The Phoenix Suns are heading back to the NBA Finals in a fashion that no team has ever done before.
By closing out the Clippers in a dominant Game 6 victory on Wednesday night, the Suns became the first team to reach the NBA Finals on the heels of a 10-year playoff drought. The stretch itself marked the fifth-longest playoff absence in league history.
“We’ve seen the bottom for multiple years,” star guard Devin Booker said in the celebratory aftermath of Wednesday’s win. “I’ve been through a lot of bulls—, honestly, I’ve put my head down and I’ve worked.”
Booker, taken with the 13th pick in the 2015 draft, suffered through five woeful seasons in his first half-decade in the league, winning just 30% of his games and having six different head coaches. The franchise failed to surround Booker with a nucleus of young talent, whiffing on a number of high draft picks — Dragan Bender No. 4 overall in 2016, Marquese Chriss No. 8 in 2016 and Josh Jackson No. 4 in 2017.
It originally looked like the Suns made another questionable selection by taking Deandre Ayton over Luka Doncic and Trae Young in 2018. But Ayton has exploded in these playoffs, averaging 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.
The Suns finished last in the Western Conference in three consecutive seasons from 2016 to 2018, spurring speculation as to whether Booker would wind up as a trade chip rather than a franchise cornerstone.
Late last season, though, Phoenix’s fortunes began to shift. The Suns entered the NBA’s Orlando bubble with a 26-39 record, the second-worst mark amongst the 22 teams participating in the restart. Yet they caught fire in the bubble, going 8-0 and providing the franchise with a sorely needed wave of optimism entering a pivotal offseason.
Rather than trading Booker, the Suns paired their budding superstar with a bona fide one, landing 11-time All-Star Chris Paul in a trade with the Thunder. Paul proved to be the missing link as Phoenix, building off its bubble momentum, captured the No. 2 seed in the West with a 51-21 record.
“I was on a don’t-lose mission,” Paul said Wednesday. “Just a lot of emotion. A lot of (things) going on.”
Now the Suns, improbably, are just four wins away from the franchise’s first NBA championship.
“We still have work to do,” Booker said. “This is nice and all, but we’re going for the Larry (O’Brien Trophy), for sure.”