A ton of reasons can be attributed to the Phoenix Suns’ meteoric rise to the crest of the West’s mountaintop.
One such would be Monty Williams, who emblazoned a brightly lit trail to regency with a rugged winning mindset and stark attention to detail from the coach’s seat. Williams just received a well-deserved NBCA Coach of the Year award as voted upon by his peers, and has made wondrous contributions to Phoenix’s winning efforts since being signed to a five-year deal back in 2019.
Another huge role-player in the team’s surprise surge has to be James Jones, whose chess-like team-crafting mastery has him on the short-list of favorites to win 2021’s Executive of the Year.
Jones — who knows a thing or two about what it takes to substantiate winning basketball over the course of the long run, built Phoenix to be a successful product from the ground up. He surrounded the team’s Batman-Robin duo of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton with several professionals who can fill specific roles; including 3-and-D wings, stretch bigs, and versatile guards with abilities to provide much more than scoring.
Speaking of which, that brings me to the greatest singular factor in Phoenix’s sudden ascension to the upper realms of the West: Jones’ blockbuster November trade that landed the man who’s career has been a textbook of quintessential point guard play — Chris Paul.
The arrival of the “Point God” in the Valley was a gift from the basketball heavens themselves, and Paul touched down with a Messiah-like vibe after floating in from Oklahoma City.
Along with him came hope — hope from a starved fanbase in Arizona’s Urban Heart that not only would success in the regular season arise in his midst, but that Phoenix would finally be equipped to make, and compete in, the playoffs.
Both hopes soon came to materialize more explicitly as the season got underway, and the Suns began to reveal exactly how dangerous they could be with an experienced leader as their floor general.
Paul showed why each team he’s played for has won more games than not, proving that not all athletic greatness is predicated on pure athleticism. His performance was a visible showcase of heart, hustle, a relentless appetite for film and an insatiable desire to win.
Show this to anybody that sleeps on Chris Paul pic.twitter.com/g2gwAAoFbh— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 23, 2021
Not to mention, he displayed the invaluable importance of remaining one step ahead mentally.
His brilliance was contagious all year. Phoenix morphed from a fledgling young unit just scratching the brink of postseason gameplay, to headlining ESPN matchups as the unquestionable Goliath. And they went from a 34-39 record, good for 10th in the West, to 51-21 — just games away from the conference’s top spot.
Chris Paul brought Phoenix hope.
But when fans watched him collapse to the hardwood in agony after a collision with Cam Johnson early in the second quarter of the team’s Game One bout with Los Angeles, you could feel that hope collectively sift from the stadium, and turn to fretful anxiety as they pleaded for an indication that he was okay.
“I was going up and I just remember I felt or heard a crack or whatever,” Paul said after the game.
Paul would return to his feet after writhing in pain due to what was labeled a “shoulder contusion”, but when he did return to in-game action, he was a shell of his former self.
Paul would go on to convert just two of his shot attempts following the scare, finishing the affair with seven points on a 3-8 clip from the field to complement eight assists.
And what the numbers don’t confirm, the eye-test certainly can.
CP3 was clearly rattled through the game’s remainder. He took considerably fewer shots than his normal total, misplaced the rock on several vintage dribble moves, and when he did shoot, his motion looked like that of a 40-year old uncle at a family BBQ.
Now, Paul is listed as active for Game Two, and the injury was reported as nothing more than a stinger according to the Suns’ camp.
“He seems to be progressing in a good way,” head coach Monty Williams said Monday.
“He’s obviously sore but that’s all we have to report at this time. He was out there dribbling just now, going through his normal progressions so we feel like he’s in a good place even though he’s sore.”
So as of now, operation “Beat L.A”, with Paul starring as Phoenix’s starlet captain, is still a go.
But as defending champs, L.A. serves as the primary antagonist for all 29 of its franchise counterparts.
And the Lake Show is eager to make must-see television of its beatdown in Phoenix — especially after being embarrassed in Game One.
For this movie to become reality though, Paul must be the first enemy eliminated.
The Suns are a much different group without their heralded leader’s guidance. They’re less confident, less potent in half-court sets, less together. The Lakers erupted on an 8-0 run in the wake up Paul’s tumble, climbing right back into a game that, quite frankly, they were being outplayed in.
Phoenix was able to salvage the lead, but it didn’t come without Paul’s one-armed heroics.
He won't be the only emphasis circled on the winning agenda for both teams. The Suns are eager to continue booking bucket arrangements with Devin Booker, while they’ll count on Ayton to add to his Game One masterpiece against Anthony Davis. And then of course there’s figuring out a way to contain LeBron James.
But as of right now, Chris Paul’s playing ability, or lack thereof, is the biggest determining decider between a win and loss in this series.
For Paul himself, there’s no shortage of confidence on his part. When asked in Sunday’s postgame presser if he’d be playing in Game Two, he didn’t hesitate in his answer.