PHOENIX — The moment captured the affection the Phoenix Suns stars have for each other. It also showcased their willingness to call each other out.
As he sat in the press conference room following the Suns’ 118-105 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, veteran guard Chris Paul listened intently to what third-year center Deandre Ayton had to say. One of the most intriguing comments centered on how Paul, Ayton and sixth-year guard Devin Booker have learned how to coexist.
“We all got on each other and had candid conversations where we had to adjust,” Ayton said. “But candid conversations lead to wins, and it started to be great communication and constructive criticism and we just all take it into a positive and play together.”
So when Paul took the stage, he made sure not just to focus on his 32-point performance on 12-of-19 shooting along with nine assists. He also centered on Ayton’s double-double in points (22) and rebounds (19).
“He has the biggest heart, and is one of the best guys you’ll ever meet,” Paul said. “So the success and the recognition that he’s getting right now is well deserved, and I couldn’t be happier for another guy on our team.”
Paul then stared directly at Booker and said candidly, “Not even you, Book.” The two laughed before Booker threw his own dig. Before the 36-year-old Paul walked down the stage, Booker jokingly asked if he needed a helping hand. Paul insisted no before musing about Ayton, “We’ve been on his ass.”
Yes they have. After Paul has given Ayton some constructive criticism, Booker has often asked, “You done, Chris? Now let me go tell him something.” But their dynamic has not been about simply accelerating Ayton’s development in his third season after the Suns selected him No. 1 in the 2018 draft. It has centered on the three figuring out together how to bring the best out in each other.
“Earlier in the year, there were some gray areas as to how to help those guys play together,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Those three deserve a lot of credit for the time that they spent after practice talking about certain environments. I’d love to tell you that I’ve orchestrated it all. But we’ve given them a system, and then those guys talk about the angles of the screens and different ways to run plays that we have so we can be effective.”
The Suns displayed how Paul, Booker and Ayton could be effective perfectly in Game 1.
After scoring a postseason career-high 41 points in a decisive Game 6 win over the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference finals, Paul maintained the same aggressiveness in Game 1 against Milwaukee. But while Paul missed his first two shots, Booker scored 12 first-quarter points. Then Paul returned the favor with 17 third-quarter points. In between and after, Ayton made easy baskets off lobs and fueled the Suns’ transition offense with timely rebounds.
“Sometimes people take it as arguing or whatnot, but I think it was all constructive,” Paul said of their talks. “Talking about pace, they have been on me about getting the ball up the court faster. Talking to DA about the angles of the screens, and you see as the season goes on how much that stuff is important. Hitting the bottom, getting out, making yourself open. I could show you play after play where it helped tonight.”
The Suns can show the general public many instances of how their trio has worked well together.
Booker grew up idolizing Paul in the early stages of his 16-year career. But after the Suns acquired Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder before the season, Booker showed he would not feel intimidated by him. When the two practiced against each other, Booker became intent on posting him up and talking trash. But that tension only captured their competitiveness. It never became territorial. Booker became willing to defer to Paul on ball-handling and leadership duties. After all, Booker called Paul “the greatest leader to play this game.”
“There’s zero ego involved. I think that’s the most important part,” Booker said. “We both want to see each other succeed. We both want the team to succeed, we all want the team to succeed. So when you’re all on the same page, that way the relationships tend to happen.”
The relationship with Ayton played out the same way. He took Paul’s sharp words without complaint and embraced his tactical advice on post positioning and how to handle pressure-packed moments. Therefore, it does not seem surprising that the 22-year-old Ayton already has adopted veteran moves to cope with pressure.
Before and during Game 1, Ayton said he took three deep breaths and closed his eyes to help make him feel that the arena was empty. But Ayton hasn’t just become a willing student. He has also returned the wisecracks.
When Paul stole one of Ayton’s rebounds late in the game, Ayton simply laughed. Then Booker made fun of Paul, too.
“I didn’t really care,” Booker said. “I was just happy how we all performed, to be honest.”
Paul sat in the back, smiling as he heard those words. Booker showed the same demeanor when he watched Paul offer similar platitudes. And soon enough, all three of them left the press conference room ready to dominate, strategize and poke fun at each other again.