The Indiana Pacers forced a steal with 21 seconds left in Game 2 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons.
Reggie Miller sprinted up the court for a routine, fastbreak layup to tie the game. However, the Pistons’ Tayshaun Prince hustled back and soared for the game-saving block before diving three rows into the fans seated courtside to seal the game.
The Pacers went on to lose the series in six games as the Pistons advanced and won the NBA Finals, but this memory remains with Suns general manager James Jones. He was a 23-year-old Pacer at the time, and that moment has served as a constant reminder throughout his career of the value of every possession, every play and every detail.
“As a rookie watching that, I learned all it takes is one play,” Jones recently recalled. “You can make one play that can change fortunes. From that point forward, for me, it became not focused on games, not focused on all these other things. It was just focusing on one play and valuing one possession.
“Just thinking in terms of, 'Can I make one play to help my team?' Because one play can be the difference between going to the Finals and going home.”
Jones went on to appear in seven consecutive NBA Finals between 2011 and 2017, winning three NBA championships with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers and becoming one of the most highly respected veterans in the league. Now in his third season as general manager of the Phoenix Suns, 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.
Entering the league as a second-round pick in 2003, Miller explained to Jones that, as long as he could put the ball in the basket, he could have a long career. Jones appreciated the simplification of that message, dedicating his time to putting up extra shots and honing his craft from beyond the arc, becoming a 40 percent 3-point shooter over his 14-year career.
From veterans such as Miller, Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, to coaches such as Monty Williams, Nate McMillan, Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra, Jones remained a sponge throughout his years as a player. They taught him how to be a better basketball player, but also how to become a true professional that benefits any locker room.
“I can give you a whole Rolodex of a list of names,” James said. “I took a little bit from every one of those guys. I had to play different roles on all of those teams. I just realized how, depending on the game, the situation, if I could help my team, I can be a contributor in whatever role.”
Williams was Jones’ assistant coach in Portland during the 2007-08 season, and credits Jones with becoming an example for the young players to watch through his steadiness in his work ethic and approach every day.
“I think James has his own compass, his own approach,” Williams said. “He’s not going to be swayed by trends or what everybody else is doing. That’s how he was as a player. That’s how he worked.”
Jones dedicated himself to becoming the ultimate team player. While becoming a general manager was not something Jones thought about during his career, he realized this position allowed him to continue utilizing that method within the front office.
The first orders of business were hiring a coach with a team-first mentality, and constructing a roster of players with a similar mindset.
“In order to win a title, it's going to take everyone, not just one guy,” Jones said “Every guy is gonna be on that journey. So, I wanted to find guys who I thought would be equipped to do that better than most.”
After serving as Phoenix’ interim general manager throughout the 2018-19 season, Jones was officially promoted to the role at the conclusion of the year. Within a month, Jones hired Williams as head coach. Highly respected as both a player during his nine-year career as well as a coach throughout the past two decades, Williams understands the game through both lenses. The main focus during the interview process, Williams recalls today, was around the overall culture of the program.
The two quickly worked together to identify the type of team they wanted to build around their young core of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. They looked for players who could excel at adapting, competing and executing, while also focusing on key traits such as of talent, character, integrity, toughness and basketball IQ.
One of Jones’ first moves as general manager was trading back from the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft to 11th, selecting Cam Johnson while also acquiring Dario Šarić from Minnesota in the deal. Johnson provided the team with a knockdown shooter from beyond the arc, as well as a versatile defensive wing to pair with Bridges. Šarić had the flexibility to play inside or outside, stretch the floor and work as a connector on offense with the ball flowing through him.
It was critical for Jones to not just bring in the most talented players, but the right players who matched the culture that was building in Phoenix.
“When you're talking about the team environment, the person matters more than the talent,” Jones said. “You have to work well together, and your talents have to match. So, it was important to bring in pros, guys who care, guys that are dependable, guys that are respectful, guys that competed.”
Throughout the next two years, Jones rehauled the entire Suns roster outside of the young trio. He traded for future a Hall of Famer in Paul, as well as the non-stop motors of Torrey Craig and Jevon Carter. He signed experienced veterans such as Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore, and gave second-chance opportunities to hungry, former lottery picks in Cameron Payne and Frank Kaminsky.
