by Gina Mizell

Headline

WHAT A RIDE
Though the Phoenix Suns' 2020-21 season ended in heartbreak in the NBA Finals, their emphatic resurgence was a triumph

MILWAUKEE — The pause lasted nine seconds in the middle of answering the final question of a 10-minute postgame press conference. Then Monty Williams’ voice broke while trying to articulate what he learned from his Phoenix Suns team’s run to the NBA Finals.

“I just don't take it for granted,” Williams said as he held back tears. “It's hard to get here, and I wanted it so bad, you know? It's hard to process right now. It's hard. That's all.”

The pain, the disappointment, the heartbreak was raw and real after Phoenix fell two wins short of its first NBA title. This unbelievable 2020-21 Suns ride officially came to an end following a 105-98 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum in Tuesday night’s Game 6 of the seven-game series Phoenix led 2-0 only 10 days prior.

Yet Williams emphasizes practicing gratitude so often that it is one of his team’s core values alongside showing up on time, competing, playing defense and sharing the ball. That was on display seconds after that final answer, when the coach stepped off the dais and wrapped a waiting Devin Booker in a giant hug.

It’s important to maintain perspective on the Suns’ remarkable season, which sharply ascended to the NBA’s biggest stage for the first time since 1993. It was a triumphant and emphatic resurgence that rallied the Valley during a challenging time in society, and set the tone for long-term success for a team and fan base that has long waited to re-enter the territory of a consistent contender.

“What a huge accomplishment by our players to get to the playoffs for the first time and get all the way to the Finals and have a chance to play for a championship,” Williams said.  “ … It's unreal, you know, that our guys did this. So, from that standpoint, I'm grateful and I feel for them. But I also expressed to them, now we know what it takes to get here.

“It's going to be that much harder to get past this point, and the reality is, you never know if you're ever going to get back here. That's why you have to take advantage of these opportunities, and they did. We just came up short.”

This organization’s turnaround has been drastic. Two seasons after winning 19 out of 82 regular-season games, the Suns won 14 during these playoffs alone. It has not even been one calendar year since they first took the floor at Walt Disney World as a relative Bubble afterthought with a 26-39 record, before ripping off the eight consecutive wins that created the momentum for this season’s massive leap. In fact, one year to the day from when the Suns’ plane departed for Orlando (July 6, 2020), they played Game 1 of the NBA Finals (July 6, 2021).

Even Williams and Booker will acknowledge that these Suns skipped some of the traditional steps on their first postseason voyage together. The collective lack of experience did not seem to matter as they learned — and performed — on the fly. Their glorious showing during the past two months produced iconic playoff moments that will forever live in Suns lore.

There was Booker pointing to Kobe Bryant’s retired numbers at Staples Center after channeling his idol by scoring 47 points in a knockout game against the defending-champion Lakers, taking the first-round series the Suns entered as underdogs despite holding the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed.

And the dominant sweep of the Nuggets and newly crowned Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic.

And Deandre Ayton’s jaw-dropping Valley-oop against the Clippers.

And Chris Paul’s 41-point masterpiece and embrace with Williams in Los Angeles, where cameras caught the coach telling Paul, “You don’t need to calm down” on his way to the first Finals appearance of his Hall of Fame career.

And Cam Johnson’s one-handed dunk over P.J. Tucker. And Torrey Craig’s soaring alley-oop against the Nuggets. And Jae Crowder’s salsa dance.

Those flashpoints combined to create impressive statistical outputs.

Booker’s 601 points, including back-to-back 40-point outings in the Finals, are the most scored by any NBA player during their first playoff run. The Suns’ won a franchise-record nine consecutive playoff games, a stretch peppered with the adversity of Paul’s shoulder injury sustained in Game 1 of the Lakers series and two-game absence during the Western Conference Finals against the Clippers while in COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Ayton recorded 14 double-doubles in his arrival as an efficient, often dominant, two-way force. 

Phoenix trailed a series only twice, and never faced elimination until Game 6 of the Finals.

Yet the memorable moments did not only apply to the play on the court.

Like when Alvan Adams, a star of the 1976 “Sunderella” Finals team who is now the organization’s vice president of facility management, stopped near the top of section 102 to soak in the empty gym ahead of Game 1.

Or when a giddy Ayton’s eyes widened as he walked into his first press conference featuring the Larry O’Brien Trophy branding.

