Rising Suns

Throwback Thursday: Suns, Celtics clash in "The Greatest Game Ever Played"  - Bright Side Of The Sun

When the Phoenix Suns traded for Chris Paul, it seemed to be an opportunity, albeit a misguided one: the aged Point God would arrive and, just as he had in OKC before, impart some majestic secret knowledge on the youths, a Gnostic arriving to guide things just enough, to the point that they would be able to grow beyond his available measure upon his departure. He would never be at peace, but if this was his role at 35, Paul would be charitably useful. Only then would he again elevate everyone around him, and so far, he has exceeded that.

Did I think this year’s edition of the Phoenix Suns was that team? Not necessarily, but they had a lot more juice than many previous editions of Chris Paul Teams, with or without the State Farm sponsorship. Despite their youth and various fears, here they are: the orbs whose mascot and logo cause so much consternation, and yet a team whose continued excellence brings a familiar chill to anyone daring themselves to watch following his time with the other Hornets, Clippers, Rockets and Thunder. Finally, now, Chris Paul is in an NBA Finals.

It would be negligence to suggest that Paul’s presence alone turned a team that went undefeated in last year’s abridged bubble – and still missed the playoffs! – into the Western Conference representative this year. Paul is and remains the Point God, perhaps now more than ever, but we’ve already talked that over, so it seems fair and fitting to bestow some glory on the rest, the co. in CP3 and Co.

Lauded out of college and lambasted only by comparison in his rookie season, Deandre Ayton has finally come of age – the ex-top draft pick rolled out of bed this year and chose chaotic good as the path forward. Paul’s presence certainly helped Ayton become a pick-and-roll demigod in the postseason, but Ayton’s intentions have always been clear: he wanted this, he never backed down from it.

At this point, Ayton’s play welcomes draft night re-evaluations. Sure, you’d want Luka, and of course, Trae’s moxie is evident in everything he does, even when he’s cheering his teammates on from the bench.

But sometimes, drafting for fit-plus-talent is a good thing, and with Devin Booker already in tow, having Ayton on hand wasn’t the wrong choice. That it has played out this well is a testament to the Suns’ front office for enduring all of the collateral damage that Twitter and the like has sent their way in the past three years.

A word on Booker, while we’re here: I was not a believer in him initially and for a long time, and I bought into the “good stats, bad team” anti-hype that surrounded him. Even after his 70-point effort against the Celtics in his second season, it just felt that, well, somebody has to score, and it probably wasn’t going to be Marquese Chriss[1]. Not that you care what I think if you just thought he was a cool dude who happened to look like a Lego and also could score at will, but public admittance of faults is a lost art.

Certifiably, Devin Booker is the real deal. His work in Chris Paul’s absence during the Western Conference Finals was magnificent, and he had enough workhorse-type moments to inspire a viewer to think that he really could carry a team on his own, that he really is that good. That he now occasionally missteps and attempts Lillard shots only to fail is as much apart of being The Guy as brooding on the bench when his team fires away helplessly, and Booker now seems to understand that.

Beyond the Paul-Ayton-Booker triumvirate lie several fitting natural born killers: Mikal Bridges, late of Villanova and, originally, a Process input in Philadelphia, has been marvelous, a 54/43/84 guy who might eventually scratch toward 50/40/90. He’s turned into a plus defender who can comfortably switch onto otherwise unfavorable matchups. Perhaps indicative of his Paulian influence, he laughs at the absurdities of the NBA as it is in 2021.

Cameron Payne – or Cam Payne, as you might know him in this eternal election cycle – has been indispensable, a player finally having found a home after stops in Oklahoma City, Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere, out of the NBA. Payne’s play is fittingly annoying, and his 29-point effort against the Clippers in Game 2 of the West Finals was deserved. Lock down everyone else, and yet: Cam Payne.

That is to say nothing of Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson, USC Upstate legend Torrey Craig, Langston Galloway or any other player’s contributions, all of which have turned up valuable in their franchise’s first trip to the Finals since 1993[2]. The Suns are a team’s team, a testament both to general manager James Jones’ savvy and to the resilience and acumen of head coach Monty Williams.

Phoenix is a sprawling metropolitan area, large enough to cause TV blackout issues in neighboring markets, but the post Steve Nash-Suns have remained an afterthought in the eyes of the NBA. With this trip to the Finals, the Suns have re-asserted themselves into a conversation that they helped initiate a decade and a half ago. Seven Seconds or Less begat pace and space begat the Heat and the Warriors and everything else, and now, here they finally are. Cliché as it is: the Phoenix Suns have risen.

[1] A pre-defined role P.J. Tucker was on that team, to its credit

[2] And only its third total (1976) since the team’s inception in 1968


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