by Gina Mizell

Headline

WE'RE BACK!
Phoenix Suns clinch top-6 playoff spot, another step in franchise's resurgence.

The electric crowd inside Phoenix Suns Arena erupted when Chris Paul converted his second nifty driving finish in crunch time, putting the Suns up seven with less than five minutes to play.

It chanted “MVP” as Paul stepped to the free-throw line with 1:54 remaining, then collectively rose to its feet when two offensive rebounds with less than a minute to go all but sealed the Suns victory.

And as Devin Booker looked up into the stands as the final seconds ticked off, he cracked a smile and nodded his head. 

The Suns will officially play a first-round playoff series this spring for the first time since 2010, clinching a top-6 spot in the Western Conference after beating the Clippers 109-101 Wednesday night at Phoenix Suns Arena. The goals are much higher for a team with the league’s second-best record (44-18) with 10 games to play, but this marks a significant step in the resurgence of a proud franchise.

"We are not satisfied. We are not settling," coach Monty Williams said after the win. "We feel like we’re just scratching the surface as far as the way we want to play, the way we can play. But this is a huge moment for our organization. It’s a huge moment for the fans in this city and in this state, and sometimes you just got to pause and take stock in what’s happening. For that, I’m a grateful coach and man." 

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.

This rise has been anchored by the coach-executive tandem of Monty Williams and general manager James Jones. Booker, the two-time All-Star and longest-tenured Sun, has been bolstered by the arrival of future Hall of Famer Chris Paul and a cast of complementary players that fit Williams’ on-court style and personal makeup, creating a team with competitive edge, hard workers and people who enjoy being around each other. 

“Where we were just last year, a couple years ago,” second-year wing Cam Johnson said, “to get to this point now, it shows all the work we’ve put in over that course of time — and how important everybody in the organization, from top to bottom, has been. It’s honestly a really big lesson to be a part of it.

“When I first got here, everybody was like, ‘Oh, the Suns are down. They haven’t made the playoffs and ‘X’ amount of years.’ To be so close last year and to be in a position to clinch a spot now, it’s a blessing and I don’t take it for granted at all.” 

Since beginning the season 8-8, the Suns have posted the NBA’s best record at 36-10. They have twice beaten Utah, the team with the league’s best record, including a thrilling overtime win on April 7. They have topped East contenders Philadelphia and Milwaukee twice apiece. They have secured multiple wins against the Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Lakers, Grizzlies and Warriors, who would all be in the Western Conference field if the postseason began today.

Phoenix has embraced a relentless defensive identity to complement the “0.5” offensive system predicated on ball and body movement and quick decision-making. For the bulk of the season, the Suns have been one of three teams (Utah, Milwaukee) to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  

Paul’s impact was instantaneous, with his All-Star play and elite everyday leadership putting him in the NBA Most Valuable Player conversation. He is still dazzling on the court a month before turning 36, recently passing Magic Johnson for fifth on the NBA’s all-time assists list, swiping steals and burying clutch jumpers. He unleashed all of that against the Clippers by scoring 25 of his 28 points in the second half, including eight consecutive points by using a range of crafty ballhandling and his vintage pull-up to push a one-point advantage to nine during the decsive fourth-quarter stretch. 

Booker, meanwhile, continues to blossom into one of the league’s premier scorers, earning the Western Conference Player of the Month award for February and All-Star honors for the second consecutive season. Third-year wing Mikal Bridges is now an All-Defense contender with an expanding offensive game. Third-year big man Deandre Ayton is an impactful anchor on the defensive end and Paul’s pick-and-roll partner. Johnson has demonstrated he can do more than shoot 3-pointers, leading one of the NBA’s best second units.

Under the direction of Williams and his staff, the Suns have been a model of consistency. They possess the NBA’s best road record (20-7). For three months, they never lost consecutive games.

