Milwaukee hasn’t won an NBA title in a half-century. Phoenix hasn’t won one since … ever.
No player on either roster has ever earned a ring, either.
No matter who wins, they’re going to be newcomers making history — even if it’s a venerable legend like Suns guard Chris Paul finally getting his shot, or two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo shrugging off his June 29 left knee injury.
“Walking into here, seeing Mr. Larry on every poster. It gave me goose bumps,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said, referring to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. “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. I do not feel like I’m a player right now, but I am.”
Every player on both of these rosters couldn’t be blamed for feeling that way.
These NBA Finals aren’t going to be the typical names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. It’ll be more unusual circumstances than usual suspects.
The Suns hadn’t made the playoff for a decade before their 8-0 bubble paved the way for a 2021 Final. They went all in, traded for the 35-year-old Paul, and his guiding hand helped get them here. Well, that and some amazing luck.
In the first round, they unseated a defending champions Lakers team bereft of injured Anthony Davis. Then Paul averaged 25.5 points to beat a Denver team sans Jamal Murray. Finally, came a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard.
On Tuesday, they could play Game 1 without having to face Antetokounmpo, who hyperextended his knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final versus Atlanta.
Make no mistake, the Suns are a gifted, well-coached, fast-improving team. But how their playoff path has just opened up for them strains credulity.
“We’re not here to justify what we’re doing to anybody else, for real,” Devin Booker said. “We’ve had goals for this group and aspirations for this group since Day 1. 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.”
And win a title, the same as Milwaukee. And the Bucks’ path is just as crazy. After posting the NBA’s best record the past two years only to suffer early exits, they had one foot out of the playoff door in their second-round series versus the Nets.
But James Harden’s hamstring injury just seconds into the series (and return in a compromised state), Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury after landing on Antetokounmpo’s foot and Durant’s toe just tickling the line on what would’ve been a series-winning 3 saw the Bucks survive. And they claim they’re stronger for it all.
“Everything we’ve been through is just experience. You learn from it. The postseason failures we’ve had so far, we’ve found a way to use that as motivation and just use that and let it teach us how to be better,” Khris Middleton said.
“One of the keys is just looking back and reflecting on what we’ve been through this season, what we’ve been through in the playoffs and then looking at our goal,” Jrue Holiday added. “Everybody on our team has had the same goal and we’re so close to reaching it.”
To get that goal, Holiday and Middleton may have to pick up the playmaking slack if Antetokounmpo can’t play. They could rely on Brook Lopez as a roll man.
How they handle Paul and Booker in the pick-and-roll without Antetokoumpo’s ability to switch 1-through-5 remains to be seen.
Booker — who averaged 25 points and 4.3 assists — has boosted that to 31.7 and nine in the Suns’ three Game 1s, all wins. Ayton has also had hot starts, averaging 20.3 and 11.7 in the series openers.
Still, despite those hot starts they’re fully aware of how the Bucks have adjusted and come from behind in series. And the Suns are acutely aware the job is four wins away from finished.
“Like coach says, ‘We don’t get happy on the farm,’ ” Ayton said. “The job’s not done. I guess the team hasn’t been here in awhile, but as a group we know we ain’t done nothing yet.”
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