Run it back: Suns push for NBA title with same nucleus

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PHOENIX (AP) — Chris Paul has found his basketball nirvana with the Phoenix Suns, playing with a bunch of gym rats who care deeply about winning games and bringing an NBA title to the desert.

The Suns were oh-so-close to accomplishing that goal last season.

Pretty much the entire roster is back to try to finish the job.

The 36-year-old Paul is entering his 17th NBA season, but after dishing 11 assists in a preseason win against the Lakers, he said the fire to get better is just as intense as it has ever been.

“I only play one way,” Paul said. “I don't care if it's preseason, don't care if it's pickup, don't care if it's practice. I play to win. People will be like ‘You’re tripping' and I'm like ‘whatever.’ The only way you get better is to treat each game the same way.”

Paul — who is back for a second season in Phoenix after signing a four-year deal that could be worth up to $120 million — has found a bunch of like-minded teammates in Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson.

The group made a surprise run to the NBA Finals last season, winning the first two games in the championship round with a gritty, up-tempo style before dropping four straight to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Considering the Finals were less than three months ago, the hurt is still fresh.

It also provides motivation as they try to be even better this time around.

“You go through a summer, you get some time off and a week or so after the season, you just want to get back with the team,” Booker said.

The Suns did make a few changes to their roster. They added point guard Elfrid Payton, shooting guard Landry Shamet and center JaVale McGee, who should all provide valuable depth. They lost backup forward Torrey Craig in free agency. Backup forward Dario Saric will likely miss most of the season while he rehabilitates from an ACL tear.

But the core is similar. If the Suns are going to get back to the Finals, it's because Paul, Booker, Ayton and Co. lead the way. The summer break was short, but coach Monty Williams said his team is ready for another run.

“We’ve earned the right to have a short break,” Williams said. “We’ve got to embrace that.”

BUSY BOOKER

Booker had an even shorter summer break than his teammates, joining the US Olympic Team that brought home the gold medal immediately after the Suns lost Game 6 of the Finals.

Booker — who turns 25 in a few weeks — is now a two-time All-Star who has established himself as one of the NBA's best guards. He averaged 25.6 points per game last season.

He missed the beginning of training camp after testing positive for COVID-19, despite being vaccinated. The extra rest probably isn't a bad thing for Booker, even if he insists he's ready for another long season.

AYTON'S BIG YEAR

Ayton changed the trajectory of his career with multiple great performances in the playoffs.

It used to be that the 23-year-old was considered a bit of a bust as the No. 1 overall pick in 2018. Now he's earned the reputation as one of the NBA's elite big men.

Ayton is in the final year of his rookie contract and reportedly wants a maximum deal from the Suns, but it's unclear if the franchise believes he's worth that price.

The 6-foot-11 Ayton averaged nearly 16 points and 12 rebounds during the Suns' run to the Finals while shooting 66% from the field.

NEW GUYS

Shamet, McGee and Payton give the Suns a little more depth than they had last season.

Williams knew Shamet from their time together in the Philadelphia 76ers organization. The 6-foot-4 guard is a career 40% shooter from behind the 3-point line and was an important part of the Clippers the past two seasons.

The 7-foot McGee played with the US basketball team in Tokyo and is a three-time NBA champion. He provides some extra rim protection, especially when Ayton's not in the game.

Payton has averaged at least 10 points per game over each of the past six seasons, including most recently for a surprisingly successful Knicks team. It's unclear what his role will be with Phoenix considering he's third on the point guard depth chart behind Paul and Payne.

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More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

David Brandt, The Associated Press

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