected leaders and relentless mentality.
General manager James Jones, the newly minted NBA Executive of the Year, intentionally built a roster to advance the momentum from last summer’s Orlando Bubble run, including the big swing to trade for Paul. Williams’ steadying presence has fostered a culture that thrives on deep relationships, attention to detail and playing together and for each other.
Booker, now being rewarded for his loyalty to Phoenix during a rocky first five NBA seasons, has proven he is a bona fide playoff star who can notch a 40-point triple-double one day and set a game-winning screen with his nose broken in three places the next. Ayton has emerged as perhaps the postseason’s premier breakout player, as a dominant force on both ends of the floor. Young complementary players such as Mikal Bridges, Cameron Payne and Cam Johnson have stepped up in key moments.
But this Finals berth is perhaps sweetest for Paul, one of the best point guards and leaders in NBA history who in Year 16 has finally reached the league’s biggest stage for the first time. The normally matter-of-fact 36-year-old even acknowledged the storybook nature of the scenario that unfolded Wednesday night, accomplishing this long-awaited career feat inside his home arena for six seasons, while playing against his former team, then savoring the postgame scene with Clippers staffers who feel like family and fans who stuck around to serenade him with chants of “CP3!”
“(Equipment manager Jay Gaspar) texted me a couple days ago and said, ‘C, I got the t-shirt and the hat. All you gotta do is your part,’” Paul said. “That’s the only thing that I was thinking about, you know what I mean, was the process. Just getting us one step closer to where we want to be.”
At times during this postseason, it looked as if the terrible playoff luck that has plagued Paul throughout his stellar career might squash another deep run with his new team.
First, Paul sustained a shoulder injury early in Game 1 of the first round against the Lakers that hampered him for at least three games. Then, he missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals while in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the only player in the league to miss playoff time for that reason. Paul even revealed after Game 5 that he had partially torn ligaments in his hand, forcing him to wear “buddy tape” for the past couple games before ditching the protection for Game 6.
But after recovering from the shoulder injury, Paul was brilliant in the second round against the Denver Nuggets, including going 6-for-6 on his signature mid-range jumpers in the third quarter of the series’ decisive Game 4. And though about 10 days isolated from his team at the start of the Clippers series clearly affected his shot rhythm, Paul went 5-of-6 from the free throw line to secure a slugfest win in Game 4, then totaled 22 points and eight assists in Game 5.
The second half of Game 6 became the slingshot that catapulted Paul and his team to the top of the West, single-handedly answering the Clippers’ surge that cut a 17-point Suns lead to 89-82 with 1:43 to play in the third. He scored 24 of the Suns’ next 30 points, mixing his textbook elbow jumpers with pull-up 3-pointers and finishes at the basket to push Phoenix’s advantage to an insurmountable 119-92 with 5:49 remaining.
And when Clippers instigator Patrick Beverley shoved Paul in frustration and was promptly ejected, that’s when teammate Jae Crowder knew “we broke them.”
Throughout this run, Paul has gushed about his teammates and coaching staff. He has deep trust with Williams because of their season together in New Orleans a decade ago. He is a kindred spirit with Booker when it comes to competitive fire and work habits, a quality Paul first noticed when he joined one of Booker’s pre-draft workouts in 2015. Paul “genuinely loves” his latest pick-and-roll partner in Ayton, who now says Paul “is the best thing that happened to my career.”
So when asked after Game 4 if there was extra motivation to propel Paul into the Finals, Booker responded with an emphatic “of course.”
“He’s just a true professional at every level at all times,” Booker said. “I have a lot of respect for him as a man, not even as a basketball player. Just understanding how bad he wants this and how much time he’s put into it … we definitely have his back.”
Added Williams when asked prior to Game 5 what helping Paul reach the Finals would mean to him: “This is one of the reasons why I do it. I wanted to be a part of coaching so that I can be in a position to partner with guys. … For me to be a part of that, I would be overjoyed and overwhelmed.”
The Suns’ 2020-21 ascension was both abrupt and steady.
After an 8-8 start, Phoenix finished with the NBA’s second-best regular-season record at 51-21 during a shortened 72-game season. The Suns’ balanced style made them one of two teams to rank in the top 7 of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency, with a focus on sharing the ball and playing hard. On and off the floor, players successfully threaded the needle between intensely competitive and endearingly fun-loving, creating a unique chemistry while operating under strict everyday parameters while playing during the middle of a pandemic.