“Good players, but even better people off the court,” Bridges said about his teammates. “We’ve got everybody who plays the right way. Everybody that believes in it. Everybody that works hard. It's an unbelievable gym we have and the people we have in there.”
The focus Jones put into developing a tight-knit culture of relentless players within a competitive environment paid off quickly. The Suns transformed from the second-worst record in the NBA two years ago when he took over to the league’s second-best record this season.
In a tied matchup against the Lakers, the Suns are staying true to themselves, putting the team first and focusing on the details — just as Jones did throughout his career.
“Just having the understanding that every possession matters,” Booker said in regards to his first playoff experience. “A lot of these games (come) down to one, two or three deciding possessions. Keeping that in the back of your mind and valuing it. Taking advantage of every opportunity we get.”
The Suns entered Game 4 in Los Angeles with the risk of facing a 3-1 deficit in the series, and a lot of questions needed to be answered.
Will Chris Paul be able to play with his shoulder injury?
Can Jae Crowder find his way out of his shooting slump?
How will the young players respond to the mounting pressure?
Williams prepared to sit Paul for Game 4, concerned the injury may be too much to overcome. The two met with Jones prior to the game for a 20-minute discussion, and Paul pleaded his case to at least give him a chance on the court.
“I’m just glad that me and Coach got the relationship where we can have that kind of conversation,” Paul said. “We talked about it. I told the guys, I said, ‘I don’t know if it’ll be two minutes. I don’t know if it’ll be 32 minutes, but I feel like I’ve got to try to give you what I’ve got.’”
The trust between player, coach and general manager allowed Paul to freely speak his mind. The trust between teammates led Paul to tell Booker and Crowder to alert him if he was “looking like some trash” and he would take a seat on the bench. And the trust that Paul had in his own game was due to the grind that this team consistently puts in behind the scenes.
Needless to say, that trust paid off. Paul had his best game of the series, finishing with a game-high 18 points, nine assists, three rebounds and three steals. He also announced, “I’m back!” after hitting his patented midrange jumper midway through the third quarter to extend the Suns’ lead to 14.
The Suns controlled the game for the majority of the second half, but a late run by the Lakers cut the lead down to single digits in the final five minutes. But as if on cue, the Suns answered during crunch time.
Paul once again knocked down a shot at the elbow with 3:21 remaining to push the Suns’ lead back to double-digits.
Crowder entered the game shooting just 2-of-20 from 3-point range in the first three games of the series. The veteran missed his first two attempts of the game, something that would cause many players to stop shooting all together. However, Williams believed in the work he had seen from his team at practice and reinforced a “let-it-fly mentality,” giving his players the green light to keep shooting.
Crowder remained aggressive, as his coach asked, knocking down three 3-pointers in the game. None were bigger than a corner shot in transition that gave the Suns a 10-point lead with 1:23 remaining, prompting fans at Staples Center to head toward the exit.
“That’s what I want to be for my teammates — someone they can lean on when things get tough,” Crowder said. “My teammates were there for me through the first few games.”
The Suns sealed the victory through the unselfish ball movement and quick thinking through the “0.5 offense” that had been instilled during the past two seasons.
Booker was trapped at midcourt with just over a minute remaining in the game and Phoenix leading by two. He found Bridges with a bounce pass, who was quickly covered by James. But the Suns used the aggression of the Lakers’ press defense against them, as the ball was poked out right into Crowder’s hands.
Bridges, realizing James was taking off for a fastbreak opportunity, sprinted toward the middle of the paint. Touch-passes from Crowder to Bridges to a cutting Craig on the baseline ended in a game-sealing dunk to even the series at 2-2.
“That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve been for our two years,” Williams said postgame. “We try to defend and we try to play with a great deal of pace and play in ‘0.5.’ When we can get stops and get down the floor and the ball is just moving around the gym … that’s how we like to play.”
The Suns were prepared for the big moment due to their team-first mindsets, the hard-working atmosphere created at practice and the overall construction of the roster. Understanding the type of player it takes to win, Jones assembled this team with championship aspirations. He added tough, focused and unselfish players willing to come to Phoenix and build upon the foundation he laid two years ago.
“When you're in the process,” Jones said, “you need people that embody those traits in order to get through the process, to get to the end. It's a journey … I like to say you have to embrace the chaos and, in order to do that, you need to be equipped.”