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“Who got fired… …for trading me away for Marquese Chriss?” Thank you, CP3! Do you have any idea how unbearable Knicks fans would be, right this minute? Chris Paul sunk seven points in the space of the final 85 seconds at Madison Square Garden on April 26. He assisted on a Mikal Bridges jam for the Phoenix Suns’ score before that binge, all of it needed to fend off the hard-charging Knicks one night after Paul’s Suns set across town against the Nets. Aside from that one blemish for Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks, they would currently be riding a 13-game winning streak, a run nearly thwarted early if not for an untimely Trae Young injury, and Macy’s would be out there doing the New Year’s Day parade all over again. Spike has conveniently kissed and made up to Hideous Lord Jimmy Dolan, finding his way back to a seat on MSG’s Gucci Row with a slew of front-running celebs. There’s blue-and-orange ticker-tape everywhere around Manhattan, as dreams abound of a Subway Series for the Eastern Conference Finals. Ewww. This is a good, and rare, time to praise the well-heeled individuals who have been, objectively, the worst owners in The Association, going on decades now. Glen Taylor, for one, is slowly stepping aside in Minnesota. Although Sactown’s back in the lottery once more, Vivek Ranadive is no longer acting as if he’s running his girls’ AAU team. And like Dolan, when was the last time anyone had a thought about Robert Sarver? “In my view, people are the most important,” Sarver shared with CNBC last week, as his Suns (47-18) continue on quite a roll of their own, now surging to a tie with Utah for the top honors in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference, and thus the NBA. For too long with those under his employ, “people” meant, “Soylent Green.” But he’s gained a new lease on life as an owner. “In this business, from a basketball standpoint, it’s people that can identify talent, develop talent, and people that can coach talent.” It was just a few years ago when Sarver thought it clever to sneak live goats into his neophyte GM Ryan McDonough’s office – intended to inspire a search for a GOAT on par with his WNBA Mercury’s Diana Taurasi – only to discover the goats’ greatest talents involve shedding hair, chewing furniture, and defecating profusely. These Suns aren’t baaaaaad anymore, and it’s a testament to their longtime interventionist owner, who is learning to simply let talented people link together under his umbrella, and then get out of the way. The stench of the goats and the Suns’ owner-tinkered operations are long gone. In its place, NBA retiree James Jones has been granted the room to make critical decisions, from hiring coach Monty Williams, to aiding (before McDonough’s ouster) in the decisions to Max-Ex star Devin Booker and to acquire Bridges, Cam Johnson and #1 pick Deandre Ayton via the Draft, to enticing point god Paul to join a so-far unaccomplished club in free agency. Pretty much everything has worked out, and with the latest Sun-burst confirming their emergence pre-CP3 in the 2020 Bubble was no fluke, Jones and Williams are among the reasons Travis Schlenk and Nate McMillan will be Honorable Mentions, respectively, at NBA Awards time. Phoenix distinguishes itself in the standings as the only NBA club yet to endure double-digit road losses (NBA-best 22-9, after outlasting Cleveland in overtime last night). Even if they join the other 29 teams today (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Arizona), who are the only other clubs at just 7 games above-.500 in away games? Denver, Dallas, and Portland, the weary latter of whom succumbed to a barrage of three-pointers at State Farm Arena on Monday night. Slithering their way to the top of the NBA, Monty’s pythons are no laughing matter. Even so, something is amissssssssss. Possessing a very young core despite the presences of Jae Crowder, league late-comer Torrey Craig and Paul, the Suns lack the steamroller instinct versus lesser competition seen among traditional title contenders. Despite the fewest losses in the NBA, early-season losses for the Suns included games at Sacramento, Detroit, and at a still-clueless and Westbrook-less Washington. After the All-Star break, there were home losses to Indiana and Minnesota, then a schedule loss on the road in Orlando, the farewell