Asked if there was any moment that hit him that he was playing for a championship, Suns starting center Deandre Ayton said he was smacked right across the face when he saw posters of the Larry O’Brien Trophy hanging inside Phoenix Suns Arena during NBA Finals Media Day on Monday.
“It gave me goosebumps,” Ayton said. “I don’t know if I was a part of it, or I’m just here to look around or I’m just here for the NBA — it do not feel like I’m a player right now.”
For Ayton and Phoenix, the reality of the situation is difficult to grasp. Just two seasons ago, the Suns finished at the bottom of the Western Conference for the fourth time in seven years. Ayton, a rookie at the time, faced criticism from his selection as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, with pundits suggesting that Phoenix should have taken Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, now a two-time first-team All-NBA selection.
Ayton’s teammate, starting shooting guard Devin Booker, was also questioned for his ability to lead a team through his first four seasons. Now, the Suns have collectively proven they can win at the highest level. But they’re not doing it just to try and prove people wrong.
“We’ve had goals for this group and aspirations for this group since day one,” Booker said. “We keep those in-home for that reason. We compete against each other and we’re on the constant pursuit to get better every day.”
Four wins separate Phoenix from its first NBA championship in franchise history. To do that, the Suns will have to take down the Eastern Conference champion Milwaukee Bucks, who defeated the Atlanta Hawks in six games in the conference finals to advance to the final round.
Incidentally, Phoenix and Milwaukee entered the NBA at the same time before the 1968-69 season. The Bucks then infamously won a coin flip that allowed them to draft Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then-named Lew Alcindor) with the No. 1 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft.
A lot has changed in the last 50-plus years, but Suns coach Monty Williams is hopeful that his team will land on a positive side of history this series.
The Suns and Bucks participated in a coin flip to determine which team would receive the No. 1 overall pick in the 1969 NBA Draft.— NBA Draft (@NBADraft) July 5, 2021
Milwaukee won the coin flip and selected Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with whom they won a championship in 1971.
NBA Finals start TUESDAY - 9:30pm/et, ABC pic.twitter.com/n44uEieIGN
“I hope we’re the ones that win,” he laughed. “That’d be a historical fact 50 years from now that I hope is in play.”
This century, Milwaukee is led by superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who at 26 years old has already been named a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player (2018-19 and 2019-20), Defensive Player of the Year (2019-20), five-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA first-team pick.
However, Antetokounmpo’s status is uncertain for Game 1 on Tuesday due to a left knee hyperextension he suffered in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on June 29. No matter his status, the Suns said they have a game plan with or without him, aided by film from the Bucks’ final two games of the conference finals.
The 2021 Finals will be the 1st Finals matchup between leading scorers (Giannis Antetokounmpo & Devin Booker) playing on their 1st NBA team since 2010, when Kobe Bryant & Paul Pierce led their teams. pic.twitter.com/Occla74aSg— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 5, 2021
“We always scout,” said Suns starting forward Mikal Bridges. “We always scout for Giannis. Obviously, he’s the head of the snake. If he does or does not play, we’re going to be prepared.”
Like the Los Angeles Clippers without superstar forward Kawhi Leonard, the Bucks are no pushover without Antetokounmpo. Starting forward Khris Middleton, a two-time NBA All-Star, averaged 29.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.5 steals in Milwaukee’s final two wins over Atlanta, including a 16-0 run of his own in its 118-107 victory in Game 6 on Saturday.
Bridges is expected to be the primary defender on Middleton, though the Suns may switch on ball screens and have multiple wings covering him. It’s a challenge that Bridges, who typically guards the best opposing forward, said will be difficult.
“You’ve just got to watch film and know his tendencies a little bit and make it tough for him,” Bridges said. “He can shoot it, which makes it tough because you’ve got to pick up a little bit higher, good handle, loves his mid-range game and can finish. So just kind of picking spots on him and trying to make it tough for him, but he’s really talented.”
