EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ best chance at title in franchise history ends in unimaginable fashion

May 15, 2022, 9:14 PM | Updated: 10:13 pm

PHOENIX — Incomplete.

For everyone involved in the Phoenix Suns’ season-long grind, from management and staff to the players, they will have an inescapable feeling of something incomplete hanging over them as competitors.

A franchise-record 64-win year followed up an NBA Finals appearance that rightfully set the standard at championship or bust.

This was the franchise’s best opportunity at a championship. Not only was it the best regular-season team in the history of the organization, but there was none of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs, Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers, Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics or any other all-time dynasty force in its way.

And yet, the Suns will still be chasing that first championship after a shocking exit in the second round to the Dallas Mavericks was sealed in Sunday’s 123-90 Game 7 loss.

“I know they didn’t want to play that way,” head coach Monty Williams said. “We basically played the worst game of the season tonight.”

For veterans like Jae Crowder and Chris Paul, they have never seen a better opportunity for their own chase at an elusive ring. It is very likely they won’t get a crack at it as great at this one.

“Not at all,” Paul said of the notion this could be his last shot at a championship. “They said that last year. Probably said it back in ’08. You play long enough and you don’t win, every time you lose they gonna say it was your best chance but I think for me (and) us it’s we’ll be right back next year.”

Who knows what the careers of Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton have in store, if this was as close as they are ever going to get from the standpoint of a championship-caliber team.

“Kinda the same,” Booker said of how it feels compared to last year’s exit. “Short of our goal. Even though last year we were a little bit closer, it hurts. As a team, we just have to own it. You have to look at this and use it as motivation just as we did with the Finals last year.”

And for it to happen the way that it did on Sunday at home is embarrassing. It will be either near or at the top of each prominent figure’s legacy in their positions on the team until they overcome it. And they better hope they do.

There are roars coming from the fanbase for accountability. They are warranted.

“I talked to them about all year long we’ve been hearing all the praises, winning all the games and setting records and all that stuff and we’ve been taking it,” Williams said. “Well, tonight, you’ve got to take it. That’s a part of manhood. There are days where it doesn’t go your way and you gotta stand right there and show character and integrity and take it. That’s life.”

Whatever happened to this team in the postseason is unacceptable. It was the culmination of a playoff run in which the Suns completely lost who they are and how they play basketball. The biggest problem would be if they are just as clueless as we are.

“Me. I’m the guy that’s responsible to have us ready,” Williams said when asked of the Suns’ loss of form the last couple of weeks. “And we were prepared all season long. That’s it. We did not have the rhythm that we had for whatever reason. That’s always who I have to look at.”

“I think that’s who Mont’ is at the end of the day,” Paul said of Williams taking ownership of that. “But he can’t make shots, he can’t play. They can come up with a gameplan but [Dallas] just executed better than we did.”

“I think we just came out and didn’t have enough,” Paul added. “I think Mont’ said that’s on him but I think that’s on me as the point guard, the leader of the team, to come out and make sure we getting the right shots and all that. But that is what it is.”

Dallas’ tremendous defensive effort from Game 3 onward hit its climax on Sunday, completely stifling the Suns’ free-flowing and rhythmic-based offense. Phoenix’s clear nerves didn’t help.

Booker, a player who almost always scores within that offense, was pressing at the start of a game in a way he’s never rushed for baskets in an important game before. Paul continued to look like a shell of himself for the fifth straight game. Ayton’s problems with aggression and decisiveness persisted.

Dallas, meanwhile, was fearless and relentless in the ways we’ve come to expect from this Suns group. It was a tremendous effort overall to a deserving winner of the series.

Phoenix’s problems were immediately apparent only a few minutes into the game. The Mavericks were only able to capitalize on a season-low 17-point first quarter for Phoenix with a 10-point lead. Ayton, Booker and Paul all did not have a field goal in it.

There would be no sense of desperation or a fight shown despite a 12 minutes that clearly indicated the Suns’ season would be over if they didn’t snap back to reality.

Dallas’ advantage ballooned to 30 at halftime. Luka Doncic’s 27 of 35 overall points matched the Suns’ total as an entire team. Phoenix was booed off the floor.

No one was stepping up and no one was playing even remotely close to a tolerable level.

No signs of life out of halftime, either. The deficit grew as high as 46 and the Suns never even cut it down anywhere in the 20s or led in the game as a whole.

Booker was 3-of-14 for 11 points, three rebounds, two assists and four turnovers in 37 minutes. Nine of his points came in the third quarter when the game was already over. Dallas kept up with trapping him and Paul’s problems allowed the Mavericks to keep getting away with it, and Booker didn’t respond well to it anyway.

“They followed their gameplan,” Booker said. “They did a good job of getting the ball out of my hands and trapping every action I was in. I’ve always said I’m not the person that’s going to go out there and try to shoot over eight people. I’m going to try to make the right play and it wasn’t the right play every time.”

Paul scored seven of his 10 points in the fourth quarter and added four assists. He hasn’t looked right the majority of the series and ESPN’s Marc J. Spears reported postgame it has been a left quad injury bothering Paul.

Ayton only played 17 minutes. Williams pulled him early in the third quarter after the lack of energy continued from Ayton and Ayton didn’t respond well to coming out.

When Williams was asked about Ayton reaching that amount of minutes and not recording one in the fourth quarter, he said “that’s internal.”

Cam Johnson’s 12 points made him the highest scorer for Phoenix. Like I said, no one competed anywhere within range of what is expected of them.

Dallas’ Spencer Dinwiddie (30 points) and Jalen Brunson (24) were right alongside Doncic in looking as cozy and in rhythm as possible scoring off the dribble.

The NBA has a cutthroat aspect to it where things change a whole lot quicker than you think. Windows of contention will unexpectedly slam shut.

Given how Paul wore down in this series at the recently turned age of 37, it’s hard to imagine him reaching the Point God level deep into the postseason again. His future with the team should not be up for debate but his ability to play a role in carrying it could.

The Suns also have contract extension questions to answer while a looming luxury tax bill hovers over that entire process. Ayton is a restricted free agent. Johnson is eligible for an extension this summer like Bridges was the year prior. A supermax contract extension for Booker could come too.

For a team that made you feel certain of its abilities more than any other in franchise history, this Suns squad is now littered with uncertainty going forward.

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