How two losses to the Lakers helped the Suns find their way to the NBA Finals

Monty Williams walked into the room and took a minute to look at the backdrop of the NBA Finals. Devin Booker honored the history of the Phoenix Suns by wearing a retro jersey from his last Finals appearance in 1993. And Deandre Ayton had a wide smile on his face and goose bumps on his arms.

But after a handful of moments of anticipation, the Suns seemed to be home with the spectacular confidence gained by dethroning the Lakers more than a month ago.

Before they were NBA finalists, they were No. 2 in the seed and on their way to being “crushed” by LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers. After winning Game 1 of the series, the Suns lost the right to play at home in Game 2. And in the final moments of the third game, they lost their composure.

Booker pushed Dennis Schroder, leading to a flagrant foul and expulsion. Jae Crowder was expelled for squabbling with Schroder moments later. And when the two Phoenix players walked off the court, it was as if everything that was being said about the Suns’ inexperience and immaturity was true.

Williams hoped his team would bounce back, he had already seen its resilience throughout the season, but with his season on the brink of waning, the stakes were totally different.

The Suns won the next three games against the Lakers, swept the Denver Nuggets and dispatched the Clippers, coming out of that hole 2-1 in the first round to become betting favorites in the Finals. They haven’t lagged behind in a series since the series with the reigning champs.

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is helped off the court.

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is helped off the court after suffering a knee injury against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on June 29.

(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

“I’m glad that I went through that, that I had those two losses,” Booker said Monday. “… Someone mentioned before the playoffs started that when you win a game, you feel like you can’t lose again; But when you lose, you feel like you can’t win again. And that’s how the playoffs really are. “

The two losses to the Lakers forced the Suns to catch up, to find the poise that Williams had talked about all season. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo’s knee injury in the Eastern Conference finals forced the Finals rival Bucks to show poise as well.

Antetokounmpo is “on the mend,” coach Mike Budenholzer said Monday, but his status for Tuesday’s Game 1 is to be seen. Without their star in the last two games, the Bucks had to adjust on both sides of the court, reinventing themselves on the fly.

If he somehow comes back for Game 1, it will be a welcome twist, as much of these playoffs have been defined by the absence of the stars. Those league-wide injuries have led to a new round of criticism of NBA programming, including a series of tweets from LeBron James earlier this postseason.

“Players are always involved in the decisions that are made about whether to play or not play,” said Suns guard Chris Paul, the president of the players’ union. “Injuries are always unfortunate, you hate having them, but just like when we went to the bubble, everything was discussed with the players. What is good for one player may not be good for another, they have been talked to all the time and it will continue to be that way ”.

“Everyone has the same opportunity to be part of those conversations.”

The result of this season is a historic Finals: The Suns return for the first time since 1993 and the Bucks return for the first time since 1974. They are the first Finals since 1983 without a former Shaquille O’Neal teammate participating. They are the first Finals since 1994 without Michael Jordan, O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry or James on the court, opening the door to a new breed of stars.

And only one player, Crowder, has experience in The Finals.

Internally, the goals have been very high all season, the Suns had to take a huge boost this postseason. But they have also had to show mental toughness and calm, starting with that first-round series with the Lakers.

Phoenix Suns vs. Milwaukee Bucks NBA Finals schedule.

(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

“One thing the coach always talks about is poise,” Suns forward Cameron Johnson said. “Obviously, that was a great moment where we had to show it.”

The victory over the reigning champions helped forge the Suns’ identity in the playoffs, erasing concerns that the team was too young and inexperienced to win at this level.

“Having been through that – that experience – shaped us,” Booker said.

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