Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul said Thursday the Western Conference "ain't never been easy" throughout his career and that it remains the case heading toward the 2021 NBA playoffs.
Paul was asked about potential first-round matchups with the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors on TNT's Inside The NBA after the Suns' 118-117 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, another talented team they could face in the opening round:
The 36-year-old Wake Forest product is a West lifer, having made stops with the New Orleans Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and now the Phoenix Suns during a 16-year career that's included 12 trips to the postseason.
That said, even by the conference's typically high standards in recent decades, this year represents an even tougher potential path through the playoffs.
Phoenix (49-21) is one game behind the Utah Jazz (50-20) for the top seed in the West, and the "reward" for those two teams earning the top spots could be the reigning champion Lakers or a Warriors squad led by Stephen Curry, who's been on a roll lately to put himself atop the NBA's scoring list (31.8 PPG).
The New Orleans Pelicans, with a roster led by Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, aren't even going to qualifying for the play-in tournament.
So Paul is right in that it's going to take three hard-fought series for any Western Conference team to punch its ticket to the NBA Finals.
The Suns are a legitimate contender to survive the gauntlet. Their rise actually started at the end of last season, when they went 8-0 in the NBA's bubble. It wasn't enough to reach the playoffs, but it was a sign of the team's upward trajectory, and the front office added Paul in the offseason to accelerate the process.
His arrival perfectly rounded out a roster that also features a high-end scorer in Devin Booker, a major post presence in Deandre Ayton and a do-it-all forward in Mikal Bridges, along with plenty of depth.
"We are not satisfied. We are not settling," head coach Monty Williams said in April after the team clinched a playoff berth. "We feel like we're just scratching the surface as far as the way we want to play, the way we can play. But this is a huge moment for our organization."
Phoenix will wrap up the regular season with back-to-back road games against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday and Sunday, and then it'll await word on its first-round opponent.