MILWAUKEE – While listening to the question, Chris Paul grimaced and shook his head dismissively.
The Phoenix Suns had just lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, which leaves the Suns facing a 3-2 deficit and Paul one loss away from falling short of an NBA title for yet another time in his 16-year NBA career. So when Suns guard Devin Booker was asked if he feels frustrated for Paul, Paul showed the same contempt as he does for an official’s missed call. Booker then had a stoic expression that suggested the same level of annoyance.
“Next question, please,” Booker said.
Two days later, Paul and Booker switched roles between defending each other. This time, Paul talked about Booker’s recently dominant play in Games 4 (42 points) and 5 (40 points) captured challenges with how the Suns should balance between tapping into Booker’s offensive brilliance and the team’s ball movement. The Bucks have also conceded they are willing to live with Booker’s dominance so long as his teammates do not also excel.
“I ain’t going to lie to you. I don’t know their strategy,” Paul said. “I’m not in their locker room. I don’t know what they got going on over there. All we can control is what we do. So, we’re going to continue to play our game. Book is one of the best to ever do this. So we’re going to figure it out.”
After saying those words from the podium following practice on Monday, Paul looked out toward Booker. He stood in the back of the press conference room holding and staring at a basketball. While Paul defended Booker, he shook his head as if to convey appreciation.
This whole exchange captured a series of contradictory challenges that incidentally are tied together.
When are the moments that Booker should score in isolation? When are the moments that the Suns should run a motion-based offense?
“Just trying to get the best available shot down,” Booker said. “I’m going to keep saying that. That’s what our offense tries to do. Whether it’s an open shot for somebody else or a mismatch we feel Deandre has with a smaller opponent or if it’s somebody that I feel couldn’t guard me that possession or whatever it is, it’s just trying to get the best available shot for our team in that possession.”
When are the moments that Paul should draw from his extensive playoff career that has ended in heartbreak due to either injuries or late-game shortcomings? When are the moments Paul should not even think about that?
“This is my first time in the Finals. So it ain’t like, ‘Oh, we need to do this or we need to do that,” Paul said. “They’re always talking about staying in it and staying with the group. I think for us, all of this is part of it, and we get it. It’s the practices, it’s the time in the hotel together and just making sure that at the end of the day we play basketball.”
So even if they lost three consecutive games for only the second time this season, the Suns reported feeling more encouraged than discouraged afterwards in the locker room. Phoenix coach Monty Williams eased the tension by asking, “If you went to the beginning of the season and said we had a chance to be where we are right now, would you take?” Paul responded, “Absolutely.”
After all, the Suns entered the season expected to make the first round of the playoffs at best. Instead they unseated the NBA’s defending champion (Los Angeles Lakers), a team with the regular-season MVP (Denver Nuggets) and another championship contender (LA Clippers). So, Paul has written on his shoes, “Can’t give up now.”
“We get a chance to determine the outcome,” Paul said. “It’s not like the game is going to be simulated or somebody else got to play. We get a chance.”
Still, the Suns may not necessarily want these circumstances. They coughed up a 2-0 series partly because of Paul’s play.
In the Suns’ Game 4 loss to the Bucks, Paul had only 10 points and nearly as many turnovers (five) as assists (seven). He committed one of those turnovers while the Suns trailed 101-99 with 34.8 seconds remaining, which led to a Bucks’ fast-break layup. Paul recovered in Game 5 with 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting and 11 assists, but he still appeared challenged. Bucks guard Jrue Holiday often picked Paul up at halfcourt. Paul tried defending Holiday as well, but appeared overmatched.
Paul stressed that he feels “fine” with his health after nursing ailments this postseason with his right shoulder and ligaments in his right hand. But what about his play?
“It ain’t necessarily how many points, assists or whatnot,” Paul said. “Obviously, turnovers is something I try to keep down. But just try to be aggressive.”
For better and for worse, Booker has tried to do the same thing
“We have had a good balance of the kind of play that Devin brings, but we have also had the ball movement that can break you down,” Williams said. “I do not want to get in the way of the gift that our one-on-one players have, because that’s why we are here. We wouldn’t be in this position if Chris and Devin couldn’t create their own shots. That’s a fact. We also have to have that balance of them doing that but then creating it for other people. The way you do that, in my opinion, is you get stops.”
And by getting stops, the Suns believe they can generate an offense that does not just hinge on Booker’s scoring. They can score in transition. They can mirror their 3-point shooting they showed in Game 1 (11-of-34), Game 2 (20-of-40) and Game 3 (9-of-31) before decreasing in Game 4 (7-of-23) and Game 5 (13-of-19). So even if Booker conceded confidence in duplicating 40-point performances, he realized that was not enough for the bottom-line result.
“That’s a tough question because we didn’t win those games, and that’s the only objective there is out there,” Booker said. “So it’s back to just going to have to do more. Whether that’s a stop, make a play for somebody else, take a charge, get a 50/50 ball, stop an offensive rebound. We know the steps. We know the possessions that have hurt us throughout this playoffs. We understand the details. It’s well communicated throughout our team.”
It’s also well communicated that Booker and Paul respect each other and trust each other in the most important game of the season. Hence, why Paul and Booker scoffed at a question about Paul’s playoff shortcomings.
“It was kind of like a common-sense thing,” Paul said. “This is like a team sport. Like, this isn’t tennis, this isn’t golf. I think we all want to win. So I think it was sort of self-explanatory.”