The run is over.
After taking a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals, the Phoenix Suns lost four straight games and were eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks with their 105-98 defeat in Game 6 at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The confetti poured on to the floor. The Bucks shared embraces and smiles on their own court.
Meanwhile, the Suns went back to their locker room with their hearts deflated, with a season that was so palpable coming to a definite flatline.
“It’s tough,” Phoenix starting point guard Chris Paul said. “Great group of guys, hell of a season, but this one is going to hurt for a while.”
The result wasn’t what Phoenix wanted it to be. The Suns came into Game 6 hopeful, encouraged that they had an opportunity to extend their season with one more win. On the other side of it was a Game 7 in Phoenix, an opportunity that Paul and others appeared confident would happen.
But it was not meant to be. Paul walked off the floor discouraged, another chance at an NBA championship snatched away from him. Suns starting shooting guard Devin Booker was observed with a blank state on his face, realizing his impeccable playoff run had come to a close.
How did it feel in the locker room?
“Silent,” Booker said. “Just a lot of emotion. It’s a long season, we went through a lot.”
The Suns certainly had their chances. Trailing 29-16 after the first quarter, Phoenix stormed back to take a 35-33 lead in the second after two free throws from starting center Deandre Ayton.
The Suns outscored the Bucks 31-13 in the quarter, giving them a 47-42 lead at halftime. By that point, Paul found his rhythm, scoring 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the period. Backup point guard Cameron Payne provided a spark with 10 first-half points, and Phoenix appeared to be in a good position to extend its lead in the second half.
But then the script flipped. Milwaukee started the third period on a 16-8 run, forcing a Suns timeout with 7:30 left in the quarter. Bucks superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo had an explosive third quarter, scoring 20 of his points on 6-of-10 shooting with a 7-of-7 clip from the free-throw line.
By the end of the game, Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history to record 50 points, 10-plus rebounds (he had 14) and five blocks in an NBA Finals game. For the series, he averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game on 61.8 percent shooting en route to Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP honors.
Giannis interview in 2013 on his basketball goal: "I want to be an NBA player."— StatMuse (@statmuse) July 21, 2021
Giannis as of 2021:
— 2x MVP
— NBA Champion
— Finals MVP
— 5x All-Star
— 5x All-NBA
— 4x All-Defense pic.twitter.com/FZEFwP5iQt
“This is the most time I’ve ever seen Giannis, but, yeah, man, it was fun,” said Ayton, who was the primary defender on Antetokounmpo throughout the series. “I love competing, I love the challenges, man, but I just wish I could win.”
Antetokounmpo’s strong quarter aside, the Suns still had a chance entering the fourth. They scored the final six points of the period with a layup and two free throws from Booker on either side of a dunk from backup center Frank Kaminsky, who played well in relief of Ayton with six points on 3-of-4 shooting and two rebounds.
However, Phoenix never led in the final period. It tied the game twice in the first two minutes with a layup from Kaminsky and a floater plus a foul from Paul, though the Bucks took a four-point lead with 8:03 remaining with two free throws from Antetokounmpo, and the Suns never got back within one possession.
“We had opportunities, a lot of shots in and out, but our transition offense tonight we couldn’t convert,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We had a number of opportunities to get a layup, get a three and we just couldn’t do it. It hurt our defense.”
In his final game of his first Finals appearance, Paul led the Suns with 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting and five assists, his highest scoring output since Game 1 of the series (he had 32). He had Bucks starting forward PJ Tucker and others as his primary defenders, allowing him to get to his spots at mid-range and facilitate the Suns’ offense more efficiently.
Chris Paul man. More like him. pic.twitter.com/6qEVWZnYR3— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) July 21, 2021
“I got to my spots a little bit more tonight,” Paul said. “But I said if you watched us play all season long, I scored when I had to, some games I didn’t. Probably needed more even in this game and probably some other games.”
After recording back-to-back 40-point efforts in Games 4 and 5, Booker had his second-worst scoring performance of the series with 19 points on 8-of-22 shooting with five assists and three rebounds. He was guarded primarily by Bucks starting guard Jrue Holiday, who finished with the highest plus/minus rating of any player this postseason at +159.
Outside of Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee shot 21-of-57 (36.8 percent) from the field. The Bucks’ next-highest scorer was All-Star forward Khris Middleton, who had 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting with five rebounds and five assists, including a dagger pull-up jump shot to give his team a 102-96 lead with 56.9 seconds remaining.
"Khris Middleton, another clutch shot in these playoffs!"— NBA (@NBA) July 21, 2021
56.9 left in Game 6 on ABC pic.twitter.com/2zlZfQgNi7
The Suns’ championship run came to a close on Tuesday night. But the story of what this team accomplished and did for its city won’t soon be forgotten.
Phoenix became the first team to make the Finals after missing the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons. Compare that to just two seasons ago, when it finished with the league’s worst record at 19-63 and appeared to be in an inescapable pit of NBA poverty.
After going 19-63 in 2019, the 2020 Suns went undefeated in the bubble but still missed the playoffs— SB Nation (@SBNation) July 21, 2021
• traded for Chris Paul
• finished 52-21
• eliminated the Lakers
• swept the Nuggets
• defeated the Clippers
What a run for the Phoenix Suns pic.twitter.com/XS0bAclJJd
Now, they have championship experience under their belt. It’s something they expect to build on for future seasons.
“This isn’t something you want to feel,” Booker said. “I haven’t felt a hurt like this in my life. So, that’s what I say when I know we have a base and a foundation, just championship basketball at all times.”
There will be some immediate uncertainty in the months ahead. Payne has an expiring contract and it’s conceivable that Paul could turn down his player option of $44.2 million and seek a new contract. Plus, there’s the consideration of rookie extensions for Ayton and Bridges that would kick in a year from now.
But that’s on the backburner for now. This team wants to take its time in reflecting what was and what could have been. Suffice to say, that should be OK for Suns fans too.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Booker said. “So, I think all of our games have gotten better and like I said, we understand how important each possession is now and this feeling, I keep talking about the hurt, you know, you don’t want this and this is what you strive for, this is what you go into the summer with and you take it and use it as fuel.”
Make sure to read the transcribed pressers from Monty Williams (“I wanted it so bad”), Chris Paul (“this one is going to hurt for a while”), Devin Booker (“Silent. Just a lot of emotion.”) and other players, using the links below this article.