Monday, July 12, 2021

NBA Finals: Are the Suns equipped to handle their latest playoff adversity vs. Bucks?

 Why Booker-Ayton are not the next Shaq-Kobe (and why that's a good thing)

MILWAUKEE – Just over a minute before the Phoenix Suns walked off the court in defeat, they heard from up above what awaits them.

“Bucks in six!!,” the sell-out crowd of 16,637 yelled at Fiserv Forum. “Bucks in six!!!”

The Milwaukee Bucks were about to complete a 120-100 win over the Suns on Sunday in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. The fans in the upper deck expressed their belief that this win meant more than just reducing the Suns’ lead to 2-1. It gave them optimism about the Bucks’ fortunes in Game 4 here on Wednesday and beyond.

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Moments later in the postgame interview room, however, the Suns appeared intent on becoming a buzz-kill for those optimistic, giddy Bucks fans.

“This team is not going to give in,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “They're going to keep playing all the way through. So we have to bring that same effort that we had in the first two games, and I think we'll be in good shape.”

Devin Booker holding a basketball: Devin Booker (1) had trouble on the offensive end in Game 3, scoring just 11 points.© Jeff Hanisch, USA TODAY Sports Devin Booker (1) had trouble on the offensive end in Game 3, scoring just 11 points.

The reason for the Suns’ optimism?

The Suns did not advance to the NBA Finals just because they had a regular-season MVP candidate (Chris Paul), an emerging All-Star (Booker) and a rising center (Deandre Ayton). Phoenix’s playoff journey has entailed navigating some potentially disruptive roadblocks.

After facing a 2-1 first-round series deficit to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Suns closed the series out in six games. After failing to eliminate the L.A. Clippers in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, the Suns dominated in a decisive Game 6.

More encouraging news? Never have the Suns lost in Game 4 during their latest postseason run, a game often seen as the most significant into determining a series outcome. The Suns have also had the NBA’s best road record during the regular season (24-12) and have collected two road wins against every playoff opponent.

“We know that we have to play with an unreal amount of aggression and energy for 48 minutes,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “That's the deal. All of our guys know that we didn't [in Game 3]. We have had this happen to us before in the playoffs, and so I expect our guys to bounce back.”

The Suns have the track record to back up those words. But does that track record offer enough context to their latest challenge?

After the Suns faced a 2-1 series deficit to the Lakers, it appeared the defending champions were on the verge of handing the Suns an early first-round exit. Paul had experienced pain in his right shoulder. Booker and Jae Crowder captured the Suns’ emotional frustrations after each collecting flagrant fouls toward the end of Game 3. And Lakers stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis showed they could thrive through their respective injuries.

Devin Booker holding a basketball: Suns guard Devin Booker (1) passes while being guarded by Bucks guard Jrue Holiday (21) during game three of the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum.© Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports Suns guard Devin Booker (1) passes while being guarded by Bucks guard Jrue Holiday (21) during game three of the 2021 NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum.

Paul’s shoulder improved. James and Davis regressed physically. The Suns talked out their emotions and determined to stay resilient.

The Suns vowed to do the same thing after failing to deliver a close-out Game 5 win against the Clippers. Paul showed rust after missing the first two games after testing positive for COVID-19. Booker dealt with a shooting slump after playing with and without a mask to protect his battered nose. And Clippers forward Paul George had a signature playoff performance after fielding scrutiny all season for last year’s postseason failures.

Things changed in Game 6. The Clippers became increasingly fatigued. Paul delivered a signature 41-point performance. And Booker played more effectively with his mask.

The Suns face different circumstances against Milwaukee, both for better and for worse. The Suns consider it unlikely that Booker will duplicate his Game 3 shooting performance (3-of-14 shooting). But the Suns expressed the challenge with keeping Ayton out of foul trouble (five) because of the Bucks’ aggressiveness and the Suns’ depleted front-court depth. Phoenix lost center Dario Saric for the playoffs because of a torn ACL in his right knee.

Deandre Ayton (right) fouls Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second half of Game 3. Ayton was limited to just 24 minutes because of foul trouble.© Justin Casterline, Getty Images Deandre Ayton (right) fouls Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second half of Game 3. Ayton was limited to just 24 minutes because of foul trouble.

Meanwhile, the Bucks have shown more upside as the series has progressed. Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has increased his dominance from Game 1 (20 points, 17 rebounds) to Game 2 (42 points, 12 rebounds) and Game 3 (41 points, 13 rebounds) after missing Games  5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks because of a hyperextended left knee. After shooting a combined 11-of-35 in Games 1 and 2, Jrue Holiday had 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting in Game 3.  

And yet…

“We have enough bodies to get that job done,” Crowder said. “We just got to do it collectively, and just be better individually. But we got enough bodies to get it done.”

That is because the Suns believe their success go beyond matching the Bucks’ depth or using their small-ball lineups outside of Ayton to make up for its lack of size. It also traces back to their mindset.

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Following both wins and losses, the Suns have still held film sessions and gym workouts that helped them scrutinize mistakes and highlight achievements without making a big deal of either development.

Therefore, it does not seem surprising the Suns have opted just to stay in the team hotel here in between games and practices. Not only have the Suns wanted to safeguard themselves during the pandemic. They also did not want to become exposed to the culinary temptations that could satisfy their tastebuds while disrupting their digestive system.

“You don't want to go outside of your comfort zone in a sense of just trying to get food and have to deal with food poisoning or whatnot,” Crowder said. “We are in enemy territory right now, and that’s not to say anything bad about Milwaukee. I love Milwaukee, but you never know. We wanted to take that out of anyone else's hand and be as locked in as possible and take care of our bodies and get ready.”

So when the Suns heard the Bucks fans declaring the home team would win in six games, they did not sense an ominous warning. They sensed an opportunity to shut up the noise.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA Finals: Are the Suns equipped to handle their latest playoff adversity vs. Bucks?

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NBA Finals: Are the Suns equipped to handle their latest playoff adversity vs. Bucks?

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