Despite falling short, Suns’ magical season was anything but a failure

NBA Playoffs, Phoenix Suns

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The Phoenix Suns fell short of their first NBA title, but what this team did for the fanbase and the city was immeasurable.

On Tuesday night, the Phoenix Suns fell short of their first NBA championship. It was a hurt the fanbase had felt 52 times before. On the Finals stage, it was one they’d only felt twice. As the Milwaukee Bucks started to celebrate their 105-98 lead late in Game 6, the pain of watching the clock wind down cut just as deep for the older generation of Suns fans who had been here before as it did for the younger generation that had never experienced it before.

The gut punches kept coming in the postgame interviews.

“I’ve never dealt with this kind of hurt as a head coach,” Monty Williams said.

“Great group of guys, hell of a season, but this one is going to hurt for a while,” Chris Paul added.

“We’re an emotional group, we fight hard, we practice hard, we have a lot of fun together and we trust each other and we love each other and we say it all the time,” Devin Booker finished. “So, we all had a common goal of bringing a championship back to Phoenix, and it’s tough to fall short.”

Outside of Milwaukee, it was hard not to feel for the dejected Suns. Hearing CP3 say that all he could feel was that the Suns lost despite finally reaching the Finals and coming so close to what he’s been chasing for 16 years; watching Williams getting choked up at the podium after a question about processing the moment; Jae Crowder trying to find words after losing in the championship round for the second time in the last 12 months; Booker describing how silent the locker room was after the clock struck midnight on a magical playoff run.

And all of that comes without even diving into the trauma of 53 years of existence without a championship (the longest title drought in the NBA), giving up a 2-0 lead in the Finals, or simply being a likable, unexpectedly fun team that was unable to carve its name into the history books.

“For me it just means back to work,” Chris Paul explained. “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.”

Paul may not be interested in dwelling on the good times of a season that ended in defeat, but that doesn’t mean this Suns team will ever be forgotten either.

The Suns’ season ended in defeat, but not failure

From the second-best record in the NBA to “Suns in 4” to the “Valley-Oop” all the way to a 2-0 lead in the Finals, this season was nothing short of unforgettable for a fanbase and a city that’s known nothing but pain, misery and embarrassment over the last decade. What was once the fourth-winningest franchise in NBA history got lost in the desert, aimlessly searching for an oasis amidst an 11-year playoff drought. This season not only saw Phoenix return to postseason prominence but storm its way to two wins away from a title — tying the 1976 and 1993 Suns as the closest this franchise has ever gotten to that elusive first championship.

“I mean, our goal was to skip a lot of steps as a team, with [it being] our first time in the playoffs and making a Finals run,” Booker said. “So I would say we skipped a few steps, but we didn’t get to the ultimate goal.”

These likable Suns fell short, so in a league where the mindset is always “championship or bust,” their season technically ended in failure. After only losing three consecutive games once all season, and never once dropping four in a row, the Suns lost four straight at the worst possible time. There will be no banner, rings, or championship parade to commemorate arguably the most unexpected and enjoyable team the organization has ever seen. It’s a bitter end to to an unlikely journey that deserved a storybook ending.

And yet, as agonizingly close as they got to their goal, it’s impossible to ignore the silver linings. Phoenix has always been a Suns town, but it hadn’t really felt like in the last decade … until this season. Seeing the city and the arena come alive in some of the first sporting events people could attend post-pandemic was something special. From the flocks of Suns jersey-clad fans wandering downtown Phoenix hours before games to the viral footage of Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon rendered speechless by the “Valley-Oop” to the ever-growing bandwagon that was happy to let new supporters onboard, this team was a rare bright spot during an incredibly brutal 2020 and a similarly challenging start to 2021.

On the court, it was nothing short of remarkable how the Suns’ work ethic and mental toughness turned into such an entertaining playoff run.

“I just think that when you go through something like this for the first time, you don’t expect to get this far,” Williams said. “So from that standpoint, 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. Like that’s hard to process. You typically get to the first round and you’re done. And you learn and then you try to get to the second round. We got all the way to the Finals. And that hasn’t been lost in my thinking.”

