Lowe: How the Phoenix Suns silenced the skeptics — and became even more dangerous than last year

    Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.

AT THEIR FIRST team meeting this season, Jarrett Jack, just starting as a Phoenix Suns assistant coach, stood to deliver some motivation for a team coming off an NBA Finals run.

“There are people,” Jack told the group, “who don’t think you deserved to make the Finals.”

The Suns’ first three playoff opponents — the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, and LA Clippers — were missing star players for all or most of their series against Phoenix. Some around the NBA wondered: Yeah, the Suns were good. But were they mostly lucky?

“We heard the noise,” Devin Booker, Phoenix’s star guard, says. “But it was almost better hearing it from someone [Jack] who wasn’t in our program last year. He confirmed it.”

As Jack continued, Monty Williams, the Suns’ head coach, interrupted. “Maybe they’re right,” Williams said of the skeptics. “All the things they are saying [about injuries] — they’re true. But it doesn’t matter. We made it to the Finals. We took advantage of the breaks everybody said we got. You all deserved to be in that position.”

Players appreciated the candidness. “We don’t do the pink elephant thing here,” Chris Paul says. “Whatever it is, we are gonna talk about it.” Williams and the team’s veteran leaders are good at addressing issues directly, but not dwelling on them. That has served them well in high-pressure situations — including amid the league’s investigation of Robert Sarver, longtime Suns governor, over allegations of racism, sexual harassment, and other workplace misconduct reported in an ESPN story.

In private and public, you rarely hear anyone within the Suns mention the health issues they faced last postseason: Paul injuring his shoulder in the first round, then missing Games 1 and 2 of the conference finals after testing positive for COVID-19; Dario Saric tearing his ACL in Game 1 of the Finals.

“We ain’t with all that,” Paul says of relitigating injuries. “You can only play the games in front of you.”

Last season was over, anyway. Their Finals trip guaranteed nothing.

“If it was real, if it’s not — we’re gonna find out,” Paul says. The Suns were eager to resume their title chase.

“It’s good that we are maybe not lavishly praised as a contender,” says Cameron Johnson, the Suns’ reserve sharpshooter. “It keeps the chip on our shoulder. We enjoy it.”

The hovering doubts reminded the longest-tenured Suns of the lead-up to the Orlando, Florida, bubble in 2020 — which became a centrifuge of team-building already taking on an exalted place in Suns lore. The Suns and Washington Wizards were the worst teams, record-wise, to earn bubble invitations after weeks of wrangling among NBA governors and team officials. Sarver relayed the inner workings of those talks to Williams.

“Robert was fighting like heck to get us in,” Williams recalls. Williams kept Booker in the loop, knowing Booker would update the players.

Phoenix finished the pre-pandemic portion of the season 13th in the West, with almost 0% chance of making the postseason. Critics (including this writer) lambasted the inclusion of Phoenix and Washington as a money grab that ran counter to the NBA’s stated goal of limiting personnel in Orlando as the pandemic raged.

“You heard the narratives,” Williams says now. “Nobody thought we should have been there.”

But the Suns had stayed ready. They kept in shape, and in contact. Williams was leaving a workout when he got official word: The Suns were in. About 15 minutes later, his phone buzzed. It was a text from Booker: “Let’s go!”

“I was like, ‘Oh, he’s on a mission,'” Williams says. “I had no idea it would turn into 8-0.”

Meanwhile, Willie Green, then a Suns assistant, had been in regular contact with Paul — who was inside the bubble negotiations as president of the National Basketball Players Association. Paul and Green, now head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, had become close after two stints as teammates.

Once the Suns were in, Paul, then starring for the Oklahoma City Thunder, offered Green advice that stuck: The team that doesn’t complain is gonna be successful. The conditions are not going to be like NBA teams are used to.

Green called Williams and suggested he schedule a team meeting to relay Paul’s words — and steel the players.

“Don’t let anyone write your story by complaining while people everywhere are out of jobs,” Williams told the team. “Just go hoop.”

Green did not tell Williams it had been Paul providing the intel.

Says Green: “Chris impacted our team in the bubble without even knowing it.”

And so in a most improbable place began the most improbable rise of a woebegone franchise — a journey that continues upward, with the Suns entering tonight’s game against the Lakers holding the league’s best record.

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