With the visiting locker room off-limits to the media due to the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the press conference following the Phoenix Suns’ Game 6 loss was in an auxiliary room in the bowels of Fiserv Forum, a few feet away from the Milwaukee Bucks’ locker room and friends and family section.
The first Sun to address the media was Chris Paul. As he sat at the dais, “We Are The Champions” blared through the walls. So, too, did the cheers of thousands of Bucks fans. Bucks players’ children ran through the outside hallway, screaming and celebrating.
For the Suns, there was no escaping the painful reality of the moment. Paul’s bleary-eyed look said more than he could. This was the closest he had been to a championship in his storied 16-year career. But, ultimately, he was as far from his goal as ever, his season concluding the same way it always has.
“This one is going to hurt for a while,” Paul said.
The Bucks defeated the Suns in Game 6, 105-98, to win their first championship in 50 years. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Finals MVP, produced a Herculean effort of 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.
Before Antetokounmpo’s historic Finals performance, Paul was arguably the primary storyline of the playoffs. This postseason was the long-awaited coronation of the Point God.
Paul’s arrival in Phoenix elevated the Suns to contenders, the same way his presence raised his teams in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Houston. This time, though, the 36-year-old superstar broke through to the Finals for the first time, disproving the absurd notion that he couldn’t lead a team past the conference finals.
He carried the young and inexperienced Suns on and off the floor, imparting wisdom, poise and confidence. He delivered in the biggest moments — Game 4 in Denver, Game 6 in Los Angeles — and overcame multiple obstacles that would have previously derailed his postseasons (a shoulder injury, a wrist injury and COVID-19).
“I just think it speaks to his greatness,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said of Paul’s 2020-21 season. “He’s a generational player. 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. … He’s done it everywhere he’s gone.”
After Paul’s 41-point closeout masterpiece against the Clippers, the upstart Suns entered the Finals as favorites. They won the first two games, backing up that logic. They held leads in all four of their losses, with Games 4, 5 and 6 coming down to the final few minutes (and in the case of 4 and 5, the final possessions). They were a Deandre Ayton lob and/or a Devin Booker clutch basket away from pushing the series to seven games, if not winning it all.
However, the Suns lost. And Chris Paul’s season ended without getting that taste of championship Champagne.
“It just means back to work,” Paul said. “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. … I ain’t retiring, if that’s what you’re asking. That’s out. So, back to work.”
Williams preemptively shut down the inevitable criticism that will be thrown Paul’s way. He is the first player in playoff history to lose four series after leading 2-0. That, to Williams and the rest of the Suns, pales in comparison to the remarkable totality of Paul’s first-ballot Hall of Fame career.
“I don’t think any of those guys who are in that category are appreciated enough,” Williams said. “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. You know that was my goal was to win it for him and Book, those guys have carried us all year long. And Chris, this is my second time coaching him, I know what he puts into his craft, I know the dedication and so when I hear those sentiments about his career because he hasn’t won a championship, it’s just silly.
“It’s hard enough to make it to the NBA, let alone be an all-time great, which is what he is.”
I hear what Coach Williams is saying. Paul is an all-time player in this league and winning a ring is extremely difficult. A lot of legends of the game are ringless.
But how many of them were up 2-0 in the NBA Finals? How many of them have blown the most 2-0 series leads? How many have had the talent around them as Paul has had throughout his career?
When discussing Paul’s legacy we do have to address his shortcomings in the playoffs. It is very much apart of his legacy the same way his accolades are. You can’t escape that until you get over the hump. This year was his chance to finally do that but he fell short again. And it was gut wrenching to watch on a multitude of levels.
One of the themes of the Suns’ postseason run was the team’s stated desire to win a championship for Paul. This may be the beginning of the Suns’ ascension, as the 24-year-old Booker and 22-year-old Ayton both said postgame, but Paul only has so many elite seasons left.
He’s on a different timeline than the young core. He’s already past the point that most of his all-time point-guard peers fell off in their respective careers. He’ll turn 37 next postseason. He’s running out of time for his elusive championship and still searching for answers.
As the Suns shift their mindset to next season and improving this core, their biggest question is Paul’s future. He has a $44.2 million player option for next season that he appears likely to decline. He has the leverage to test free agency and command a multi-year deal for $30-plus million annually. Either way, the Suns will almost certainly have to dip into the luxury tax to retain him, a financial threshold the organization has notoriously been wary of in the past.
When asked about his future with the Suns, Paul, who spoke about the group in the future tense several times, wouldn’t comment on free agency or commit to returning.
“We just lost a few minutes ago, you know what I mean?” Paul said. “Right now we’re going to process this and figure this out. I think everything else will take care of itself.”
This might have been his best — and potentially last — opportunity at a championship, but Paul legacy’s was cemented years ago. He’s one of the best point guards ever — with or without a ring. This season was just a reminder to appreciate him before it’s too late.