by Gina Mizell

Headline

STILL ROLLING
Suns sweep Denver Nuggets to advance to the Western Conference Finals

DENVER — Monty Williams, Chris Paul and Devin Booker allowed themselves to savor the moment. 

Following the customary end-of-game — and, in this case, end-of-series — handshakes between opponents, the three men converged near the center-court logo inside Ball Arena. Williams wrapped both players in bear hugs, then threw his arm around Paul’s shoulders as they walked toward the tunnel. Paul turned around and pointed to the cheering crowd of Suns fans primarily gathered in the corner sections behind the visitor’s bench, before being serenaded with "MVP!" chants during his TNT interview. Both players then climbed into the stands to greet family and friends who had made the trip. 

It was the latest step, the latest celebration during this spectacular Phoenix Suns season. They finished off the four-game sweep of the Nuggets with a 125-118 victory Sunday night to move on to face the top-seeded Utah Jazz or fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.  

“It’s a feeling that’s kind of hard to put (into) words,” Booker said. “After a game like this, or after you close a series out, you sit back and reflect a little bit and think about what we’ve been through as an organization and as a team. …

“Watching the culture develop and watching players get better every day and people put their hard hats on and come in and work every day, it’s a beautiful sight to see — to see hard work pay off.”  

The Suns brought the term “relentless” to life by making quick work of the Nuggets.   

They won three out of four games by double digits and trailed Game 4 for only the opening 113 seconds. Phoenix used second-half outbursts to flip games and create wide, insurmountable margins for their opponent, and strung together sharp defensive performances. The Suns responded while playing in front of sold-out road crowds for the first time in more than a year, including when emotions inside the building soared as Denver’s Nikola Jokic received his MVP trophy and boiled over when Jokic was ejected after being charged with a flagrant 2 foul for winding up and striking Suns guard Cameron Payne across the face while going for the ball.  

This sweep is part of a seven-game playoff winning streak dating back to Game 4 of the first-round series against the Lakers, setting a franchise record. The Suns’ net rating during this stretch has been the best of all playoff teams (plus-15.6), while their defensive rating has been the second-best (103.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).

“We were fighting a lot of things,” Williams said after Game 3. “But I think because we have veteran guys who have been in a ton of situations … that’s something that we’ve stressed for a while is being able to have poise in those moments.”  

Williams constantly noted throughout the series that the Suns respected the Nuggets’ resilience and experience. 

Denver overcame losing star point guard Jamal Murray to a season-ending knee injury to still finish third in a competitive Western Conference. It was the Nuggets’ third consecutive top-3 finish in the West standings, while this Phoenix group is on its first journey through the playoffs together. And last season, Denver twice clawed back from 3-1 deficits to win playoff series against the Jazz and Clippers, making NBA history and becoming a national feel-good story before falling to the eventual-champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.  

In many ways, the Nuggets’ emergence mirrors the Suns’ current ascension.  

Denver has a home-grown core in Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr., like the Suns’ Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. The Nuggets fell one game short of the playoffs in 2017-18 and made the leap to the conference’s upper tier the following season, much like the Suns’ 8-0 Orlando Bubble run served as the springboard for this breakthrough 2020-21 season. Like the Suns' big swing to trade for Paul, Denver went all in for a championship by acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline, about two weeks before Murray’s injury.  

But then Denver ran into a Suns squad with soaring confidence after knocking out the defending-champion Lakers in six games.   

Phoenix’s guard play carved up the Nuggets’ shorthanded backcourt, which moved Will Barton and Monte Morris into the starting lineup for Game 4 in an attempt to create more scoring juice.  

Paul, whose shoulder injury is no longer a concern, is back in MVP-caliber form by showcasing his flawless mid-range game, eye-popping handles and swift facilitating. The 36-year-old made 62.7 percent of his shots from the floor in the Denver series, including 6-of-8 from 3-point range, and connected on all 22 of his free-throw attempts. He averaged a team-high 25.5 points, 10.3 assists and 1.3 turnovers over those four victories.  

And Paul was particularly masterful after intermission, including an absolutely clinical third quarter Sunday night when he went 6-of-6 on pull-up jumpers to keep distance between the Suns and Nuggets. He scored 25 of his season-high 37 points in the second half, on 10-of-12 shooting.  

Booker's multi-dimensional shot-making continued to dazzle during his first playoff run, making nearly 49 percent of his field goals on 18.5 attempts per game in the Nuggets series and finishing with 34 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in Sunday's close-out game.  

Williams on Paul: “What could you say other than he was darn-near perfect all night long?” 