game for several Magic players before getting traded away the following afternoon. Phoenix hasn’t rattled off a double-digit winning streak all season, currently winners of six in a row. On Sunday, they nearly lost their second game of the season to OKC, a Thunder club that was just blown out 152-95 by visitors from Indiana the evening before. With the Suns up by as much as 18 midway through the final quarter, and 12 with two minutes to spare, a sudden lack of rim protection and turnovers, plus a technical foul by Booker, required free throws from Bridges to close out a seemingly unnecessary high-wire act. The daredevil stunt was a near-repeat of a close-shave win in Houston a month ago. Last night in Ohio, the Suns let Collin Sexton and rookie Isaac Okoro go off in the second half, the Cavs erasing a 12-point deficit in the third quarter, then closing a seven-point gap in the final six minutes to force an overtime period. With six points and a game-tying assist, Sexton feasted in the final 70 seconds on buckets all within feet of Phoenix’s rim. The Sun saviors in these recent comebacks have not been Paul and Booker, and certainly not Ayton, but Bridges (17 points, 2 blocks, 2 steals in 4th-plus-OT @ CLE) and Johnson, perhaps a risky approach, by Williams, to test the younger guns’ mettle as the playoffs approach. The sum of the Suns’ past three wins has been a galling minus-23.3 Net Rating in fourth quarters (2nd-worst in NBA), a recession that encourages teams to endure Phoenix’s game-planned early efficiencies and hang around long enough to take part in a threatening comeback. It’s reminiscent of when Suns draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic and his Hawks made their pandemic-delayed visit to Phoenix on March 30, a couple nights after getting drubbed in Denver. Riding red-hot shooting from Dario Saric (20 points vs. ATL), Phoenix blazed to a 16-point first-half lead, but they plateaued over the next two quarters before Bogi’s hot hand (team-highs of 22 points and 4 steals, 4-for-8 3FGs, 6 assists, 1 TO) had the Suns feeling as though they were running uphill with the lead. Responding to a spectacular dunk by Bridges, a Bogdanovic triple narrowed the score to 109-108 with under 70 seconds to go. An Ayton putback of a Booker miss, and a CP3 dish to Crowder (5-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Mar. 30) in the corner finally put the game on ice, keeping Atlanta from disrupting what would become Phoenix’s season-best seven-game winning streak. “We closed the game out,” Paul told postgame media. “But we shouldn’t have been in that situation.” Despite their recent uptick in success, they have found themselves in several similar situations since. The already-hobbled Hawks may have been able to squeak that one out, had John Collins not tweaked his ankle in the second quarter. Atlanta dropped below .500 with that loss for what would be the final time this season. Tonight, with yet another road-weary team in town, a recuperating Hawks club (36-30) could secure a winning season for the first time in Collins’ four-year career. They may not wish to hold off and try achieving that above-.500 status in McMillan’s former NBA town tomorrow, as a seventh-straight home win, this one over the momentary NBA leaders in the standings, would be an impressive feat. Phoenix is thrilled to be reaching the postseason for the first time since then-coach Alvin Gentry took the Suns to the Western Finals in 2010, and the prospect of making a Utah team that’s 28-4 at home the road team in this year’s conference finals, with a chance of giving Paul the breakthrough to the NBA Finals he has long craved, sounds mighty tempting. But they’re going to want to avoid am early-round letdown similar to McMillan’s ’94 Sonics, who found themselves mounted by a Mutombo. To that end, Phoenix is going to need their former local high school and college star, Ayton, to string together some not-pedestrian performances. For Ayton (14-and-14 vs. ATL in March), who did his best to keep up with Clint Capela (16-and-15 @ PHX) when the Hawks and Suns last met, a 15 point, 8 rebound showing versus the Cavs was a slight departure from his previous four games (7.5 PPG and 10.0 RPG, 2.0 FTAs/game, 46.2 FG%). Still, aside from a blocked shot, Deandre was persona non grata in the fourth frame as Cleveland made their advance. Two more overtime rejections