By Marc Stein
The Phoenix Suns, after missing the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons, are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993.
With a 130-103 road victory Wednesday night over the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix won the Western Conference finals by four games to two and secured a berth in the finals, starting Tuesday or July 8. They will face either the Atlanta Hawks or the Milwaukee Bucks, who are tied at two games apiece in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
The Suns were one of just two teams during a shortened 72-game regular season, along with Utah, to win 50 games. They validated that success, in many respects, by eliminating the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the first round, and followed that with a four-game sweep of the Denver Nuggets. Phoenix had carried the league’s second-longest playoff drought into the season, dating to the Suns’ trip to the conference finals in 2010. Only Sacramento’s drought, now 15 seasons and counting, was longer.
— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) July 1, 2021
Yet skeptics continue to point out that the Suns have faced short-handed opponents in each round of the playoffs. The Lakers’ Anthony Davis missed the final 2 1/2 games of the teams’ first-round series because of a groin injury; Denver’s Jamal Murray had a season-ending knee injury in April; and Leonard did not play in the conference finals after spraining his right knee in the second round against Utah.
The Suns, though, overcame their own burst of adversity against the Clippers when Chris Paul, their veteran floor leader, missed the first two games because of the league’s coronavirus health and safety protocols. Phoenix managed to win both games without Paul and also overcame a broken nose suffered by the All-Star guard Devin Booker in Game 2.
Paul, 36, is with his fifth team. In 15 previous seasons, he had reached the conference finals only once, with the Houston Rockets, and was sidelined for Houston’s crucial Games 6 and 7 with a hamstring injury. The Rockets had taken a 3-2 series lead over the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the 2018 West finals but lost both games without Paul.
If the Suns go on to win the first title in franchise history, they would join last season’s Lakers and the Boston Celtics in 2007-08 as champions this century who won it all after missing the playoffs in the prior season. After losing throughout Booker’s first four NBA seasons, Phoenix narrowly missed the chance to participate in last season’s playoff play-in round. The Suns had arrived at the league’s restart at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida, with the second-worst record of the 22 teams that qualified, then went 8-0 in their bubble games.
Convinced that the team was ready to the take the next step after its Florida success, Suns management acquired Paul in a November trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder, absorbing the two years and more than $80 million left on his contract. Paul’s veteran know-how, Booker’s scoring and Deandre Ayton’s paint presence have combined to give Phoenix an enviable three-star core, with coach Monty Williams, who coached Paul for one season in New Orleans, supplying additional key leadership.
Suns general manager James Jones, who hired Williams entering the 2019-20 season and made the trade for Paul, won the NBA Executive of the Year Award last week through a vote of his peers. Williams finished second for the NBA Coach of the Year Award, voted on by the media, behind the New York Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau, after winning coach of the year honors in a vote by the National Basketball Coaches Association.
The Clippers, without Leonard and their starting center Ivica Zubac (also sidelined by a knee injury), ran out of comebacks in Game 6 against Phoenix after becoming the first team in league history to win two series during the same postseason after losing the first two games. They lost the first two games at home against Dallas in the first round and the first two games on the road against Utah in the second round but still secured the first trip to the conference finals in the club’s 51-year history, which includes eight seasons in Buffalo and six in San Diego.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.