LOS ANGELES — The Phoenix Suns were one of the NBA's most consistent winners during the decades on either side of the turn of the century. They made 19 playoff appearances in 22 seasons with some of the most entertaining teams and major personalities in recent basketball history.
A parching decade of postseason drought in the Valley of the Sun drained much of the fun out of this franchise — until this season, when Chris Paul arrived to guide Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and a lively supporting cast to the playoffs.
And now that Phoenix has knocked off the injury-plagued defending champions in its first playoff series victory since 2010, there's no telling how far these Suns can go.
"These guys over here are battle-tested," Booker said after scoring 47 points in the Suns' clinching victory over the Lakers on Thursday night. "We're not going to celebrate our first series like we won a championship. We know we have a tough opponent in Denver coming up soon."
Indeed, the Suns will welcome Denver to Phoenix on Monday night to begin the second round, but they'll start a new series with the knowledge they sent LeBron James to a first-round playoff series loss for the first time in his 18 NBA seasons.
The second-seeded Suns won three straight over the Lakers, whose injury problems didn't completely account for the Suns' excellent play in the final 2 1/2 games. Anthony Davis barely contributed for LA during that stretch, but Booker and Paul put on a show that would have been trouble for any opponent.
The Lakers had the NBA's best defense in the regular season, but Booker dropped 30 points in Game 5 before erupting for 22 in the first quarter of Game 6. He barely slowed his pace thereafter, hitting eight 3-pointers in an all-around floor game that finished off LA.
These Suns aren't the run-and-gun showmen of the Steve Nash/Amar'e Stoudemire era, but they've got a solid supporting cast around Booker, Ayton and Paul. They were too much for the Lakers, who are fairly deep themselves.
Coach Monty Williams was already thinking extensively about the Nuggets in the moments after the clinching victory in the coach's first career playoff series triumph. But when prompted, Williams acknowledged a level of accomplishment, even if it's fleeting for the coaches.
"You do feel a level of excitement, because winning in the NBA is really hard as it relates to one game, but to win a series, you have to enjoy that," Williams said. "We've moved the program to a place where we want to be, but at the same time, my mind is already moved towards the next thing we have to do, and that's preparing for Denver, right? That's just my mindset."
The Suns also know this journey is going well partly because they're healthy. Phoenix didn't make the 2020 postseason despite going 8-0 in the bubble, leaving the returning players with a decent offseason of rest while the club added Paul, the veteran playmaker whose all-around skills have transformed several franchises.
While the four conference finalists from the bubble have all battled major injury problems undoubtedly rooted in the short offseason, all of the Suns' most important contributors are healthy with the exception of Paul, who has a bruised right shoulder that appears to bother him more in some games than others. While the injury has largely eroded his 3-point shooting ability, Paul can still hit mid-range jumpers while orchestrating the Suns' offense.
The Nuggets were one of those four finalists, and they're without second-leading scorer Jamal Murray. When Ayton lines up against Nikola Jokic next week, he'll know he has a rising team behind him with a strong chance to advance to the Suns' first conference finals since 2010.
"I'm grateful for what our players do every single day," Williams said. "I'm grateful for these opportunities. I hope our fans appreciate what's happening, because it is a blessing to be on this journey with this team."