Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker trade hay.
Monty Williams and Quin Snyder combine wit.
Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Ayton fighting in the painting.
And in the final seconds, with the fate of the biggest regular-season game of the year still at stake, the oldest player on the court is the big one.
It’s April, just as the pre-COVID NBA playoffs begin, so it was fitting that there was a postseason-like atmosphere in Phoenix on Wednesday night. The Jazz and Suns entered the game with the two best records in the NBA, and after Phoenix scored a 117-113 overtime victory, there was not a person tuned in to this nationally televised drama who doubted that either of the two were worthy of them.
“It was very intense,” Booker said.
Said Snyder, “This is the kind of game you want to be in.”
This one had a bit of everything. Do you want star power? How about Mitchell (41 points) and Booker (35), two All-Stars in their twenties fighting like Ali and Frazier? It was Mitchell’s pull up late in the fourth quarter that sent the game into overtime. It was Booker’s seven points in the extra period that drove Phoenix to the finish.
How about a good great man? Remember when big men were considered a dying breed? When guys like DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela were the future? Today, two of the top MVP candidates (Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid) are eight foot players and Gobert is finishing his best season.
Gobert is well-credited, an All-Star with two Defensive Player of the Year trophies on his mantle. On Wednesday he played as one, filling the stat sheet with 16 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks. So did Ayton, 22, who outscored Gobert (18) while throwing 12 rebounds, seven on the offensive glass. Early in the game, Chris Paul jumped on Ayton during a timeout (“I yelled at him,” says Williams) urging Ayton to be more aggressive on fumbles. Ayton responded by chipping in eight second-chance points.
“DA was a monster,” Williams said.
Paul said, “DA was huge.”
And Paul? The soon-to-be 36-year-old guard posted a neat stat line of 29 points, nine assists and 17 more on Wednesday night. His two free throws in the last seconds of extra time sealed the game. Phoenix was on its way to join the ranks of NBA contenders last season, when an 8-0 streak in the bubble nearly ended with a playoff berth. Paul has supercharged those ambitions. His offensive numbers are at or above levels seen at their best. He remains a staunch defender of the perimeter. And in tense moments in a close game, few players are more comfortable.
“Wherever he goes, he helps a team,” Williams said. “Down the stretch, you may not find anyone better than Chris Paul.”
It has helped Booker. On Wednesday, Booker recalled his first meeting with Paul, in California, where a group of teenagers – Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell – were training before the draft. Paul came and worked out with them. Afterward, he invited all three to his home. He offered advice. He shared stories. Six years later, Booker says, the two have similar conversations. “We [talk] about competing, about playing at the highest level, ”Booker said. “He has come up with a great list of things.”
With more to come. There will be the temptation to brand a Lakers in full force as conference favorites, which is understandable. There will be some who will rank the Clippers right behind them. But Phoenix and Utah showed signs Wednesday that they aren’t just regular-season threats. The Suns have great firepower in the backcourt and a defensive anchor in the middle. “Everyone has a job on this team,” Ayton said. “[Opponents] They have to pick their poison. ”Utah plays tight defense, throws (and makes) a ton of 3s and has a superstar in Mitchell who looks ready for the next big thing.
They will have to prove it, of course. In May, when Booker might be staring at Kawhi Leonard. In June, when Mitchell could go from sneaker to sneaker with LeBron James. Meanwhile, the trust of both parties grows. “We don’t get depressed when adversity hits,” Ayton said. “That’s when we play the best we can.” Mike Conley said, “We have to keep moving forward to keep learning.”
And keep winning. Phoenix got the best of Utah on Wednesday night. They will meet again at the end of the month. And hopefully in the playoffs.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.