Williams on Booker: “He’s not afraid of the moment. That’s the deal.”   

During the series, however, Paul called third-year big man Deandre Ayton the Suns' postseason MVP so far.  

Ayton recorded a double-double in three out of the series’ four games, and now has seven in 10 career playoff games. After matching up against Anthony Davis for much of Round 1, Ayton made life tough on Jokic. Jokic averaged 25 points per game in the series but shot 47.7 percent from the floor, significantly lower than his regular-season mark of 56.6 percent.   

“I can’t say enough about DA,” Paul said following Game 3.  

Second-half surges became the overarching theme of this series.  

A 42-14 Suns scoring blast in Game 1 turned a 10-point deficit into a comfortable 122-105 victory. All five Phoenix starters finished in double figures, headlined by Bridges' 23 points that helped ignite that outburst.  

During Game 2, a 14-1 Suns run that spanned the end of the second quarter and start of the third pushed Phoenix’s lead to 19 points. Paul finished with 17 points, 15 assists and zero turnovers that night, becoming the first player in NBA history to total at least 15 points and 15 assists with zero turnovers in three career playoff games. Booker (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Ayton (15 points, 10 rebound) also finished with double-doubles, becoming the first trio of Suns players to achieve that statistical milestone since Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion in 2007. 

When the series shifted to Denver for Game 3, the Suns used a hot shooting start to build a 13-point first-quarter lead. And they withstood every Nuggets run, turning an eight-point advantage to 20 early in the fourth quarter. 

“It certainly wasn’t anything on my part, not a schematic thing or some clever speech,” Williams said of the second-half performances. “I’m just grateful that we’ve had those types of third quarters. … 

“I wish I could give you something to write about some chess piece that I moved or something like that, but that’s just not the case. Our guys have come out with a great deal of force, and it starts with our defense.”   

The Nuggets put up their best fight with their season on the line in Game 4 — particularly after Jokic exited the game — but Phoenix led practically wire to wire and squashed every sliver of Denver momentum. 

When an Aaron Gordon transition dunk sliced the Suns’ lead to 43-41 with about five minutes to play in the first half, Booker hit a 3 and Paul sank two free throws before delivering an alley-oop pass finished by Bridges. When Will Barton buried a pull-up 3 and JaVale McGee hit a free throw to get Denver within 101-97 with eight minutes to play, Bridges answered with two consecutive buckets. And when a McGee hook got the score back down to a two-possession game with 5:04 to play, Paul converted an And-1 layup before Bridges dove on the floor to save a loose ball and get it to Paul for the fastbreak finish. 

“We prepared ourselves for those moments,” Booker said. “I recall it, before every game, you hear us come together as a team and say, ‘They’re going to go on a run at some point.’ That’s when we stick together even more. That’s when we bring it together even more. That’s when we communicate even more.

“That was the name of the game. They came back. They gave us their best shot in the fourth and we just kept playing through, kept fighting.”   

When asked to describe his emotions after the game, Williams listed off “happy, grateful, tired, relieved” because “it’s one of those moments for me that, quite frankly, I never thought I’d ever have a chance to experience.” The normally stoic coach’s voice wavered slightly when talking about that postgame hug with Paul, reflecting on how he has been “right there” with Williams during his first head-coaching season in New Orleans, then during the “darkest moment of my life” and now during “one of the highlights of my career.”  

The Suns still have more to do, more to come. A spot in the NBA Finals will be on the line in the next round.  

But Phoenix cleared its second playoff hurdle in relentless, sweeping fashion — creating another moment during this spectacular season worth savoring.  

“I’m not really good at waxing eloquent about how I feel,” Williams said, “other than just telling you I just feel grateful for this opportunity and to be on this team, in this moment, and have a chance to move forward.”  

ICYMI:

‘THERE’S NOTHING LIKE IT’

How the Phoenix Suns have created arguably the NBA’s best home-court advantage during the 2021 NBA Playoffs

That electric crowd is goosebumps-inducing in person and takes television viewers aback, prompting local pride and national attention. It has been praised by young Suns experiencing the postseason for the first time and veterans who have been through countless playoff games alike. That’s why it’s reasonable to wonder if — or conclude that — the Suns have quickly created the NBA’s best home-court advantage during these playoffs.

RELENTLESS

How the Suns’ full-throttle mentality propelled them to Western Conference Semifinals

The formal definition of the word “relentless” is “oppressively constant; incessant.” That descriptor has followed the Suns throughout this season, applying to their on-court style of play and their everyday habits while navigating this unique season. Knocking off the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs’ first round required a relentless approach, which now carries the Suns into the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets.

