DAN BICKLEY

Suns must feel like they are the team of destiny to defeat Bucks in Game 6

Jul 18, 2021, 5:52 PM | Updated: Jul 19, 2021, 8:29 am
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Jrue Holiday #21 of the Milwaukee Bu...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball against Jrue Holiday #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks in the second half of game five of the NBA Finals at Footprint Center on July 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Bucks defeated the Suns 123-119. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Eulogies require four losses in the NBA Finals. The Suns aren’t there just yet.

So, a memo to all heartbroken fans in the Valley: No more laments, regrets and white flags. Stop taking solace in precious memories our NBA team has already provided. Surrender is for cowards.

With a few tweaks, there can be a Game 7 in downtown Phoenix, a chance for the Suns to atone for wasting the lungs of the best new fan base in basketball while squandering home-court advantage on Saturday night.

Those tweaks are relentless defense; better ball movement; less Devin Booker hero ball; a sure-handed, more forceful Deandre Ayton around the rim; a Chris Paul healthy enough to actually instill fear; and more three-point shots from everyone.

Sadly, the Bucks are beating the Suns at their own game.

Entering a pivotal Game 6, the bigger question is not tactical. It is lodged between the ears: Do the Suns still believe? Will they do anything to win their next basketball game?

First, a historical reminder:

Twenty years ago, the Diamondbacks lost three consecutive World Series games to the Yankees in the Bronx. They were in danger of blowing a comfortable 2-0 World Series lead to a New York dynasty suddenly viewed as sentimental favorites after the terrorist attacks on 9-11.

The Diamondbacks lost Game 4 when Derek Jeter hit a walk-off home run after a nine pitch at-bat, walking off a game that began on Halloween and ended in the month of November. The next night, Byung-Hyun Kim coughed up another late lead and the Valley felt just like it does now, gutted and hollow, empty to the core.

Yet the champagne was somehow flowing in the Arizona clubhouse a few nights later, when manager Bob Brenly told the media he always believed the Diamondbacks were the team of destiny, and not the Yankees.

The Suns must carry the same attitude in their bones. They must feel like they are the team of destiny, not the Bucks and the rising star of Giannis Antetokounmpo. They must feel like they deserve the trophy in 2021 and anything else is a gross injustice. And they must do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Because at the moment, that’s the difference between these two teams.

The Bucks are playing harder and more physical. They’re beating the Suns to rebounds and loose balls. Milwaukee’s Big 3 have dominated their Phoenix counterparts in the past two games. Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Bobby Portis Jr., Pat Connaughton and P.J. Tucker are playing with an effort, resilience and intensity that the Suns can’t match.

Maybe the Bucks have an experience that sets them apart. This is the 12th playoff series Giannis and Middleton have played together, and they’ve learned some priceless lessons along the way.

The Bucks also seem more resolute because Paul is injured and because Ayton is not ready to compete at this level of desperation. Something has to change on both fronts.

“Head space, mental stamina, all that stuff,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “All that stuff, like, it boils down to getting it done. We got to win one game to put them back on the plane. That’s it. And you have to have that determination that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to put them back on the plane.

“So we can call it what we want to, mental toughness and all that stuff. But it’s going to be needed and our guys are capable of doing it. This our first time in this position and we can do it.”

So much went wrong on Saturday: a 16-point lead that vanished in an apathetic second-quarter; a defense that has forgotten how to win in the mud; an offense that has forgotten how to trust; and a Hall-of-Fame point guard who has struggled to dribble the basketball.

The Suns are now at a crossroads, one the Bucks have already crossed. They will only return to Phoenix for Game 7 if the outcome has already been decided in their brains. They will only survive if they refuse to lose. Just like their opponent.

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