brought his block tally to a season-tying high of 5 by night’s end. But for the former first-overall pick, it should not have come to that, nor Johnson’s reverse-yam in OT over Jarrett Allen, to put the Cavs to bed. At the Omni hotel this morning, Williams will be grateful not having to awaken to tornado sirens. But he will have to make tough decisions on who can log heavy minutes against a Hawks team bearing a rest advantage. Look for more minutes for ex-Hawk Cameron Payne and Jevon Carter in the backcourt, and for Saric and Frank Kaminsky upfront. Craig continues to start in place of Crowder, who remains out with a sprained ankle. Phoenix (NBA-best +2.3 bench plus/minus) hopes to sustain any early leads they can seize for as long as possible without relying on star turns by Booker (8-for-19 FGs vs. ATL in March; 25.1 PPG but 25.3 3FG% since April 5), Bridges and Paul (active leader in career steal percentage at 3.21%, as per bball-ref; a fellow Carolinian, McMillan’s 3.75% ranks 3rd all-time). The Hawks’ reserves (NBA-worst minus-8.6 bench plus/minus and 38.2 bench FG% in last 4 games) could use a boost from sixth-man specialist Lou Williams (19.2 FG%, 5.3 PPG in last 4 games), held under 15 minutes of action in his past two games, Kris Dunn and Tony Snell, to at least hold serve in this area. With Bogdanovic (NBA career-best 15.5 PPG and 42.0 3FG%; 7-for-14 3FGs vs. POR; listed as available despite a still-sore hammy) having averaged over 36.2 MPG as a starter during his past four back-to-back series, Coach Nate would love to spread his sharp-shooting guard’s floor time out at a lower scale today and tomorrow. Among Atlanta’s starters, a stronger interior presence from Collins (just 9-for-14 2FGs over past 3 games) would be a welcome sight. But he has the outside jumper that Ayton comparatively lacks. Showing newfound confidence as a shooter since his return from injury (multiple threes in four consecutive games, longest since last February’s late-season scoring tear) while sharing the floor with multiple Atlanta snipers, balancing Collins’ offense with more paint finishes will have defenses unsure of whether he’s going or coming. After citing his boss’ maturation and the Suns’ recent retooling as an “inflection point,” one of Sarver’s few hangers-on, CEO Jason Rowley, via CNBC, presses longtime skeptics to “look at the people we have on the team, you look at the culture that’s been built here – when I look at the success we’re having now, I feel like we’re just scratching the surface. We have the opportunity to have something sustainable.” This may hold true. But then you take a gander at the cap sheet. ESPN’s Zach Lowe foretells of the looming “money crunch” for Sarver, as Paul’s $44 million player option for 2021-22 either kicks in or gets torn up in favor of a lucrative negotiation. Ayton may not be worthy of an extension nearing the values coming for, say, Young or Luka Doncic, but the first-overall pick’s agents will be as demanding as Zona boosters in pursuing that kind of deal. Crowder and Saric are under contract through 2023. Their deals are reasonable, but they’ll likely hold more value as expirings than as contributing players by then. That Grant Hill is one classy fella. “He never dressed me down. Was always good to me,” he said of his former boss, Sarver, refuting a 2019 ESPN report (same one, by Kevin Arnovitz, featuring the goats) that the Suns’ owner barged into a halftime locker room and demanded better on-ball defense by Hill against another withering former superstar, the Mavs’ Vince Carter. Hill took great pains to explain Sarver’s intentions were to have switch Hill off of Dirk Nowitzki. It would take a monumental effort to get Grant to baaaaaad-mouth anyone, even Sarver. But it’s no longer lost on the owner that intruding in player affairs, as he once did, does his team and his franchise no favors. Sarver thanks his lucky stars that Jones accepted his entreaties instead of latching onto any of his GOAT-pal LeBron’s endeavors. Because there’s at least one reason Hill, and former Sun Carter, didn’t choose to spend their NBA retirement years in the warm climes of Arizona. They’ve elected to invest their time and energy in Georgia with the Resslers, who aim to prove that this state is a better place to do business, and basketball. I do hope Mr. Paul is taking notes. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3