In defeat, Devin Booker said that the youthful Phoenix Suns had hoped to skip many of the brutal roadblocks that can quickly vanquish a team with championship aspirations.
Like a broken hand. Or a finnicky hamstring. Or running into a juggernaut of a team led by perhaps the greatest shooter ever.
Booker’s veteran teammate Chris Paul has experienced them all. This season’s N.B.A. finals loss provided the latest and most piercing disappointment of his brilliant career.
“I do a pretty good job of staying in the moment,” a prescient Paul said after the Suns had taken what many thought to be a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in the finals. “Maybe a lot of the guys on our team, it’s their first playoff series, they don’t know the heartache or the heartbreak. They’re just out there playing. So, for me I know how quick things can change. I know how a possession or a play can change the dynamics of an entire series.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s generational performance for Milwaukee dashed Phoenix’s hopes for its first championship more than any play or possession. Paul, playing in his first N.B.A. finals, performed superbly throughout most of the series and in the playoffs, coming agonizingly short of securing his career résumé’s lone omission.
In Game 6 of the finals, facing elimination, Paul displayed a channeled desperation, his shotmaking ability at the end nearly single-handedly keeping Phoenix within striking distance.
“For me it just means back to work,” Paul said following Tuesday’s 105-98 loss that sealed the championship for the Bucks. “Back to work. Nothing more, nothing less. Ain’t no moral victories or whatnot. We sort of saw what it takes to get there, and hopefully we see what it takes to get past that.”
This is a pivotal moment for Paul, 36, in a career that has had so many of them. He has experienced enough adversity to outlast his 16 N.B.A. years, with New Orleans, the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston, knowing firsthand that an injury from nowhere can derail a franchise. It was his broken hand and hamstring with the Clippers; the hamstring, again, (and the shooting of Golden State’s Stephen Curry) in Houston.
The finals loss was the fourth time one of Paul’s teams allowed an opponent to recover from a 2-0 deficit.
“It’s tough,” Paul said. “Great group of guys, hell of a season, but this one is going to hurt for a while.”
Paul has a player option to remain in Phoenix for $44.2 million. He can also explore free agency, where his play has likely earned him another long-term, lucrative contact, an improbable scenario just a couple of years ago.
Still fresh off the latest loss, Paul declined to disclose any future plans with reporters before making one declaration.
“I ain’t retiring, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said. “That’s out. So, back to work.”
It took a lot for the stars to finally simultaneously align and idle for Paul.
On the path to the championship series, the Suns ousted a Los Angeles Lakers team with a limited Anthony Davis, a Denver Nuggets squad without Jamal Murray and the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers.
Through each series, Paul stacked upon a resurgent regular season worthy of candidacy for the Most Valuable Player Award by table-setting the offense and supplementing Booker’s scoring.
He darted past primary defenders, exploiting mismatches, in routinely hunting for his bread-and-butter midrange jumper.
“He brought us all the way up here,” said Deandre Ayton, the third-year Suns center. “We know the type of detail we have to really emphasize to have consistency, to play at the level like this, and the type of competitor he is, it was contagious. Knowing your opponent, knowing what the team likes, knowing what teams throw at you, things like that, C.P. added to everybody’s arsenal.”
Paul recovered from a shoulder injury to help dispatch the defending-champion Lakers. He scored 37 points in the game that ended Denver’s season. He sent the Clippers home by scoring 31 of his 41 points in the second half of Game 6 in the Western Conference finals after missing the start of the series because of coronavirus health and safety protocols.
None of those opponents featured a perimeter defender like Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday, brought to the Bucks with the specific purpose of trying to bottle players like Paul and Booker.
At times, Milwaukee’s full-court pressure on Paul appeared wearisome, particularly in Game 4 when Paul committed five costly turnovers during a key loss. In the series, Paul averaged 21.8 points and 8.2 assists.
Suns Coach Monty Williams made the case that a career like Paul’s should be appreciated for what it is, rather than dissected for what it is not. Today’s players are cognizant of the importance of cementing their legacies with a championship. Barbershop debates are started and ended over the topic.
“It’s laughable when you talk about guys like Chris who have had these unreal careers and yet they get penalized because they haven’t won a title,” Williams said, adding: “It’s hard enough to make it to the N.B.A., let alone be an all-time great, which is what he is.”
Booker, listening to Williams’s comments, added: “That’s complete nonsense to the real hoopers out there. But our group, we supported Chris all the way, he led us this whole entire season and this is our first year together.”
The momentum that fueled the Phoenix Suns’ run to the N.B.A. finals began inside last season’s bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida. The team’s record — 26-39 when the regular season paused in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic — barely qualified the Suns for the N.B.A.’s restart that summer.
An 8-0 effort at Disney World impressed, yet still Phoenix fell short of making the playoffs, for the 10th straight season.
The abbreviated appearance both convinced the organization that it was a veteran star short of legitimate playoff contention, and convinced Paul — under contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder — that Phoenix could be a destination worthy of consideration.
In November, the Suns landed Paul in a blockbuster deal with the Thunder, relinquishing a substantial package.
In Phoenix, Paul reunited with Williams, who had coached him a decade earlier in New Orleans. The pair aimed their reunion aspirations high, a vision few others shared. Phoenix made few additions to its young, untested core outside of Paul and Jae Crowder.
Phoenix then progressed from drafting in the lottery to playing in the finals in a few short months.
“He’s a generational player,” Williams said. “I said that 11 years ago when I coached him in New Orleans. And everywhere he’s gone, the team has won. They have improved. He’s been close. He was an injury away from getting here before, but he along with Book, to lead a team that’s never been there to this point says a lot about their talent, their dedication, the will to win.”
It is in Paul’s hands whether he returns to Phoenix to rebuild from his newest heartbreak.