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Phoenix Suns: What If...Jason Richardson had boxed out in the 2010 Western Conference Finals?

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
October 6, 2021

Time. Space. Reality.

It’s more than a linear path. It’s a prism of endless possibility. Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternate worlds from the ones you know.

I am the Suns Watcher. I am your guide through these vast, new realities. Follow me, and ponder the question: What if?

In a playoff series, a single play can change everything. One basket can decide an outcome, one defensive stop can close out a rally, and one offensive rebound can resuscitate a team on the brink of collapse.

Game 5 of the 2010 Western Conference Finals featured all three of those possibilities, and as Phoenix Suns fans in the established timeline know, the end result was the most agonizing one possible — and that’s saying something for a franchise that already had to watch another soul-crushing Game 5 go against them decades before.

With the series knotted at two games apiece and the score of Game 5 tied at 101 with 3.5 seconds left, the nefarious Los Angeles Lakers had the ball on the sideline. Jason Richardson had just tied the score with a 27-foot, banked-in 3-pointer after two offensive rebounds provided Phoenix a glimmer of hope.

The Suns had trailed by as many as 18 points in the first half. Momentum had swung to their side. This game was going to overtime, J-Rich would be the hero and a Suns squad that had already won the last two games before storming back in Game 5 seemed poised to shock the world.

But in your universe, Richardson — who had just witnessed how dramatically an offensive rebound could change the complexion of an entire game — took his eye off the ball.


The Suns defended admirably. Kobe Bryant, who already had 30 in the game and was basically the NBA’s Thanos hunting rings like Infinity Stones at the time, caught the inbounds pass and fired up a prayer of a turnaround jumper from beyond the arc. It was perfectly contested by Grant Hill. In fact, Kobe’s shot was so bad, it didn’t even graze the rim.

Tragically, Richardson got caught ball-watching. As Bryant’s airball sailed through the air like a dying duck, J-Rich didn’t feel Ron Artest bum-rushing from behind until it was too late. Richardson made a feeble play on the ball, but Artest had already whizzed past, snatched the ball out of the air, turned toward the basket and lofted it off the backboard to drop softly through the net.

Every Suns fan knows that play like the back of their hand now thanks to repeat viewings, just trying to make sense of how such a horrifying, traumatizing picture could’ve ever been realized. It’s the quintessential image of a Sunderella story cast asunder, the end of Steve Nash’s last chance to win a ring in Phoenix, the very essence of why Suns fans hate the Lakers so much.

Of course it was a lucky game-winner. Of course it came on a Kobe Bryant airball. And of course it was Ron F**king Artest.

But as much as this devastating finish ultimately led to “Lakers in 6” and another LA championship in the established timeline, and as much as there’s an alternate dimension where Kobe somehow made his double-clutch 3 from the corner, there’s also a happier conclusion to this story, somewhere in a distant, parallel universe….


Before that unlikely play, the energy in the Staples Center was restless. After winning the first two games in the series, the Lakers watched the Suns come roaring back with two straight wins in Phoenix. Game 5 saw the Lakers open up an 18-point advantage, and it seemed like the home team would once again hold serve.

But the Suns wouldn’t quit. They had pulled within three points in the final minute, and after a Nash miss and offensive rebound, followed by a Richardson miss and another offensive rebound, J-Rich banked in an unlikely triple to stun the LA crowd. Phoenix was fired up. They were about to beat a title contender that was staggering after taking an uppercut to the chin.

So in this alternate reality, when Kobe shot an airball and Richardson put a body on Artest, the Suns came up with the defensive rebound needed to force overtime. The Lakers crowd grew more restless. Their valiant hero had just airballed a potential game-winner. It was as clear a sign as any that the home team was rattled. The Suns were supposed to die. Instead, they were on the verge of winning their third straight game, with a chance to close out the Lakers in Game 6 back in Phoenix.

That’s exactly how overtime played out. Los Angeles’ nervous energy gave in to panic with momentum firmly on the visitors’ side. Nash, who had 29 points and 11 assists by the end of regulation, continued to be a thorn in LA’s side, taking over in the extra period as he could almost taste his first Finals appearance.

With a 3-2 series lead heading back to Phoenix, the Suns staved off a valiant effort from the Black Mamba and won their fourth straight game, notching their third Finals appearance in franchise history.

Facing an experienced, star-studded Boston Celtics team in the championship round, this time it would be the Suns, not the Lakers, winning a title for the Western Conference. Although the Celtics were a top-five defense that year, the Suns were the NBA’s No. 1 offense. They also had a superior record (54-28 to 50-32) and Net Rating (+4.8 to +3.7), and with home-court advantage in the series, the Suns’ 32-9 record within the friendly confines of U.S. Airways Center gave them another advantage.

By simply putting a body on Artest, Richardson set off a chain of events that led to a two-time MVP winning his first Larry O’Brien trophy. It denied Kobe his fifth ring, got Nash his long-awaited validation and ended Phoenix’s 42-year NBA title drought. Amar’e Stoudemire, Grant Hill and Alvin Gentry won a ring. So did Robin Lopez and Channing Frye. So too did the guys on one of the most beloved Suns benches ever, with Leandro Barbosa, Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley and Lou Amundson all getting rings.

And of course, there was Jason Richardson, the hero of Game 5 whose unlikely bank shot became the real story instead of a missed boxout.

As reigning NBA champs, the Suns ran it back for the 2010-11 season. Instead of signing a five-year, $100 million deal to join the New York Knicks, Stoudemire declined his $17.7 million player option and re-upped with Phoenix. He was ultimately overpaid when his body started to break down, but no one cared, because the Suns had finally broken through during the Nash and Amar’e era.

With a title to his name, Nash ended his career in Phoenix. He never felt the need to be traded to the dreaded Lakers, where his body immediately betrayed him. The aging Suns were unable to defend their title in 2011 against a 61-win San Antonio Spurs team, a 57-win Lakers squad or the 57-win Dallas Mavericks who went on to win it all. But even as this unlikely Suns contender faded into their twilight years, the fans could rest easy knowing the greatest player in franchise history had finally reached the summit.

And it was all thanks to a routine boxout that no one really even noticed.

As for me? These are my stories. I observe all that transpires here, but I do not, cannot, will not interfere. For I am…the Suns Watcher.

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