“It’s just how the guys are built, individually and as a collective group,” Booker said. “If you go down the list of all the players, there’s nobody that’s scared of the moment. There’s nobody that hasn’t prepared for this moment. This isn’t new. This is how we’ve been playing for most of the season. We’ve had ups and downs, but we’re a confident team and we play hard all the way through.”

TEAM-FIRST MENTALITY

General manager James Jones is using his championship pedigree to construct a Suns roster on the rise

Now in his third season as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, James Jones has taken his knowledge of what it takes to win a ring and is building a roster of like-minded players with high-IQs, unselfish personalities and relentless attitudes both on the court and behind the scenes. The result is Phoenix’s dramatic rise over the past two seasons. The Suns went 51-21 during the 2020-21 regular season, finished second in a loaded Western Conference and enters Tuesday with the opportunity to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers.

PLAYOFF PAYNE

Thanks to a fresh start with the Suns, Cameron Payne is proving he belongs

Cameron Payne plays with a fiery passion that somehow looks both free and furious, prompting some to compare him to the “haboob” dust storms that disrupt the Valley air during the summer monsoon season. It’s a fitting style for Payne, a former lottery draft pick who had his NBA career stripped away in early 2019 and is now savoring his shot on a Suns team with championship aspirations.

ROAD SUPPORT

Fans from all walks of life travel to enemy territory to support the Suns in return to NBA Playoffs

“To be on the road and have your fans cheering for you, especially when you make a run, is pretty cool," head coach Monty Williams said. "We’re thankful, grateful and we’re fighting our tails off to make those fans that we have in this environment have something to cheer for.”

Whether traveling from Phoenix or different parts of California, Suns.com gathered personal stories from six Suns fans making the trip and cheer on their favorite team.

LIVING UP TO THE MOMENT

The young Suns proved themselves under the bright lights, stepping up & executing in their playoff debuts

Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson showed consistent effort all season, preparing them for the bright lights. They lived up to the moment in Game 1 and, in some cases, churned out historic stat lines — even during an intense game complete with the magnitude of the franchise’s first playoff game since 2010, a jarring injury to their Hall of Fame point guard and a scuffle that resulted in a teammate being ejected.

MONTY'S MANTRAS

A frontrunner for NBA Coach of the Year, Williams’ immense impact on these Suns is woven throughout his motivational catchphrases, and how they resonate with his players.

There are enough “Montyisms” for Monty Williams to write a compilation book — which Devin Booker has publicly and privately suggested to his coach. Even while repeating them to players, Cam Johnson said, Williams will preface by acknowledging some might call them “corny” or “goofy” or “coach speak.” Yet Johnson says those mantras are “big-time anchors” that have kept the Suns emotionally centered during the franchise’s emphatic rise to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They create personal connections with players by instilling belief and relaying constructive advice. They provide reminders that resurface in the head and heart when one least expects it, and can apply to both basketball and life.

RALLY THE VALLEY

Here's how Suns supporters have celebrated this resurgent season and return to the playoffs.

Suns.com gathered personal stories from 13 people connected to the organization. Some are longtime fans, and others are long-time employees in behind-the-scenes roles. Some are community partners who work with the Suns to make residents’ lives a little brighter. Some are natives, and some have returned home.

TOGETHER

How these Suns have created a team spirit that threads the needle between intensely competitive and endearingly fun-loving.

“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.”

Culture, chemistry and overall spirit are intangible qualities that cannot be measured by traditional stats or advanced analytics. But players and coaches know it — feel it — when those attributes have manifested within a team.

UNCANNY PARALLELS CONNECT FOUR PHOENIX ICONS

Chris Paul’s impact in The Valley has rejuvenated Suns basketball with an MVP-caliber season

Through his team’s journey to out-perform external expectations, his league’s-most-efficient playmaking and the leadership and passion he’s provided to the organization, Paul has entered the NBA Most Valuable Player conversation. And while making Paul’s case, one can draw parallels to the other Phoenix basketball icons who have won the award: Charles Barkley, Steve Nash and Diana Taurasi.

WE'RE BACK!

Phoenix Suns clinch playoffs, another step in franchise's resurgence.

The Suns’ full playoff berth is the latest benchmark in a historic turnaround. In less than two seasons, the Suns have transformed from a team that tied for the NBA’s second-worst record to one that currently possesses the league’s second-best record. Should that standing hold, the Suns would become just the third team since the NBA-ABA merger that jumped from bottom-two to top-two in two seasons or less, joining the Boston Celtics in 1979-80 and 2007-08.

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