Less than a year ago, the Suns were a 26-39 team that considered themselves fortunate to even be invited to the NBA restart in the Orlando bubble. They were coming off 23-, 24-, 21- and 19-win seasons and were considered a pity invite. But they took advantage of their opportunity, going a perfect 8-0 and capturing the league’s attention with their young core of Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. They rode that momentum into the CP3 trade. Then the Jae Crowder signing. Then veteran bench pieces like E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Frank Kaminsky joining on minimum-salary contracts. The culture was put in place by Monty Williams and James Jones, but now it was producing real results.

Not even a year later, Suns fans have witnessed an 8-0 bubble run; a trade for one of the greatest point guards of all time; a team that boasted the NBA’s second-best record along with a top-10 offense, top-10 defense and league-best record against winning teams; a six-game victory over their rival and defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers, featuring a 47-point closeout performance from Booker; a four-game sweep over league MVP Nikola Jokic and his Denver Nuggets; a six-game win in the conference finals over the LA Clippers that featured a 40-point triple-double from Book, the “Valley-Oop” from Ayton and a masterful 41-point closeout performance from CP3; and the franchise’s first trip to the Finals in nearly 30 years.

That’s a remarkable, unprecedented turnaround compared to the five years that came before, and none of that sweetness should be soured by an unsavory ending.

“We grew all season long,” Paul admitted. “Especially starting out the way we did. Nobody probably expected us to be where we are except for us.”

That kind of rapid rise to prominence is literally unlike anything previously seen in NBA history, especially factoring in the staggering lack of playoff experience for most of this roster. Teams just don’t reach the Finals when four of their top-seven rotation players have never appeared in a playoff game before.

The Phoenix Suns did.

Yes, their path was undoubtedly made easier by injuries to Anthony Davis at the tail-end of the Lakers series, Jamal Murray for the entire Nuggets series and Kawhi Leonard for the whole Clippers series. But every Finals team has needed good health and fortuitous breaks to reach that stage. It’s not like AD or Kawhi have been pillars of good health throughout their careers either; managing injuries is part of the calculus with them, and no Suns fan should ever feel the need to apologize for finally avoiding Lady Luck’s wrath during a playoff run anyway.

“As a young player like me and some of the guys on my team, we know what it takes now and that’s all I’m going off of, to be honest,” Deandre Ayton said. “I mean, nobody really expected us to even be here. I know people talk about injuries of other teams and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, we playing ball, and I’m just really happy how the guys had a wonderful season playing together to get us where we are today.”

The sting of not being able to finish the job when it felt like the stars had finally aligned for Phoenix will persist throughout the summer, and probably well beyond that. While Booker (24), Ayton (22), Bridges (24) and Cam Johnson (25) are all still very young, there are no guarantees this group will even reach the Finals again, let alone win a title together. The Western Conference is stacked with established superstars and on-the-rise phenoms. Losing any series after taking a 2-0 lead will feel like a missed opportunity in retrospect, especially with a few contenders expecting to be healthier next year.

Chris Paul (36) isn’t getting any younger and possesses a $44.2 million player option. Cameron Payne is an unrestricted free agent. So are Torrey Craig, Abdel Nader, Frank Kaminsky, E’Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway. Nothing is promised, even for a Finals team with such a young core.

“They battled all year long and with all the testing and playing every other day to get to this point and have a chance to play for a championship, like it’s unreal that our guys did this,” Williams said. 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.”

But even though the Suns were bowled over by the unstoppable force that was Giannis Antetokounmpo, the groundwork for the future has been laid. And it came a lot quicker than most young teams get to experience.

“Championship basketball, and nothing less than that,” Booker said of that foundation. “This isn’t something you want to feel. 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.”

“I think that was the first thing I told Book once we got in the locker room after we got off the floor, I walked over to him and said, ‘This is just the beginning,’” Ayton said. “Now we know what we need to do and no less. We’re going to keep each other accountable for the rest of our careers together.”

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