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Paul, Booker have the Suns rising as NBA title contenders

In a surprising twist of fate, the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz have elevated past preseason expectations and established themselves as serious contenders to win this year’s NBA title. 

Their overtime thriller on Wednesday, April 7 (Thursday, April 8, Manila time) in the Valley of the Sun provided a strong argument to support this case. In a battle between Western Conference heavyweights, both proud squads traded blows down to the final seconds of the matchup until a victor was ultimately decided – the team protecting home court.

Unrelenting and fierce, the Suns and Jazz took turns going on runs to set up a final 12 minutes that displayed exactly why both will have a say in determining who represents the West once it’s time for the NBA Finals. 

One team leans on top-tier offense and defense, heralded by an elite shot-maker who’s climbing the ranks of contemporary superstars, plus a defensive stalwart who’s nearly flawless in his specialty except for one crucial flaw. 

The other team plays basketball the right way and with conviction – a collection of self-assured stalwarts who lean on the brilliance of their established future Hall of Famer and their own superstar on the rise. 

Eventually, it was up to Chris Paul and Devin Booker to decide the victor of the potential conference championship preview. Donovan Mitchell did his best to rewrite the final chapter, but the question of, “Who else can Utah rely on to provide scoring when it matters most?” reared its ugly head on national television both in the United States and Philippines.

Had Mitchell been anchored by that co-pilot – ideally it would be one of Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, or Jordan Clarkson – then the team with the current best record in the NBA would have likely come out victorious. Instead, Paul and Booker took turns showing off world-class shot-making in pressure-packed situations, resulting in what will now be a tighter race for home court throughout the postseason.

The victory moved Phoenix to 36-14, just a game and a half behind the 38-13 Jazz with a little over 20 games remaining for both teams in the regular season. They are now 2-0 against Utah – securing the tiebreaker – with one more scheduled matchup in Phoenix on May 1. Monty Williams’ team has won 7 straight games, 10 of their last 11, and 28 of their last 34. 

The hottest group in the NBA, without question and quite interestingly, is the team who are called the “Suns.” 

How’s that for a bright surprise?

Paul and Booker might be the leading actors, but the performance of GM James Jones and Williams, the head coach, in building a culture for this team should not go unnoticed. 

DeAndre Ayton has work to do – including complaining less to the referees – before becoming a premier big man in the NBA, but his ability to fill the stat sheet undoubtedly brings its benefits. The former No. 1 overall pick finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds (7 offensive), 3 blocks, and 2 steals. Without him, the Suns don’t beat the Jazz. 

Jae Crowder shot just 2-of-9 from the field but one of his deep balls put Phoenix up by 4 with minutes to go in regulation. He also hauled down 12 boards. It’s no coincidence that any team he’s been part of has made the playoffs.

Cam Johnson hit his own clutch three-pointer to create separation in OT. He’s been doing it all season.

In their recent streak, Phoenix has received contributions from one of the deepest rosters in the NBA – if not the deepest – with the likes of Mikal Bridges, Cam Payne, Torrey Craig, and Dario Saric stepping up when needed to. 

As a team, the Suns are great on defense. They rank 5th in defensive rating (108.4) and 9th in defensive FG% (45.6%). Utah’s 40 points in the first half on Thursday was the Jazz’s lowest output in the first two quarters of a matchup this season since December 31 last year. Who did they face in that contest? Phoenix. 

The Suns also out-rebounded their opponents this time, 61-45.

But make no mistake about it: In the long run, Phoenix will go where Paul and Booker take them. 

It’s almost laughable to think that just two years ago, following an injury-riddled and turbulent season with James Harden in Houston, Paul was somewhat considered “untradeable” because of his contract. It’s now clear that Paul is worth every penny he is paid and has the unique ability to turn the fortunes of an entire franchise around within a few months.

Just two seasons ago, Phoenix won 19 games and owned one of the worst records in the NBA. Despite Booker’s individual brilliance, the Suns were a franchise with no clear direction. The arrival of Jones and Williams set the table for a potential fix, but it wasn’t until Paul was dealt to the fourth team of his career that they began to turn things around.

And not to mention, the growth in Booker’s game.

“Ever since we traded for him,” Booker told Rappler about CP3, “we’ve just been talking about competing and just playing at the highest level. Just being around him every day, learning from him, learning through conversations, learning through stories that he’s told – he’s accomplished a [long] list of things in this league that all of us on this team, us young players, are trying to reach.”

“There’s nothing Book can’t do,” Paul told Rappler about his running mate. “He can go right. He can go left. He can create for others. He defends. He’s a two-way player. It’s been a lot of fun. I didn’t know what to expect when I came [to Phoenix] but I knew the mentality of Book. 

“This is fun. I’m excited about the things to come.”

With the way Paul, Booker, and the rest of their squad have been playing, Paul isn’t the only one who’s excited for what’s to come. 

The race for NBA supremacy is getting hotter by the day. 

The rising Sun(s) is a huge reason why. –