That focus and resiliency have been required while playing a condensed, demanding schedule with strict health and safety protocols. Those qualities were perhaps most on display during Phoenix’s recently completed road trip, during which it went 3-2 while facing five of the East’s top six teams, including a physical, come-from-behind victory at Madison Square Garden to snap the New York Knicks’ nine-game winning streak.

Williams relished the celebratory postgame scene, staying on the floor to high-five his players and watch Booker and Paul do postgame television interviews. 

“I just enjoy watching our guys have a good time,” Williams said. “ … But make no mistake about it, you can’t have those moments unless you put in a ton of work, and our guys have done that. …

“We’re gonna play in a lot of games like this, and we’ve got to be able to handle this kind of environment. I thought our guys did an unreal job of that tonight. It got heated. There were some tense moments. We stayed together, and that’s what it’s gonna take when you do get to the playoffs.” 

Though the Suns’ 2020-21 ascension has been dramatic, don’t call it a one-year wonder. Following a decade of organizational turnover and tumult, the right people were identified and installed to build the Suns’ foundation.

Jones, who took over as interim co-general manager just before the 2018-19 season, was officially elevated to the position the following spring. His first major move with that title was hiring Williams to groom the young core of Booker, Ayton and Bridges.

Jones began constructing a roster of players who could immediately contribute to winning on the floor, and to a positive culture off of it. He drafted Johnson much higher than experts projected, knowing he would fill an immediate role. He traded for Dario Saric and Jevon Carter. He signed Cameron Payne shortly before the Suns left for Orlando for the NBA’s Bubble restart.

The Suns became the seeding games’ ultimate surprise, going 8-0 at Disney World to turn nearly impossible playoff odds into a narrow postseason miss. As Williams addressed his team, he proclaimed, “We’re not the Suns of old.” But the coach also stressed a goal for his team to someday control its own playoff fate. 

The Suns, after all, still needed to root for the Portland Trail Blazers to lose to the Brooklyn Nets later that August evening in order for Phoenix to advance to the Western Conference play-in tournament. Instead, Portland’s victory in a thriller that came down to the last shot sent the Suns home. 

After that, Jones took big, deliberate swings during a condensed 2020 offseason.

The Suns pulled off the blockbuster trade for Paul, reuniting him with many familiar faces from his time in New Orleans. They signed veteran forward Jae Crowder fresh off a Finals run with the Miami Heat, who noted he partially chose Phoenix because he believed in Booker’s readiness for playoff basketball. They added Langston Galloway, E’Twaun Moore and Frank Kaminsky, who have been consummate professionals even during extended stretches with zero playing time. The result was a deep roster equipped to handle the most unique season in NBA history, during which players were bound to miss time due to injury, positive coronavirus tests or contact tracing. 

Booker recently recalled during an ESPN interview that, during an early-season locker-room conversation, Paul scoffed at talk of the Suns simply making the playoffs. Players set much higher goals then — and Williams reminded the postgame locker room after Wednesday’s clincher that this team still has “more to do, more to come.”   

Phoenix’s magic number to clinch homecourt advantage for at least the first round is three. The West’s No. 1 seed is within reach, as the Suns sit one game behind Utah ahead of Friday’s marquee showdown at Phoenix Suns Arena. Williams and players have openly talked about vying for the first championship in franchise history. 

Still, the Suns have waited for more than a decade to clear this benchmark. Few people understand that as deeply as Booker, who persevered through organizational struggles his first five seasons and is now an instrumental part of this season’s renaissance.

So he spoke for his team, its city and its fan base when he called this clinching moment “a long time coming.” 

“I don’t want to look back, and we have a group top to bottom that feels the same exact way,” Booker said. “It’s been fun. The happiness is here. Winning games is here. And all that comes together through a culture, and that’s what we have here.”

The only way for fans to guarantee access to 2021 NBA Playoff Tickets is to become a PayPal SixthMan Member today by visiting Suns.com/Memberships or text BOOK to 602-379-7867.

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