Or when Booker paid homage to the Suns of the past by wearing vintage t-shirts on practice days.

Or when fans wearing jerseys ranging from Steve Nash and Shaquille O’Neal, to Charles Barkley, to Booker and Ayton and Paul, all populated the same lower-level section, helping create a deafening homecourt advantage that became arguably the NBA’s best during the playoffs.

The Suns earned this postseason opportunity after emerging as a consistently excellent team during a condensed-yet-grueling regular season played under strict restrictions in the middle of a pandemic.

General manager James Jones constructed this roster by taking the exciting young core of Booker, Ayton, Johnson and Mikal Bridges and raising the bar by adding savvy, tough-minded veterans in Paul and Crowder. Those players were coached by the steady and thoughtful Williams, who fostered a culture that thrives on being relentless, understanding that everything counts and playing together. Thanks to a team makeup that combined competitive grit with endearing personality, the Suns became a popular team to cheer for across the country.  

After starting 8-8, the Suns finished with the NBA’s second-best regular-season record. They went nearly three months without losing back-to-back games, and lost three in a row only once over the course of 72 contests. They became one of two teams to rank in the NBA’s top 7 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, utilizing a “0.5” offensive system predicated on ball and body movement and a disciplined, team-centric approach on the opposite end of the floor.

By season’s end, Jones and Williams had been voted Executive and Coach of the Year, respectively, by their peers. Paul was a second-team All-NBA selection at age 36, proving his play and leadership remain as impactful as ever. Booker received his second All-Star nod, further cementing himself as one of the league’s top young stars.  

“Guys wanted to be better,” Crowder said. “Guys wanted to be a respected team. Guys wanted to win. … We bought into each other. I think we bought into the coaching style. We bought into our coach, our leader. Guys just wanted to do better, wanted to win by any means necessary. I think that's what got us to this point.”

Throughout the playoffs, Williams reminded that these results arrive when preparation meets opportunity. Doc Rivers, the Philadelphia 76ers coach who is one of Williams’ close friends and mentors, shared that “pressure is a privilege” in a recent text message. After a gutting Game 5 defeat put the Suns in a 3-2 deficit against the Bucks, Paul repeated Williams now-famous mantra that “Everything you want is on the other side of hard … and it don’t get no harder than this.”

Following Game 6, there is still an additional level of “hard” the Suns must push through to reach the NBA’s mountaintop. Had Phoenix split Games 4 and 5, which both came down to the waning seconds, this series would still be heading back to Footprint Center for a decisive Game 7.

For a postseason filled with lessons and growth, the way it all ended — with their first four-game losing streak of the entire season — was the toughest to stomach.  

“This isn't something you want to feel,” Booker said. “I haven't felt a hurt like this in my life. So, that's what I say when I know we have a base and a foundation, just championship basketball at all times.”

That sometimes-bumpy road is relatable for the Bucks, a formidable opponent that overcame past playoff heartbreak to become a worthy NBA champion. Against the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, they too won the first two games of the series as the higher seed before losing four straight to the eventual NBA champion. Last season, the Miami Heat upset the Bucks in the second round on their way to the Finals.

This year, Williams felt the Bucks’ experience from the sideline during Tuesday’s title clincher. Giannis Antetokounmpo capped a sensational series by totaling 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks to become a unanimous Finals MVP. As the Bucks celebrated in their locker room, Williams stopped by to offer his congratulations.

“Because they have been in these moments before, it made up the margins for them,” Williams said of the Bucks. “Especially in those moments where you need a stop, you need a bucket, there was no panic. There was no lack of poise.

“And it's part of our journey. We have to go through it, and I've been telling our guys that for two years. You have to go through what have you to go through, and there's a deep hurt that you have to feel. (The Bucks) felt it before, and this is our first time.”

Williams was not sure how long it would take for him and the Suns to shift from processing that pain to engaging in thoughtful reflection. Their goal will be to channel all of those emotions into continuing to establish a championship culture. After all, there is still more to do and more to come from this team and The Valley it represents.

Still, remember this year’s stunning, emotional and unforgettable ride.

Remember that the Suns were one of two teams playing on the final night of the 2020-21 NBA season.

And, in looking toward this franchise’s future, remember the message Paul writes on all his basketball shoes.

Can’t give up now...

“This is just the beginning,” Ayton said. “ … We know what it takes now.”

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