MILWAUKEE — The closest Chris Paul has ever got to the coveted championship that’s eluded him throughout his 16-year career ended up leaving him feeling still so far away from that initial title. The Milwaukee Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday, as the Suns became just the fifth team in Finals history to lose after starting the series up 2-0.
“It will take a while to process this or whatnot, but it’s same mentality,” Paul said after the Bucks’ 105-98 series clincher. “Get back to work. I ain’t retiring, if that’s what you’re asking. That’s out. So, back to work.”
The 36-year-old Paul finished with 26 points on 11-for-19 shooting and five assists in the championship finale, keeping the Suns in striking distance of Milwaukee — they trailed by just four points with 1:14 remaining — but it wasn’t enough to force a Game 7 back in Phoenix.
“Right now, you’re just trying to figure out what you could have done more,” Paul said. “It’s tough. Great group of guys, hell of a season, but this one is going to hurt for a while.”
Paul has a player option worth $44.2 million for next season, and while plenty of contenders around the league could use a point guard of his ilk to make a push next season — hello, Los Angeles Lakers — he didn’t sound like someone looking to leave a team stocked with young talent like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton that took him two wins from the promised land that quickly.
“Everybody in that locker room knows we had enough, but it wasn’t enough,” Paul said. “So, we got to figure it out. I think for me, I just look at myself and figure out how can I get better, what I could have done more and make sure I come back next season ready to do it again.”
With the loss, Paul became the first player in league history to lose four playoff series in which his team held a 2-0 lead. But his coach, Monty Williams, pushed back against any criticism directed at his point guard after their shared Finals disappointment.
“It’s laughable when you talk about guys like Chris who have had these unreal careers and yet they get penalized because they haven’t won a title,” Williams said. “That was my goal, was to win it for him and Book; those guys have carried us all year long. And Chris, this is my second time coaching him; I know what he puts into his craft, I know the dedication. And so when I hear those sentiments about his career because he hasn’t won a championship, it’s just silly. It’s hard enough to make it to the NBA, let alone be an all-time great, which is what he is.”
Booker, who dropped two 40-point games in the series but struggled in Game 6 with 19 points on 8-for-22 shooting and six turnovers — including going 2-for-7 in the fourth quarter, when the Bucks pulled away after it was tied 77-77 after three — said the Suns’ playoff run set a new standard for the franchise.
“Championship basketball and nothing less than that,” as Booker described it, after Phoenix made the postseason for the first time in 11 years. “So, going into next season on a Tuesday night playing against Cleveland, if we don’t have it, we will be quickly reminded about the details. And if you don’t want to give it your all right now, what can happen and this feeling right now that we’re feeling can happen.
“So, this isn’t something you want to feel. I haven’t felt a hurt like this in my life. So, that’s what I say when I know we have a base and a foundation, just championship basketball at all times.”
Williams fought back tears during his postgame remarks when asked what it was like in the moment to process the result of a Suns season that fell just short.
“I think it’s going to take me a minute,” Williams said, his voice getting caught in his throat. “I just don’t take it for granted. It’s hard to get here, and I wanted it so bad, you know. It’s hard to process right now. It’s hard. That’s all.”
Summing up the alchemy of the Suns group, however, it wasn’t all sorrow for the team that ousted the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, swept league MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets, eliminated the LA Clippers and gave the Bucks all they could handle with a title on the line.
“Even though we lost,” Ayton said as he bounded out of the interview room, “it was still fun.”