The NBA never envisioned Game 1 of the NBA Finals beginning after the Fourth of July. This is supposed to be the start of summer league and the offseason. The pandemic ensured, however, that the NBA’s grandest matchup will carry into midsummer and this Suns-Bucks matchup is intriguing.
The Phoenix Suns haven’t reached the NBA Finals in 28 years and what’s more, they didn’t even make the playoffs last season. The Suns’ rebuild has been slow and painful at times, with casualties such as former Celtics executive Ryan McDonough, coaches Earl Watson, and Igor Kokoskov dismissed during the process.
Owner Robert Sarver finally stopped meddling in front office affairs and allowed former sharpshooter James Jones to make decisions. And his first was hiring the popular Monty Williams as coach.
Williams’s resurrection is heartwarming. As an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Williams lost his wife in a tragic car accident in 2016 and had to attempt to resume his life and raise his five children. After a few years of mourning, reflection, and recovery, Williams was prepared to coach again and he accepted the Suns job with a renewed vigor.
The revival began when Phoenix won its eight games in the NBA Bubble but missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker. The Suns then took that momentum, brought on Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, and turned into a juggernaut.
Williams is a motivational story, a leader who has galvanized a franchise that had not had much success since the days of Steve Nash, Amare’ Stoudemire and Shawn Marion.
The new names are Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. And their playoff run — slicing through the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers — is reflective of a team that didn’t wait to seize their shining moment.
“I don’t think you ever — you just want to get there, you know what I mean?” Williams said when asked how being in the Finals would feel. “And as a head coach, I don’t have time to do all of that. I’m just focused on the things necessary to get wins. That’s all I’m thinking about. I can’t stop and think about my feelings or — human nature leads you there sometimes, and then I snap out of it and I just move on to the next objective, which is more film, conversations with the coaches and players, that kind of thing.
“Obviously there’s a level of gratitude to be in this position, but you move on from that and you start to strategize and figure out ways to maximize the moment.”
The Suns are considered the favorites because they have been the most impressive team in the postseason. Also, the Bucks are uncertain about the status of superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who hyperextended his left knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta and hasn’t played since.
The club said Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP, did not sustain structural damage but he is trying to work through soreness and discomfort. Without Antetokounmpo, the Bucks were able to win the final two games of the Atlanta series behind Celtics nemesis Khris Middleton and inspired play from Brook Lopez.
Milwaukee was on the verge of a potential housecleaning had it lost to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern semifinals. But the Bucks rallied to win Games 6 and 7 and then outlasted the young Hawks to set up a series between teams that have only one championship between them.
The NBA has sought parity for years, and while a Milwaukee-Phoenix final may not garner the highest ratings, it should be one of the more competitive championship series in years. Both franchises are hungry for the ultimate success.
The Bucks last won a title in 1971 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were the catalysts. They are 74 and 82 years old, respectively.
“I do think there’s just a ton of respect for the Bucks organization,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You get to see and feel some of that history and appreciate where they started, how they have evolved, including those early five, six, 10 years, whatever it was, and now to where we are today and all the things that an organization goes through. It’s been great to have a little three-year window of it. It’s 50-plus years. A lot of winning and a lot of success. I’m just happy to be a little small piece of the Bucks organization.”
The Suns have never won, and their most memorable Finals performance was 45 years ago when they nearly upset the Celtics in a thrilling series. It was Phoenix’s eighth year of existence.
“I mean, I think [the Suns are] baby here,” said Booker, who at 24 is the longest tenured member of the team. “It’s the only professional team that has Phoenix in it. Every other team is Arizona. So, Phoenix Suns is the baby franchise here and they love it with a passion. I’m wearing the shirt from ’93 right now. I think it started around that time to when they developed that, you hear people talk about, I remember when I watched Charles [Barkley] and them, like, you hear those stories at all times, and seeing the passion in their eyes when they’re telling the stories and even being at the bottom of the barrel for the past five years and them still showing up and showing love shows that same type of love that they have for this team.”