After Years of Heartache, the Ball Is Finally Bouncing the Suns’ Way

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“He has a number of contemporaries that have been champions and been in this position,” Williams said, referring to close Paul pals like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. “Having been around him, that’s all he wants. He wants to be a part of winning.”

As for the incessant ribbing Paul had absorbed about his measly single conference finals appearance through his first 15 seasons in the league?

“I know that burned him,” Williams said.

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Rick Welts, who this week completed a championship-filled decade with the Golden State Warriors, is equally sympathetic. In his last days before stepping down as team president of the Warriors, having enjoyed all of their recent titles from close range, Welts had been keeping an eye on his old team. He has retained a deep fondness for the Suns after working as their president from 2002-11.

Even after three championship rings and five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals in the Bay Area, Welts said he still couldn’t stomach the league’s decision to suspend Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in a second-round series against San Antonio in 2007. Stoudemire and Diaw received suspensions for Game 5 for leaving the bench to check on Steve Nash, who had been hip-checked into the scorer’s table by the Spurs’ Robert Horry late in Game 4. Welts said this week, nearly 15 years later, that he continues to believe the rulings “changed the outcome of the playoffs.”

It is a difficult admission for Welts, and not only because of his lengthy stint working in the league office before joining the Suns, which put him on the path to Hall of Fame induction in 2018. The tension mostly stems from Welts’s reverence for the former N.B.A. commissioner David Stern. On behalf of the Suns, Welts called Stern to protest the ruling, which led to a six-month wedge of silence between them.

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“I had never, ever called the commissioner to complain about anything to do with officiating before, and I never have since,” Welts said. “That’s 46 seasons in the N.B.A. with one call. It took me a long time to get over what happened, and, like many in the organization at the time, I’m really not sure I ever will. That was a special team that changed the way the game is played and it deserved to win a ring. David and I never spoke about it again.”

Yet with each passing day in these playoffs — with an assist from that inviting landscape that has opened up so wide because of injuries — this season’s Suns look like the team equipped to finally heal some of those wounds. Or maybe help fade some of the lingering scars from the 2005 playoffs. During that run, Joe Johnson sustained severe facial injuries, and it was at a time when Phoenix may have had its strongest team of the Nash era.

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