Suns found different ways to move on from NBA Finals loss

Sep 27, 2021, 1:02 PM | Updated: 1:08 pm
Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) drives to the basket against Phoenix Suns guard Camero...

Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) drives to the basket against Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne, left, and Jae Crowder, right, during Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals in Milwaukee, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Pool)

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Pool)

Devin Booker moved on by playing more basketball in the Tokyo Olympics.

Monty Williams stacked stones and cut grass on his Texas property.

Jae Crowder lived the boat life in Florida, fishing, lounging and spending time with his family. Deandre Ayton went home to the Bahamas.

There were many ways Phoenix Suns players accepted, relived and recovered from their NBA Finals loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last season. The dream of winning a title ended the night of July 20. Not even 10 weeks later, the team converged Monday for media day ahead of the 2021-22 season.

Last season remains fresh in their minds. Now, they’re tasked with letting that help and not hurt their goals for a new year.

“I was in a pity party for about two weeks, man, it was bad,” Williams admitted. “Internally, sad, pouty. But a lot of reflection, a lot of prayer, a lot of studying to getting back to this place. I’m understanding how blessed I am … I kind of lost sight of that when we lost. Like I deserved to win.

“Winning is intoxicating. I realized how selfish I was to feel that way, that I deserved to win.”

There’s been introspection since that loss behind the blunt force and relentlessness of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s long-stepping drives to the rim. While Williams said the Suns had not yet gathered as a full team to discuss how to move on, to put their energy into a fresh start this year, that much is clear.

Ayton, like Williams, used family time to gather himself. In the Bahamas, the new father spent time with his family and had little time to go out with a curfew due to COVID-19.

“Brought back some humility, brought me back down to earth,” said the fourth-year big man, whose 15.8 points and 11.8 rebounds averaged with 66% shooting announced his arrival as a top big man to the NBA-viewing public.

Ayton said re-watching playoff games lent him perspective. He saw his mistakes but also framed that around the emotions he remembered from each moment.

On the other hand, guard Cam Payne, who re-signed with Phoenix after shining his own way during the Suns’ playoff run, did not want to relive the film.

“Really didn’t wanna watch too much basketball after losing in the Finals,” he said.

Meanwhile, Crowder may have needed to get away, but he challenged himself to balance being ready physically with being ready mentally. The veteran forward has spoken with Williams — and to the media openly on Monday — about being “mentally fried” last year after previously making an NBA Finals run with the Miami Heat.

Crowder said he’ll warn his teammates about taking advantage of more days off this year. That’s about the physical toll. But Crowder also said he’s personally working with a psychiatrist to improve his mental capacity.

“I was hurt, I was mad, I was upset,” he said of accepting his second Finals defeat in a row. “I use that loss, another one, as motivation. Wake up, 7 a.m., hurting a little bit. … I talk to my psychiatrist. I’m trying to build my mental capacity to hold up better than I did last year.”

Based on his social media postings, Booker did a good amount of traveling after he played for the United States en route to a gold medal.

His backcourt mate, Chris Paul probably kept himself very busy before and after he opted to re-sign with Phoenix this offseason on a four-year deal worth up to $120 million.

“It’s such a blur now,” Paul said of re-signing with the Suns. “It was an easy decision though. This is close to my family and this became my family last year. Not only was being here in Phoenix fun basketball-wise but it was fun as far as life.”

Getting past an NBA Finals loss is ultimately going to be about basketball as well. And that means enjoying and beginning the process of getting better all over again. Cam Johnson wasn’t the only Suns player whose reflection led them somewhere close to appreciating the opportunity to play for the championship.

That’s not enough to get rid of a healthy, burning anguish of going ahead 2-0 before losing four games in a row to fall short. Now begins the time to use that burn to get better.

“There was that pain of figuring out what we could’ve done different. Tons of conversations watching the games over and over again,” Johnson said.

“There was no agreement. There’s a lot of ways. There’s not like this black and white thing.”

Added general manager James Jones, who in his career suffered four NBA Finals series losses: “Last season is done. Hopefully you learn something about it. You can’t take away anything from the team that beat us. They had tremendous performances … we just have to take that burn and hopefully it translates.

“This is a new season, a new journey, a new path to chase a title.”


— Paul, who underwent wrist surgery this offseason, is healthy and ready to begin camp. “Chris is always a full-go. Chris will be fine. He’ll be there Day 1 leading this team,” Jones said.

— Booker was not present at media day due to COVID-19 protocols, but Jones is not concerned that missing any part of camp will hurt the All-Star guard. “Devin played a lot of basketball this summer. I’m not concerned about him being ready to play,” the GM added.

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