While the Phoenix Suns blasted off to a 1-0 series lead in the NBA Finals, they lost their best backup big man, Dario Saric, for the stretch run with a torn ACL in his right knee.
Update on 7/7: The Suns reported that Saric has a torn ACL in his right knee and is out indefinitely.
Saric not only will miss the rest of the Finals but will be compromised for a good part of next season if not all of it. Saric is under contract for about $9 million per year for the next two seasons.
Saric left Game 1 on Tuesday night with 1:43 left in the first quarter while he was driving into the lane for a layup. Saric appeared to land wrong on a step-in pump fake.
Saric was helped to the locker room and did not return. The Suns soon issued a release that Saric would be out for the remainder of the game and updated his injury status on Tuesday morning.
“It’s just one of those situations that literally breaks your heart,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Dario is a guy that I’ve been with twice. I coached him in Philly, and to get a chance to be with him here, he’s what Suns basketball is about. Hard worker, unbelievable guy and he was so looking forward to playing in these Finals.”
Without Saric against big front line of the Milwaukee Bucks — including 7-footer Brook Lopez, 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo and 6-foot-10 Bobby Portis — Williams said Phoenix will likely turn to 7-foot backup center Frank Kaminsky or backup forwards Abdel Nader and Torrey Craig, at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7, respectively, to fill in for Saric when starting center Deandre Ayton needs rest.
“We’re just going to try to make those decisions on the fly,” Williams said. “But those three guys come to mind.”
Williams said one of the most difficult challenges of Saric’s injury will be the Suns’ defensive adjustments. If Craig or Nader have to play more at the five, they will be at a size disadvantage and take on new responsibilities.
“That’s the biggest thing, is trying to figure out the coverages for those guys, because when you go small ball with a guy like Torrey or Doolie (Nader’s nickname) it’s trying to teach those guys a coverage when they’re guarding a five that dives,” Williams said. “That’s not something that those guys are used to.
“And then the offensive package can change a bit. Those guys are so used to playing three and four. Now you got to put them in an environment where they’re playing the five.”
Ayton played excellent in Game 1, scoring 22 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in 39 minutes of play. When he was on the court, the Suns outscored the Bucks by 13 points.
In the nine minutes he rested, the Suns stayed even with the Bucks though it was an up-and-down performance.
Frank Kaminsky was a net-zero in his four minutes, failing to record a single statistic in the box score. But he had trouble anyway, more than a box score would appear with missed opportunities on entry passes to the post and missed rebound chances.
In the second half, Torrey Craig and Jae Crowder played the pivot when Ayton rested. They were attacked by the Bucks big men, but countered their scores with scores of their own.
Here is what Saric’s teammates said about his injury.
“Yeah, it’s tough. I talked to Dario this morning when I got in, and just to hear it in his voice. He’s a guy that’s all about team, works his tail off day in and day out. He’s one of us. That’s our brother. So it’s tough. It’s tough.”
“It hurts. It hurt our whole group. Dario is our guy. He’s our energy in the locker room that you guys don’t get to see, but we love him and we are here with him. Obviously an unfortunate turn of events, but we’re going to reach out to him, we’re going to make sure he’s mentally right and that he’s in the right spirit and we’re on the road to recovery. As far as the court goes, obviously we’re going to be missing his presence and the things that he does out there, but everybody is going to have to give a little bit more.”
“First and foremost, you know, the Dario situation, it really broke my heart and all of our hearts to hear that. You know, any time a guy goes down, any time a guy goes down at any point with this, it’s terrible, and then on top of it, it’s the Finals. He’s fought with us so long, and he’s fought through a lot of things this year. To add that on, it’s really hard on him. Obviously I’m praying for him and our team is praying for him and we just really wish him the best and hope that he can get better as quick as possible. He’s a big part of what we do, an awesome teammate and a guy that everybody loves, so I hate to hear that.”
I don’t know where the Suns will turn in Dario’s absence, but none of the options look excellent. My guess is that with a 1-0 series lead, the Suns will simply give Ayton as many minutes as he can handle, even exceeding 40 per game. And then the rest will be fingers-crossed moments.