Pressure turns to Phoenix Suns in best-of-3 NBA Finals

Jul 14, 2021, 10:21 PM | Updated: Jul 15, 2021, 7:27 am
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns drives past Jeff Teague #5 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the firs...
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns drives past Jeff Teague #5 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half in Game Four of the NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum on July 14, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

MILWAUKEE — Pressure can burst pipes. Pressure can make diamonds. Pressure did both on an angst-filled night in the NBA Finals.

In the end, the Suns lost everything. They lost a gut-wrenching game to the Bucks, a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter and a golden opportunity to stage a Saturday celebration for the ages.

And in the end, they lost nothing. The Bucks’ 109-103 victory was nothing more than a tennis player holding serve in the fifth set of a major tournament. It feels more dramatic than the actual damage inflicted.

“It’s two good teams,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “It’s 2-2. That’s the deal. We put ourselves in this position. We have home-court advantage.”

The diamonds were obvious. Devin Booker answered the bell and his critics, pouring in 42 points. Foul trouble was the only thing that could stop the Suns star, and his Game 4 response is certainly comforting moving forward. Meanwhile, Cam Johnson was supremely poised for a bench player in the biggest game of his life. They were the exceptions. The rest of the starting lineup had 38 points, four fewer than Booker.

As for Chris Paul?

If there was a reason for concern leaving Milwaukee, it was the ragged performance of the Suns point guard. He frequently grabbed his injured wrist. He wore a compression sleeve on his leg in the second half, possibly tweaking a hamstring in the first half. He committed a grotesque turnover late in the game, the kind that tells you Paul is not well, and not firing on all cylinders.

“Nah, he’s fine,” Williams said. “Great players have games like that. We expect him to bounce back. He had five turnovers, but we had 17 (as a team) and they scored 24 points (off of turnovers). That was pretty much the game right there when you double that up with the offensive rebounding.”

Paul is clearly not fine, having recorded 15 turnovers in the past three games. For the first time this season, he looked every bit his age. He looked like an aging point guard held together with duct tape. The way the Suns downplayed and minimized Paul’s shocking ineffectiveness is even more troubling.

“Seventeen offensive rebounds (allowed), 17 turnovers,” Booker said. “That’s on us as a team.”

Paul knew better.

“It was me,” Paul said. “I had five of them. Bad decision making.”

Still, it’s not like the Bucks handled the moment any better. Giannis Antetokounmpo came up with the play of the game, rising up to block an alley-oop attempt to Deandre Ayton that could’ve tied the game late in the fourth quarter.

But for most of the night, Giannis looked overwhelmed by the moment, struggling to find space, his footing and comfort zone.

The Suns found a way to seal him up in the lane, thwarting his aggressiveness. But they had no answer for Khris Middleton, who scored 40 points, whose temperament and shot-making fueled the Bucks down the stretch.

“Well, the turnovers just crushed us tonight,” Williams said. “We shot 50 percent from the field but they got 19 more possessions. Over the course of the game, when you just give it up that many times, the turnovers and offensive rebounding was a bit of a hill for us to climb.”

As a result, the Suns will not enjoy the path of least resistance. They will not win a NBA championship in Game 5, the last chance Jerry Colangelo has to watch the team in person, before leaving for the Tokyo Olympics. They will have to win a best-of-three series against the Bucks. They will have to absorb and survive and find their way to the top of the mountain, where the air is thin and the pressure steals your breath away.

No longer will anyone question the legitimacy of a championship if the Suns find a way to survive this series and hoist the trophy.

“It’s hit after hit after hit,” Johnson said. “You got to love it. You got to embrace it. This is what we all dreamed of, being in this situation, right? There’s no time to hang your head, there’s no time to pout. This is 2-2 in the NBA Finals. We have the opportunity to do something really special …”

Indeed. As long as they can hold serve in Phoenix.

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