“You look around the league at some teams, and not everybody has a vibe like this or an energy like this throughout,” Booker said. “I always say it’s a great environment to get better in. When you have everybody supporting you, everybody being honest with you — those are the same people that can give me constructive criticism at any point in the game, and I’m listening to them — that’s the name of our group, man.”
By the end of the regular season, the Suns had become the third team since the NBA-ABA merger to jump from possessing a bottom-2 record in the league (Phoenix was 19-63 in 2018-19) to a top-2 mark in two seasons or less. Yet this group’s first postseason venture together presented a different level of challenges.
The Suns were underdogs in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, an opponent other teams actively and strategically avoided down the stretch of the regular season because of the Lakers’ anticipated return to health for the playoffs (before Anthony Davis’ groin injury). Phoenix then swept the Denver Nuggets, who boasted NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and finished their season strong despite losing standout guard Jamal Murray to a torn ACL. Then the Suns knocked out a tough-minded Clippers team that had overcome 0-2 deficits to win each of their first two playoff series and pushed the Suns to six games, even with star Kawhi Leonard sidelined for eight consecutive contests with a knee injury.
During the Western Conference Finals, the Suns got career nights from Booker (first-career triple-double in Game 1), Ayton (career-high 22 rebounds in Game 4) and Payne (career-high 29 points while starting for Paul in game 2). In 0.2 seconds, Ayton’s dramatic “Valley-oop” finish became an instantly iconic moment in Suns history. Throughout the series, Phoenix leaned on is defense that ranks second in the playoffs in efficiency, particularly when both teams went scoreless for an agonizing four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter of Game 4.
Phoenix also continued its knack for bouncing back after defeats, a trait established during the regular season when it never lost consecutive games for nearly three months.
After dropping Games 2 and 3 against the Lakers, the Suns ripped off a franchise-playoff-record nine wins in a row to finish off the Lakers in six games, sweep the Nuggets and take a 2-0 lead on the Clippers. Following losses in Games 3 and 5 to the Clippers, Phoenix refocused on maintaining an edge for 48 minutes and immediately won the next game.
And after boasting the NBA’s best regular-season road record, it’s fitting the Suns have clinched all three playoff series away from home.
"The process of this and the journey of it is second-to-none,” Booker said. “I said it after we lost the first one (to the Clippers), we don't want to lose any games, but coming back into the film session, getting together as a team and talking it out, that's part of it, too."
"Once you start enjoying that and having fun with that, I think good things happen for our team. We've responded well all season."
Paul stressed the job was not done when the Suns went up 3-1 on the Clippers, a clear allusion to when he hurt his hamstring and his Rockets fell short of the Finals while up 3-2 over the Golden State Warriors in the 2018. Phoenix’s players got a harsh reminder of that fact in Game 5, when the Clippers raced out to a 15-point lead and answered every Suns rally attempt.
But prior to Game 6, Williams emphasized his team had “earned the right to be in this position. It takes a lot of hard work and mental stamina to overcome what we’ve overcome, and we’re going to use that to our advantage.”
There is still one more step to fulfill on the Suns’ quest for their first NBA title. They will quickly lock in on their to-be-determined Finals opponent. During the on-court trophy presentation, managing partner Robert Sarver said “our goal is to bring that Larry O’Brien back to Phoenix.”
Yet Wednesday marked another celebratory moment during this thrilling, sometimes unfathomable season.
On the sideline, Williams shared long embraces with Paul and Booker. When the Suns gathered at midcourt to don their Western Conference Champion shirts and hats, Dario Saric bounced up and down like a young boy on Christmas morning. Paul jogged over to the courtside seats to ask rapper and avid NBA fan Lil Wayne if he would like to join in on the party.
Sarver quickly passed the trophy off to Paul, who handed it to Williams to hoist into the air with both hands. It was in Payne’s grasp as the team and staff gathered for a group photo a few minutes later. After Booker brought it into the interview room to set next to Paul, Ayton was eventually the last player to cycle through to take questions before departing for the plane ride back to Phoenix.
“All right, baby. You ready?” Ayton said as he picked up the hardware. “All right, let’s go home.”