Pain, shock, and disbelief are just some words that described the Suns’ mood after blowing a 2-0 series lead in the NBA Finals.
“Suns in four” ended up being “Suns lose four straight” and it was a tough scene considering how the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks’ margin of victory in three of those four games was by at most seven points. In fact, two of those four games came down to the final minute, highlighting how the direction of the finals could have gone either way.
Making matters more painful was that foul trouble and offensive struggles from other usual contributors made the Suns an easy target on defense.
Chris Paul continued his solid play in these finals as he finished with a team-high 26 points. His five fouls certainly prevented him from doing more but it was his five assists on three turnovers, however, that were more telling. For the Bucks, they would rather that Paul score on his own rather than let him create for others. Facing an offense with an attack from all corners would only cause trouble for Milwaukee, and it wasn’t a surprise then that the supporting cast surrounding Paul struggled mightily in what turned out to be their last game.
Game 6 was particularly brutal for Devin Booker, who had more shot attempts (22) than points (19) and more turnovers (6) than assists (5). It was a far cry from his performances in earlier finals games and series, as he couldn’t quite establish himself offensively.
Deandre Ayton, who typically dominated in the paint, needed 12 shots to score 12 points and only had six rebounds. Foul trouble plagued the Bahamian center and his absence allowed Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to have his way around en-route to 50 points.
Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder were largely inconsistent in this series and while they had some defensive success against Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, it seemed to take a toll on their offensive contributions.
In the bigger picture however, this ending is not a disappointment.
Phoenix’s last playoff appearance prior to this one was back in 2010, when Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated the Suns in six games in the Western Conference Finals. Since then, Phoenix has been a mainstay in the lottery, reshuffling their roster and coaching staff multiple times.
Things started to turn the corner in 2019-2020, when the Suns hired Monty Williams. The former assistant coach for the US Men’s National Team instilled stability and a culture conducive to success. It also helped that the addition of Paul (who he coached back in New Orleans) this season added a veteran leader who could help set a standard for the young guns to follow.
Thanks in part to Williams’ efforts, Phoenix brought their win total to 34 games (the highest since the 39 back in 2014-2015) right before the COVID-19 temporarily suspended the season. When play resumed in Orlando, the Suns went undefeated but due to other factors couldn’t advance to the playoffs.
It wasn’t for naught however, as the momentum of their run in the Orlando bubble carried over to the following season, where Phoenix had the 2nd-best record in the NBA (due in part also to Paul’s arrival) and were within two wins of their first NBA title. It wasn’t a coincidence that Williams’ peers saw value in the team’s success as he was awarded the 2021 NBCA Coach of the Year Award.
All is not lost for the Suns despite this NBA Finals loss being a tough pill to swallow. The team can run it back, especially if they get everyone back together. At the forefront of this is Paul, who can decline his $44.2 million player option for 2021-2022 and sign an extension. Doing so could open more salary cap space to bring back Cameron Payne and allow Phoenix more flexibility to sign both Ayton and Bridges to extensions that will lock up the Suns’ core for the long run.
It’s the kind of loss that leaves you with a bitter taste in the mouth, even when you go on to win multiple championships after that. Moments like these incite a fight or flight response and considering how far they’ve come in just a few seasons, expect the pain of today to spark the Phoenix Suns to come back with a vengeance next season.