In Antetokounmpo’s absence, Bucks starting point guard Jrue Holiday also stepped up, averaging 26.0 points, 11.0 assists, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. In his first season with Milwaukee, Holiday set career highs in field goal percentage (50.3), 3-point field goal percentage (39.2 percent) and was an all-defensive first-team selection, a presence that the Suns are especially wary of.
“Jrue is just the consummate team guy,” said Suns starting point guard Chris Paul. “Plays the game the right way, defends, can score. My family knows, like my parents, I think, know his family very well and stuff. He’s just like a good guy, like a great guy. I’m sure they’re excited to have him, and that’s what’s going to make this series so tough.”
Williams coached Holiday with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2013-14 and 2014-15 and said he will be a difficult player to play against due to his “fearless” mentality.
“He’s been pretty much this kind of player his whole career,” Williams said. “He guards multiple positions, he can shoot the ball, he can attack the basket. He’s just a really good basketball player. He’s physical on defense, he gets over screens.
“He’s just a big, strong guard, and everywhere he goes, he has an affect on the team, especially on the defensive side of the ball.”
Bucks starting center Brook Lopez has been very productive at times in these playoffs, including a 33-point, seven-rebound outing on 14-of-18 shooting in Milwaukee’s 123-112 win over Atlanta on July 1. He will likely guard Ayton, who currently has the highest field-goal percentage in NBA postseason per a minimum of 150 attempts and has been the Suns’ playoff MVP, according to Paul.
Ayton said it will be critical to attack the offensive glass — he is averaging 3.4 offensive rebounds per game this postseason — in order to keep Lopez off-balance.
“If he crashes, I’ll probably be the first man on my end to probably get early seals, just to try to put some pressure on the rim to change the game up a little bit,” Ayton said. “Angles, just finding good angles on the way I set screens to get people open — pin-downs, on-ball screens. Just ways to put pressure on him having two against one.”
Ayton is also likely to be the primary defender on Antetokounmpo if he plays. When matched up against Antetokounmpo in the regular season, Ayton limited him to 10-of-24 shooting in two games. As a team, the Suns are 4-1 over the last three seasons in contests in which Ayton has played against the Bucks.
Asked about some of the keys to that matchup, Ayton said he will have to ensure he is a “presence” and defend without fouling.
“Always showing my hands and just matching his physicality,” Ayton said. “This is a guy whose motor is insane, and we just have to match it and compete. That’s what it comes down to at the end of the day, just competing.”
Competition is all that Suns starting forward Jae Crowder could ask for. The lone player on either team with NBA Finals experience (he was with the Miami Heat last season), Crowder said he was “very grateful” to receive another opportunity at a championship but does not consider it a big advantage.
Jae Crowder: "I'm keeping my promise to the city of Phoenix. Four more wins and I'm gonna salsa, you better believe it"— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) July 1, 2021
“That’s all fine that I’ve been here before, but I haven’t won anything,” he said. “So, it really doesn’t mean anything to me personally. But I use my last stint as motivation to get back here to have a chance to play for it all again, to work my way to be in this position. Hopefully it’s a different result, and that’s my motivation in it all.”
Of all Suns players, the motivation is certainly there for Paul, a future Hall-of-Famer who is looking to add an NBA championship to his successful resume. After suffering a long list of postseason injuries, Paul now has a chance to compete on the biggest stage, something he is not taking lightly.
“I think we got a really good team, great leadership on our team where we understand that we lock back in,” Paul said. “That moment (winning the West) is over and now, this is on to the next.”
For a the Suns’ young core — including Ayton, Booker, Bridges and backup forward Cameron Johnson — this opportunity is especially rewarding. The Suns went through challenging times in the last few seasons but have a chance to make up for it.
More than anything, they’re ready for the challenge ahead.
“Obviously, I watched the Finals every year of my life, and this is obviously something that millions and millions of people around the world would give a lot to be a part of,” Johnson said. “So, the fact that myself and my team and everyone in this organization has an opportunity to play in it is incredible. I’m just really thankful that I have this opportunity.”