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Finals Practice Report: Suns and Bucks both locked in for the Larry O’Brien

Players and coaches had Media Day ahead of Finals, which begin Tuesday

NBA: Finals-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Just in case you haven’t heard the news, the Phoenix Suns have made the 2021 NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. That was 28 years ago. Only the coaching staff and a few players were even alive back then.

To us, this is an historic moment in time. Our local team, the Phoenix Suns, the original pro sports franchise, the team with reawakened rabid fanbase and the deepest roots, are back to the promised land — and for the first time favored to win the title! Both the 1976 and 1993 Suns were underdogs to the Finals-repeater Celtics and Bulls, respectively.

“I think it’s the baby here,” Suns All-Star guard Devin Booker said on Monday of Suns fandom in Phoenix. “It’s the only professional team with Phoenix in it. I’m wearing the shirt from 93 right now, I think that’s when it started. You hear people talk about ‘I remember when Charles and them...’ “

Booker has the most experience here with the Suns — more than six years now — and has always embraced the local history, but even Book can’t wrap his head around the bigness of this moment.

“I don’t think it will hit me till it’s all over,” Booker admits. “It’s kind of hard to reflect on what you’re doing when you’re in the moment.”

Indeed, the Suns are deep in the moment. They know how important a championship would be to this town, to this state, but they cannot dwell on it. All they can focus on is the next game, and the game after that and the game after that.

“As a head coach, I don’t have time to do all that,” Monty Williams said on Monday. “I’m just focused on the things necessary to get wins.”

Coming to the arena today after practicing at their off-site facility over the weekend, seeing it all decked out in images of the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship trophy, they did get a small sense of the moment.

“Walking in here, seeing Mr. Larry on every poster,” center Deandre Ayton says of what’s different about this series compared to prior playoff series. “It does not feel like I’m a player right now, but I am.”

The Suns normally practice at the new facility over on 44th Street, just north of Camelback Road, just completed last summer. But today, they came over the Phoenix Suns Arena to practice on their main game court for the pre-Finals Media Day. Ayton wasn’t the only player to note the difference, though he was the only one admitting how jarring it was.

Chris Paul was asked what’s weird about the last few days. “It’s different, having practice here and not at the practice facility... It’s weird no games being on — that’s probably the part that sucks.”

Paul made sure to note he’s happy the Suns are one of the last two teams alive in the NBA playoffs, even if that means there’s nothing else to watch between games.

Ayton recognizes that a lot has happened for the Suns in a very short amount of time. They went from a 19-63 record just two years ago during his rookie season, to now being four wins away from being NBA champs.

“I can say it feels like it’s going fast, a little bit,” the 22-year old Ayton admitted. “The mental stamina you have to have in between games.”

He says their pattern is to enjoy each win in the moment, but then it’s all business.

“I enjoy the night, and when I wake up it’s over, it’s back to work,” Ayton said. “As coach says, don’t get happy on the farm. As a group, we know we ain’t done that yet.”

That mentality has worked to help a young Suns team excel in their first playoff run with this group, beating all of the Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers. Each of the Suns best players — Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton — stepped up when they were needed most, each deserving of an ‘MVP’ in different rounds.

Now the Phoenix Suns face the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals. This iteration of the Bucks is used to playoff pressure, though this is the first time that All-Stars Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokuonmpo have made it to the promised land after four years of coming up short.

The Suns and Bucks have a lot of parallels beyond their 12 wins in these playoffs. They were added to the league on the same day in 1968, and were involved in a coin flip for the right to select Lew Alcindor with the top pick in the 1969 NBA Draft.

The franchises each smelled success in the 70s. Alcindor led the Bucks to two Finals, including a championship in 1971. The Suns made the Finals in 1976 and nearly did it again in 1979. But since the 70s, only the Suns have tasted a Finals round (1993) between them.

Now they’ve both broken that Finals drought, and within two weeks one of them will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Chris Paul tries to keep it all in perspective, at least.

“This is still a kids game,” Paul said. “This is a blessing and an opportunity to play this game.”

Interesting tidbits

  • Bucks starting forward P.J. Tucker used to play for the Suns and is credited with toughening up Devin Booker. Book says he’s “so excited” for the matchup on Tucker, and “me and Chris we talked a lot (of smack), me and Tuck we bumped into each other.”
  • Bucks center Brook Lopez’ brother Robin used to play for the Suns. Brook’s role will be vastly different whether Giannis plays or not. With Giannis he’s a floor spacer on offense, but without Giannis he’s a low-post bucket man
  • Suns forward Torrey Craig signed with the Bucks last offseason and was traded to the Suns in January. Now, Craig will receive a championship ring no matter who wins the Finals.
  • Booker laughed when asked if Chris Paul is more locked in than usual: “He’s always locked in, to be completely honest. He’s not gonna show us no frantic movement. He’s ready for this. He’s not walking a different way, he’s not talking a different way. But there’s an understanding among us (that it’s time.)”
  • Both the Suns coach and the Bucks coach worked as assistants in San Antonio under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, crediting him for some of their development as successful coaches.

Extra Points

A few players, notably including superstar LeBron James, have bemoaned the injuries that have knocked more than a few All-Stars out of the playoffs and/or caused them to lose an important series even while playing through pain.

The Suns made the Finals by beating the Lakers (who lost Anthony Davis for half the series, and LeBron James struggling with ankle pain), the Nuggets (who lost Jamal Murray in January) and the Clippers (who lost Kawhi Leonard a few games before the Western Conference Finals).

For their part, the Bucks made the Finals by beating the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets (who lost Kyrie Irving early in the series and played a hammy-hampered James Harden) and Atlanta Hawks (who lost Trae Young in game five of their series).

Still, the Suns and Bucks won those series and now are just four wins away from being crowned league champion.

“We’re not here to justify what we’re doing to anybody else, for real,” Suns guard Devin Booker says of naysayers who claim the Suns had an easier road to the Finals than previous teams.

James, in particular, says he warned the NBA back in October that this proposed schedule would be harmful to player health. Chris Paul, president of the NBA Players Association for years now, responded to a question on this topic.

“One thing about our league and its players is that everything is a conversation,” said Chris Paul, who has been head of the Players Association for years. “Decisions that are made as far as playing and not playing, players are always involved in it. The full body of players. Everything has always been a conversation and it’s going to continue to be like that.”

Next Up

The Suns will host Game One of the NBA Finals on Tuesday, July 6, at 6:00 PM at Phoenix Suns Arena.

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