Finally, word has come out that puts a little more context into the Phoenix Suns two blowout losses to end their 2022 playoff run after taking a 3-2 lead on the Dallas Mavericks.
Wasn’t it weird that the Suns looked so good in Game 5, then slogged through a pair of dispirited losses, only to look dazed and confused (rather than angry) afterward?
Wasn’t it weird the day-after ‘end of season’ media session with head coach Monty Williams was done via Zoom after a playoffs full of old-school, pre-pandemic-style face to face media time on a daily basis?
Wasn’t it weird that Monty Williams had not spoken one-on-one to Deandre Ayton after their tiff, only conducting a single team-wide meeting on that Monday... that we now know was also done by Zoom?
Now we know, at least one more part of the story.
Reporting with @joevardon, at @TheAthletic— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) June 8, 2022
On the Suns’ COVID outbreak at the end of the West semifinals that left some very concerned and raises questions about how the NBA should handle the virus going forward https://t.co/OUtSYJvwDH
It appears COVID-19 hit the Suns once again, and this time it was pervasive. Sam Amick and Joe Vardon have done the legwork and confirmed via half dozen sources that the Suns indeed had a blooming COVID-19 outbreak that was unreported.
The new protocols are in line with the CDC guidelines and probably very similar to your own workplace these days: if you have symptoms, get tested. Until then, no testing needed (even if you were in close contact with a COVID-positive person, as long as you are asymptomatic). Per this Athletic story, at least one Suns player tested positive on Monday, the day after Game 7. Tests are done only upon request, rather than forced like they were a year ago.
No names have been released, but you can guess who might have been feeling under the weather in that game by how they played.
This report obviously does NOT say the whole Suns team was ridden with COVID, so their team-wide meltdown cannot be totally explained by unreported COVID symptoms. There’s still the Deandre Ayton situation, for example.
Mere days later, Mikal Bridges posted Instagram pics from the beach so we can assume he was fine. He led the team in shot attempts at halftime with 8 (making only 2), one attempt ahead of leading scorer Devin Booker (0-7 from the floor) and double the attempts of the Suns other All-Star Chris Paul (0-4 from the floor). The Suns, who average more than 60 points per half on the season and had been carving up the Mavericks in home games, scored only 27 points in that fateful first half.
The players who did media afterward — Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges — uniformly lamented the awful timing of such a bad game.
“Just that we lost,” Booker said minutes after the final buzzer, on how disappointed he was. “That’s the biggest thing, and the fashion that we did it in. You can have those nights during the regular season and you can have them here and there when shots can’t fall, and I think it just happened to be the wrong timing on it in a Game 7.”
“I think we just came out and didn’t have enough,” Paul said. “I think (Suns head coach) Mont(y Williams) said that’s on him but I think that’s on me, the point guard, the leader of the team, to make sure we get the right shots and all that. But that is what it is.”
The All-Stars seemed low on energy and low on reasons for such a dispirited collapse. Now we know that lack of energy/answers could be due to the virus itself, or knowledge that the virus had likely compromised one or more of their teammates.
Mikal Bridges’ first words after the game: “It hurts. I just think the biggest thing just personally is, I love everybody here, even you guys (the media). To not be able to see everybody every day, I think that’s always the toughest thing. It just sucks. I just love being around everybody every day man.”
“It’s tough man, it’s tough,” Cameron Johnson said. “Nobody wanted our season to end like that, nobody wanted to come out and have a performance like that. But it is what it is. Can’t change it now, I don’t know. Our whole entire group tried our best to get it right as it was going south.”
That sounds to me like a group that had accepted their fate even before they sat down in front of the media. All the granstanding gone, lamentation then only thing that remains.
They have all since retreated from public view since the Suns season is over. That is by regular protocol — generally neither the coach nor the players conduct media interviews from the end of the season until Media Day in September. That’s their break from daily media presence during the season.
And there’s little to no value to use COVID as an excuse now. People will say they should not have played through it, and they’re probably right. A year ago, Paul missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals with COVID and the Suns were able to win both games anyway. But that was just Paul being sick, and no one else. When he returned in Game 3, he shot barely over 30% from the field for a few games and wasn’t himself until late in the series.
And frankly, if the players and team admit to it now — that unreported COVID ravaged the end of their series — they might be subject to an investigation into misconduct by the league, as mentioned by Amick in the story above. At the moment, the Suns had only the one positive test before game seven (asst. coach Brian Gates) and one (a player, unnamed) the day after the season. The league is currently stating that the Suns did not breach any protocols.
According to the Athletic, the Suns conducted no in-person one-on-one post-season exit interviews with players before dispersing for summer vacations.
Starting about a week after the season, I’d head snippets of this but nothing concrete. Thanks to Sam Amick and Joe Vardon of the Athletic for doing the work to verify the rumor and get this out.