The Phoenix Suns are on the brink of elimination for the first time this postseason. That’s got to be a scary sight, right?
The Suns, who have eight players on their active roster with no playoff experience prior to this season, are on the cusp of their championship run ending, a possibility that seemed improbable just a week and a half ago when they went up 2-0 in the series. But this is the reality they now face, and they say they’re embracing it.
“You have to embrace where you are in the series, and from there, you have to focus and channel your emotions and energy towards the next game, and that’s tomorrow night,” Suns starting forward Jae Crowder said. “We just know it’s going to be a dogfight. It’s going to be — you have to leave it all out on the court.”
Phoenix will need arguably its best effort of the postseason to upend the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night. The Bucks have posted a 9-1 record at home in these playoffs and will certainly be ecstatic with a chance to win a championship in front of their home fans.
But this is what the Suns have said they’re built for, a moment in which nobody believes in them except themselves. They said they like things that way.
“You’ve got to feel good about it and take pride, and being down like this, making it feel great by winning two games in a row,” Suns starting forward Mikal Bridges said. “You know, it’s going to feel good having our backs against the wall, since we haven’t this whole playoffs. So, it’s good.”
To defeat Milwaukee on the road and force a Game 7 in Phoenix, the Suns will need to address multiple areas of improvement. During Saturday’s Game 5 loss, they attempted just 20.9 percent of their shots from the 3-point line excluding heaves, according to Cleaning the Glass, which was their lowest mark of the postseason.
One of the reasons for that statistic was the Suns’ isolation play in the third quarter. They went extensively to All-Star shooting guard Devin Booker, who had 40 points for the second consecutive game on 51.5 percent shooting but took Phoenix out of its point-five offensive scheme, in which it emphasizes ball movement by dribbling, shooting or passing within half a second.
During a Monday interview with reporters, Booker said the Suns have focused on improving their offensive flow for Game 6. In this series, they have assisted fewer than 50 percent of their shots three times in four games after doing so just once before in this postseason.
“I think with the team and the capabilities of the shooters that we have on this team that we need to generate more threes,” Booker said. “Obviously, they’re switching a lot and staying home on shooters. So it’s just a way of figuring it out. Putting pressure, causing gravity to open up opportunities, easier opportunities for everybody on this team.”
Regardless, Booker will be very much needed for the Suns to extend the series. In Game 5, he was a team-high plus-12 in 41 minutes. In the 6:28 he was off the floor, Phoenix was outscored by 16.
Booker’s conditioning has been impeccable for the Suns this postseason, exceeding 40 minutes played 14 times. It’s conceivable that Phoenix will need him to play close to 48 minutes for it to have a chance to win Game 6.
“We’re trying to figure it out right now, how we’re going to go out there and do it,” Booker said. “We know it’s possible with the group that we have and what we have leaned on for most of the season.”
The same standard could apply for starting center Deandre Ayton, who was a plus-six in just under 45 minutes on Saturday. Ayton is arguably the Suns’ only player who can effectively guard Bucks superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is reportedly the first player in NBA Finals history to average over 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists on at least 60 percent shooting.
In this series, Ayton has held Antetokounmpo to 21-of-48 (43.8 percent) clip from the field, though nine of those misses have been from 3-point range. Still, Ayton has posted a much better mark than when Antetokounmpo has been guarded by Crowder (11-of-16), Bridges (4-of-5) or backup forwards Torrey Craig (3-of-4) and Cameron Johnson (3-of-4).
With Suns backup forward Dario Saric out for the postseason with a torn right ACL, Ayton may also need to play most of Game 6. It’s a challenge that he insists he is ready for.
“I have a lot of gas,” Ayton said. “You know, at the end of the day, this is a high-intensity game and this is what I train and this is what the team trains for all season, you know, to play in games like this. It’s just the mental stamina as a team of emphasizing togetherness that we have to focus on when we play, especially on the road.”
Collectively, the Suns are embracing the position they are in. Phoenix coach Monty Williams said the team “had the same look in their eyes” on their flight to Milwaukee, and that it collectively has “a lot of confidence” it can extend the series on Tuesday night.
More than anything, backup point guard Cameron Payne said the group needs to get back to “having fun.”
“I feel like we’ve been too serious, too on-edge about everything instead of just relaxing and playing...” Payne said. “I just feel like we’ve got to smile again. That’s where our team is at our best. So we just got to have fun, and I think at the end, it’ll take care of itself.”
What will it take for the Suns to shock the Bucks in Game 6? Aside from getting stops, moving the basketball and creating open shots, it will take resiliency, something Williams felt his team found in the final minutes of Game 5 when it cut a 14-point deficit to just one in the last 30 seconds.
“I don’t know of any team that has won a championship that has just kind of strolled into it,” Williams said. “So our guys, we have talked about that, the deep playoff hurts that happen and the ability to bounce back from that.”
The margin of error will be thinner than ever for the Suns on Tuesday night. Win, and they force a Game 7 back home, where their fans are rowdy and the city of Phoenix will be lit on fire. Lose, and all of that hope will be permanently extinguished.
It’s going to take the Suns a 48-minute effort of grit, resiliency and connectivity in order to get the job done. Are they ready? They say, definitely.
“We’re a type (of) team that realizes, ‘That (Game 5) is over,’” Booker said. “Whatever we do forward is going to determine whatever our future is going to be.”