Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker exchanging haymakers.
Monty Williams and Quin Snyder matching wits.
Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Ayton battling in the paint.
And in the closing seconds, with the fate of the most significant regular season game of the year still hanging in the balance, the oldest player on the floor coming up big.
It’s April, right around the time the pre-COVID NBA playoffs usually start, 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 NBA’s two best records, and after Phoenix squeezed out a 117-113 overtime win there wasn’t a person tuned into this nationally televised drama that doubted either was worthy of them.
“It was real intense,” said Booker.
Said Snyder, “These are the type of games you want to be in.”
This one had a little bit of everything. Want star power? How about Mitchell (41 points) and Booker (35), two 20-something All-Stars slugging it out like Ali and Frazier. It was Mitchell’s pull up three late in the fourth quarter that sent the game to overtime. It was Booker’s seven points in the extra period that powered Phoenix’s finish.
How about good big man play? Remember when burly 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 supersized seven-footers and Gobert is winding down his finest season.
Gobert is well credentialed, an All-Star with two Defensive Player of the Year trophies on his mantle. On Wednesday, he played like one, stuffing the stat sheet with 16 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks. So too did the 22-year old Ayton, who edged Gobert in scoring (18) while pulling down 12 rebounds—seven on the offensive glass. Early in the game, Chris Paul jumped on Ayton during a timeout (“Screamed at him,” says Williams) urging Ayton to be more aggressive for loose balls. Ayton responded by chipping in eight second-chance points.
“DA was a monster,” said Williams.
Said Paul, “DA was huge.”
And what about Paul? The soon-to-be 36-year old guard submitted a tidy 29-point, nine-assist, plus-17 stat line on Wednesday night. His two free throws in the closing seconds of overtime sealed the game. Phoenix was on its way to joining the ranks of NBA contenders last season, when an 8–0 run in the bubble nearly ended with a playoff berth. Paul has supercharged those ambitions. His offensive numbers are at or above levels seen in his prime. He remains a sturdy perimeter defender. And in tense moments in a tight game, there are few players more comfortable.
“Everywhere he goes, he helps a team,” said Williams. “Down the stretch, you might not find anybody any better than Chris Paul.”
He’s 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. After, he invited all three to his house. He offered advice. He shared stories. Six years later, says Booker, the two are having similar conversations. “We [talk] about competing, about playing at the highest level,” said Booker. “He has accomplished a big list of things.”
With more to come. There will be a temptation to tab a full-strength Lakers as conference favorites, which is understandable. There will be some that will rank the Clippers right behind them. But Phoenix and Utah showed signs on Wednesday that they are not just regular season threats. The Suns possess some serious backcourt firepower and a defensive anchor in the middle. “Everyone has got a job on this team,” said Ayton. “[Opponents] have to pick their poison.” Utah plays stingy defense, launches (and makes) a ton of threes and has a superstar in Mitchell who appears ready for that next big step.
They will have to prove it, of course. In May, when Booker could be staring down Kawhi Leonard. In June, when Mitchell could come sneaker to sneaker with LeBron James. In the meantime, confidence on both sides grows. “We don’t get down when adversity hits,” said Ayton. “That’s when we play our best.” Said Mike Conley, “”We have to continue to move on, to continue to learn.”
And continue to win. Phoenix got the best of Utah on Wednesday night. They will meet again at the end of the month. And, with any luck, in the playoffs.