In case you’ve been living under a rock–– or have been too locked in on the NHL Playoffs or the college baseball/softball regionals or the action from Roland Garros or the UEFA Euro tournament–– you might be a little out of shape with how the NBA Playoffs are developing. Because the Phoenix Suns are the real deal. (Side note: sports are so back and it’s awesome)
Stephen Curry and LeBron James are no longer relevant characters in the story of the 2021 playoffs. If you’re young like me, young enough to only remember postseasons that were dominated, at least in narrative, by those two names, then the rest of the journey here over the course of the next five weeks or so will be new and fun.
Yes, Curry and LeBron are great. I’m not saying the NBA Playoffs are better off without them at this point. But as a fan of the NBA and as a fan of a team that’s been eliminated (at least it was a valiant effort from Jayson Tatum and company), it feels pretty cool that we’ll see one of these eight remaining teams win a title for either the first time since 1983 (Shoutout Moses Malone), if not the for first time ever.
Your “Elite 8” teams, if you will, minus the Nuggets now, are the Jazz, Sixers, Suns, Nets, Bucks, Clippers, and Hawks. But out of all these teams, the Suns have emerged as having the most feel-good story.
Chris Paul and the Suns
You can’t help but feel good for Chris Paul and this Phoenix Suns team. The Suns looked dead to rights after game 3 of the Lakers series. The consensus once the Lakers edged the Warriors in the 7-8 play-in game was “man, I feel bad for the Suns. That’s crappy luck.” Fast forward to the conclusion of game 3 where LeBron is backing down Jae Crowder and the Lakers seem totally engaged. Everyone, myself included, has the opinion of “damn, this sucks for the Suns. It’s over for them.” Then Davis gets injured and the Suns take it to Los Angeles three consecutive times to win the series in 6.
As we see the Phoenix Suns in the WCF, we’ll be reminded that they were a Davis no-injury away from being an afterthought. Instead, it looks like they’ll reach the Conference Finals and have a puncher’s chance at playing for an NBA Championship. That’s how quickly narratives can change.
There was a moment in game 5 when it looked like Paul felt the magnitude of that concept. After seemingly re-injuring his shoulder, his team up by like 30, he fought through the pain and made his two free throws. He looked like he was tearing up. I felt so happy for him at that moment. Like wow, he has a real chance to get by LeBron and lead his team to the next round. The moment had another level of significance because of what we know about Paul’s playoff resume/lowlights. Devin Booker is the best player on the Suns. DeAndre Ayton might be the most consistent throughout this playoff run. None of this would be happening without Chris Paul running the show, however.
When you look at the playoff drought for the Phoenix Suns, the construction of the team, how they gelled together all season, plus the feel-good story with Monty Williams, it makes sense why everyone felt bad for them after they drew the Lakers. Perhaps the breaks they caught in the Lakers series was the basketball gods rewarding all the good energy that the Suns had created throughout the regular season. Since Davis went down, they haven’t lost a single game.
Bridges and Crowder are awesome in their roles amongst the starters. Cam Payne has made himself a good backup point guard. I love how this team is built with three shot creators in Booker, Paul, and Payne, three tough wing guys who can spot up and shoot and are unafraid of the moment in Crowder, Bridges, and Cam Johnson, plus a super steady presence with Ayton, who works hard and finishes around the rim. They can also roll the dice with Craig and Saric. Ultimately though, when the game’s in the balance, Booker can say “gimme the ball, I’ll take us home” and hit the big shot(s).
After sweeping the Nuggets, they’ll have some time off to get the winner of the Jazz-Clippers series. The Jazz are constructed a little like the Suns. Like Phoenix, they have six guys this postseason who have averaged double-digit points. They mainly play seven guys but roll the dice with Favors and Niang a little more frequently than the Suns do with Craig and Saric. They have big man Rudy Gobert, who’s a big part of their identity, and a two-guard in Mitchell who is a really, really good shot-maker. Mitchell vs. Booker has been super close for at least a year. But I think in spite of what we’ve seen with these Mitchell rise and pull-up knock down threes off the high screen, I’ll give the overall edge to Booker because of what he can do in the midrange game. Plus, he too can hit difficult three-pointers off the dribble.
Utah has five guys, as opposed to Phoenix’s three that I had mentioned, who can be shot creators, but I think this Suns team is playing with a lot of good energy. If there ever were a year that Chris Paul made the Finals, it would be this one. That same wishful thinking logic applies to their potential WCF series against the Clippers.
The Clippers have decided that they’re going to play Reggie Jackson plus four forwards most of the time. Kawhi would be the best player in a Clippers-Suns series, but I think Booker could be the second-best. Plus, with what we’ve seen with Ayton, the Clippers will be forced to play Zubac more minutes just for size. This will limit them offensively because that’ll mean Morris or Batum will be on the bench. Both of those guys offer more offensive versatility than Zubac. Additionally, Paul is a major advantage at the point guard position over Reggie Jackson, even though I will admit Jackson has been better than I thought he’d be. It would also be cool to see Paul beat the team that he was the orchestrator of for six seasons.
To wrap a bow on this article and the forecasting of the Phoenix Suns playoff run, I think they’d be massive underdogs against the Nets in the Finals. This is assuming Brooklyn runs through the East*. As of now, for this hypothetical series, I’d pick the Nets in 6 games. But from the storyline angle, it would be interesting to see Chris Paul against his former teammate Blake Griffin, in addition to his other lob-city partner DeAndre Jordan, who’d be cheering on the Nets from the bench. It would also be fun to root for the feel-good Suns against the hated Nets.
*before the Kyrie ankle injury