EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns’ season ends with loss in NBA Finals to deserving champion Bucks
MILWAUKEE — What they don’t show you on TV when the NBA champion’s crowned is the other side, an especially painful experience on the road.
While the trophies are presented and speeches are being made, the loud cheering of a crowd vibrates through the walls of the arena, all the way to the locker rooms and press conference rooms. Even once that’s done, celebrations in the hallways ensue.
On top of losing a championship wrecking the players and coaches mentally, they physically can’t escape it until they are far enough away from the arena to not hear the raucous fans with honking horns.
That’s what the Phoenix Suns had to go through on Tuesday night after losing to the Milwaukee Bucks 105-98, falling four games to two in the 2021 NBA Finals.
Head coach Monty Williams was asked about the game to open his presser, and for the first time all season, he needed a second to collect his thoughts.
“I mean, it’s a blur for me right now,” he said.
Williams talked about processing the moment and such a few different times, but when it was brought up one more time, he couldn’t hold in his emotions anymore.
“I think it’s going to take me a minute,” he said while choking up. “I just don’t take it for granted. It’s hard to get here and I wanted it so bad, you know. It’s hard to process right now. It’s hard. That’s all.”
Devin Booker said it was a level of “hurt” that he’s never felt before and described the Suns’ locker room after as “silent.”
It won’t make them feel better, but the Suns lost to a worthy champion.
The Bucks were led in the clincher by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who put in one of the best Finals MVP performances ever.
Antetokounmpo had a playoff career-high 50 points, plus 14 rebounds, two assists and five blocks. He was 16-of-25 from the field and, considering his issues at the foul line, a remarkable 17-for-19 on free throws.
After Game 5 was about the balance between him, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, this was all Greek Freak.
The Suns had a terrible first quarter, a sloppy start for both teams through great defense that Phoenix couldn’t hit a shot in. Despite Milwaukee starting with seven turnovers, the Suns were down 13.
Chris Paul missed his first two jumpers and was hesitant at times to shoot the ball. Deandre Ayton was 1-for-6, also appearing tentative. The two players the Suns needed to step up the most after three losses in a row weren’t able to impact the game at its beginning.
They were desperate for a jolt, one Cam Payne provided. The backup point guard at the start of the second quarter scored five of the Suns’ first 10 points of a 10-0 run to tighten the game back up, one that would stay in that position for the rest of it. He finished with 10 points, which felt like 100 given what they meant at the time.
In that second quarter, Paul finally looked like the Point God after a few recent outings that were unrecognizable.
He contributed eight points in the last four minutes, saying afterward he thought he was getting to his spots more.
The Suns’ great defense in the first quarter carried over to the second, where the Bucks’ offense screeched to a halt, accounting for only four points in the first seven minutes of the period, and only 13 points for all 12 minutes.
The defense from Booker on Khris Middleton and Mikal Bridges on Jrue Holiday was having a big-time effect.
Middleton was 3-of-8 from the field in the first half, and Holiday was an even worse 1-of-11.
Just when it looked like the Suns’ season ran out of life and that the players had nothing left, so drained from the long road to get to this point, they were up five at half and in a great position to go back to Phoenix for one last game.
But that’s when Antetokounmpo put on his cape.
He scored 33 points in the second half, starting it with a clear intention to go downhill and draw fouls while finishing if possible. That offensive flow is as easy as turning on a sink, while the Suns eventually got built up and clogged.
In the third quarter, the disparity in shot quality was glaring. Every bucket for the Suns felt like an arduous task, and their execution again just wasn’t that crisp, with a few blown opportunities like kick-ahead passes in transition and dunks at the rim going awry.
Milwaukee wasn’t having trouble producing offense through Antetokounmpo while its defense effectively ended the series by getting the Suns away from what they do.
Phoenix had a season-low 14 assists and 15 turnovers.
Ayton got in foul trouble defending Antetokounmpo, but the Suns miraculously got positive minutes out of Frank Kaminsky, a late addition to the rotation in Game 6 by Williams.
Kaminsky’s six points, two rebounds, assist and steal gave life to Phoenix in the late third, somehow having the game tied through three quarters while it was apparent who the better team was.
The Suns, though, had to keep scratching and clawing for every shot. The Bucks let Paul beat them from the midrange, to the tune of 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting, but like Game 5 with Booker’s 40 points, it was the correct strategy to stifle the Suns’ ball movement.
With five minutes left and the Suns down six, another offensive possession went kaput before Jae Crowder drilled a difficult 12-foot jumper off the dribble to get Phoenix within four.
It was simple then to realize how deceiving that four-point deficit was. As the old saying goes, so close yet so far.
Milwaukee’s closing act for the NBA season commenced from there.
Middleton got out of his funk with a midrange conversion, Antetokounmpo scored at the rim and an Ayton basket was answered by the two-time MVP once more with his own jumper off the bounce.
Now with the Suns down eight, they cut it to four again before Middleton’s dagger middy with 57 seconds remaining.
Phoenix called timeout, one that set up a great chance for Booker from 3 that didn’t go down, a miss that called on the curtains to the season.
Booker was 8-of-22 from the field and 0-for-7 from three-point range, unable to materialize a third straight tremendous showing. Ayton was 4-of-12, and while Jae Crowder was 2-for-9 from deep, he had 15 points, 13 rebounds and four steals, wrapping up a very good series for him.
Middleton was a pedestrian 6-of-13 with 17 points. Holiday was great everywhere else but shooting, where he was 4-of-19 to go with 11 rebounds, nine assists and four steals.
Both teams shot under 25% from behind the three-point line, with the Suns’ 6-of-25 (24%) number being a missed opportunity.
And with that, the present now becomes all about the future for the Suns. Well, that’s the thought at least.
It’s going to take a long time for these guys to get over this loss as much as they can before getting into that mindset.
“I’ve never dealt with this kind of hurt as a head coach. I don’t know,” Williams said of processing it. “I just think that when you go through something like this for the first time, you don’t expect to get this far.”
But the Suns will now.
“Championship basketball and nothing less than that,” Booker said of expectations going forward. “So, going into next season on a Tuesday night playing against Cleveland if we don’t have it, we will be quickly reminded about the details and if you don’t want to give it your all right now, what can happen and this feeling right now that we’re feeling can happen.”
Ayton went up to Booker in the locker room after and talked about just that.
“I walked over to him and said, ‘This is just the beginning.’ Now we know what we need to do and no less. We’re going to keep each other accountable for the rest of our careers together.”
With Booker at 24 years old and Ayton just 22, that future looks quite bright, and that thought process is one Crowder already has down.
The veteran 31-year-old has discussed “the chase” he got himself back on this year after losing in the Finals last summer, and next year he should be joined by teammates that will be just as hungry as he is for their elusive first championship, one the franchise is now still looking for as well.
“Well I think for our younger players we can definitely just — they’re tasting that feeling of this stage and playing for, what you say in training camp, is for it all, you can build off of it,” he said. “Obviously, you can use this as a stepping stone, especially for our organization to get back on the right path, our players to experience this early in their careers, it’s great for them, obviously, and I’m happy for them.
“That motivation will continue to be with them as they train, just to chase this moment again. If you channel it the right way it can be beneficial.”