EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Put injuries aside: Celebrate the Suns and Bucks for reaching NBA Finals

Jul 5, 2021, 3:35 PM

Milwaukee Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo goes to the ground after injuring his leg during overtime of ...

Milwaukee Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo goes to the ground after injuring his leg during overtime of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns Monday, April 19, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

(AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

You can feel a collective shrug from fans who want their favorite teams in the NBA Finals over the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks.

If LeBron and A.D. were healthy …” Lakers fans would say, “this would be different.”

Had James Harden and Kyrie been 100% …” Nets fans might counter, “and neither of these teams would be in the Finals.”

Those players weren’t, and those teams aren’t.

As Suns point guard Chris Paul said upon his return from a fluky COVID-19 diagnosis, “(Expletive) happens.”

Sports talk shows have baited that conversation about what teams’ stars missing time means for the reality of this NBA Finals matchup.

“Will this be a legitimate championship?” read one debate topic on ESPN in the past week.

Let this serve as a plea to not stand for that.

It’s unfortunate yet true people will question the legitimacy of this Finals because Milwaukee beat a Nets team with a hampered Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Phoenix rolled past a banged up Lakers squad with LeBron James and Anthony Davis either hurt or sidelined.

The Suns then beat a Denver team that’d been missing Jamal Murray and got past the Kawhi Leonard-lacking Clippers to reach the last series of the year.

But let’s recap what the last two teams standing have dealt with on their ends, shall we?

The Bucks got to this point with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s status (knee) up in the air. He missed the past two games, and yet Milwaukee defeated Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals — granted the Hawks had their own injury issues with star guard Trae Young.

Milwaukee has also been without starting guard Donte DiVincenzo (foot injury) since three games into the playoffs. He’ll be out the rest of the Bucks’ postseason run.

The Suns reached the Finals with All-NBA Second Team member in Paul missing two games — both wins — to begin Phoenix’s conference finals due to COVID-19. In the first-round series against the Lakers, he played one-armed basketball as a shoulder injury slowly got better.

“I mean, we’re not here to justify what we’re doing to anybody else, for real,” Suns guard Devin Booker said Monday, a day before Game 1 of the Finals.

Suffice to say, the Bucks and Suns have survived injuries and illness to some of their best players. And here they are.

On Phoenix’s end, credit can go to their training staff led by Brady Howe, senior director of health and performance, and David Crewe, the head trainer and director of medical services.

“Some of it is just uncontrollable,” said Cam Johnson, who missed Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals due to a brief non-COVID-related illness. “Some of these injuries that you’ve seen in these past couple weeks and months, there’s just nothing you can really do to prevent that.

“Luck has to be a portion of that for sure, but I think our strength staff, our training staff, they do a great job of injury prevention stuff and rehabbing whatever might be wrong. So, big shoutout to them for sure.”

Backup point guard Cam Payne, who notably dealt with a foot/ankle issue this season, has come on strong during the playoffs. His points (10.1), assists (3.8) and minutes (20.3) are up in the postseason compared to the regular season as he’s both helped fill in for Paul and acted as a pace-changer off the bench.

“And also shoutout to Coach Monty (Williams) for allowing the players to stay healthy and not killing us on practice days even though we had a game the next day,” Payne said.

The Suns, unlike other teams coming off a reduced offseason and a squeezed 72-game schedule, did not load manage this season.

They used a deep bench put together in the last two years by general manager James Jones, whose trade for Paul and signing of Jae Crowder weren’t the only depth-building moves.

Adding Payne before last season’s bubble run, reacquired Frank Kaminsky, re-signing Dario Saric and building back-end depth with Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore mattered.

Give credit to the players for also putting in the work to hold up relatively well.

Paul, the National Basketball Players Association president, will not fall into the bucket of players like James, who have lamented the jam-packed schedule over the last two coronavirus-impacted seasons. And at age 36 with lots of mileage, he very well could make excuses.

“There’s a ton of guys on the (NBPA) executive committee who are working hard on things right now as we speak — day in and day out, traveling. I wish you guys knew all the things that are going on,” Paul said. “So decisions that are made as far as playing or not playing, players are always involved in it. Injuries are always unfortunate. You hate to have them.

“But just like when we went to the bubble, everything was discussed as far as the players and the full body of players. Everything that’s good for this guy and that guy might not be the same for that guy, but everything has always been a conversation and it’s going to continue to be that way. So if people don’t like it, then you know everybody has the same opportunity to be a part of all these conversations.”

To be clear, arguing for player safety and injury reduction is a fair thing. That should be argued.

But any labor-related disagreements shouldn’t be also used to discredit the teams that built depth, protected their players, then survived and advanced.

The Suns and Bucks deserve to be here, and there should be no denying that.

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