PHOENIX - Where's LeBron James? Where are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors? Where Brooklyn at? And while we're asking important questions about the NBA Finals we once knew or thought they would be, where's June?
The basketball comfort zone is all disrupted here in July of 2021, where the NBA championship round brings a change of flavor and on some levels a more refreshing one at that. There are new teams and players to crown, new cities to feel the jolt of euphoria or the depth of sorrow, new legacies and history to create.
Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not. Nobody has dibs on the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy, much as LeBron gave that impression over the last decade, and so that chunk of gold will look just as snug in the embrace of Chris Paul or Giannis Antetokounmpo, and their tears of victory will drip just the same.
That's the beauty of what's about to unfurl over the next few weeks. The Phoenix Suns have never won a championship in their 53 years, while the Milwaukee Bucks haven't since 1971. The Suns had several postseason opportunities that were ruined - the Valley still holds a spot in hell for Robert Horry and his felonious hip check of Steve Nash in 2007 - while the Bucks owned the best record in the NBA over the previous two seasons with nothing to show for it.
Oh, and there's also the two marketable stars of this series and how they're desperately gunning for their first championships. Paul is the sympathetic favorite because of his length of NBA service and sustained greatness over those 16 years. Antetokounmpo owns a recent pair of MVPs and you'd think a player with his level of excellence can't be denied the grand prize much longer.
Crazy thing is, both the Suns and Bucks are deserving and due, because of their combined decades of failing to get this far and because of how they arrived this season. Suns vs. Bucks wasn't an accidental trip. This was the result of growth and important additions to the mix and mapped-out destinations that seemed inevitable as the playoffs progressed and these two teams separated themselves from the pack.
And so, we chart where they've been, how they arrived and where they might be going starting with Game 1:
Before the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals and the Arizona Coyotes, the Suns stood alone as the Valley's legitimacy to sports. Once the Suns were born, Phoenix was hooked right from the go and gravitated to Alvan Adams and Paul Westphal and "The Hawk" and The Shot by Gar Heard. Jerry Colangelo, a former boxer and basketball coach who arrived from Chicago in the 1970s with a dream and blueprint, stood taller than Camelback Mountain as the architect of what was considered the model franchise.
The high water mark came in the 1990s when the Suns were both good and entertaining. Charles Barkley was the bombastic league MVP in 1993, Kevin Johnson dunked over Hakeem Olajuwon and "Thunder" Dan Majerle took shots from Tucson. They had the misfortune of rising during the Michael Jordan years, however, and in The 1993 Finals to Chicago and never returned until now.
Devin Booker, currently their young foundational player, gave a sartorial shout-out to those Suns' teams Monday by wearing a '93 Suns Finals shirt to practice. He then added some perspective between then and now, and how the hysteria in Phoenix has actually grown for the Suns.
"It's the only professional team that has Phoenix in it," Booker said. "Every other team is Arizona. So, Phoenix Suns is the baby franchise here and they love it with a passion. I'm wearing the shirt from '93 right now. I think it started around that time to when they developed that, you hear people talk about, I remember when I watched Charles (Barkley).
"You hear those stories at all times and seeing the passion in their eyes when they're telling the stories and even being at the bottom of the barrel for the past five years and them still showing up and showing love shows that same type of love that they have for this team."
"They love it with a passion."- Phoenix Suns (@Suns) July 5, 2021
- @DevinBook on the support around the Valley
🗣️ 2021 NBA Finals Media Day! 👇
From a championship perspective, the Suns didn't capitalize on the quick-trigger offense created in the 2000s by Mike D'Antoni or the two MVPs won by Nash. He captained their best chance in 2007 when in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, Horry checked him into the scorer's table. Amar'e Stoudamire and Boris Diaw earned one-game suspensions for leaving the bench and the Suns fell to the Spurs in six.
After that, the Suns were mired in the blah-isphere where they never made any noise and suffered from draft and free agency missteps before landing a devastating scorer in Booker in the 2015 NBA Draft and finally forming the core of what you see today.
Even when they "lost," they won: Phoenix initially received bad reviews for drafting Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 instead of Luka Doncic. Yet this season, Ayton has silenced the noise with a developmental leap that turned him into a Top 10 big man on both ends of the floor. Blessed with good size, decent hands and a solid attitude, Ayton became a factor for the Suns in these playoffs.
The Suns also signed Jae Crowder, a good 3-point shooter who can guard bigger players, and suddenly they had a balanced mix of seasoned veterans and young players to give them flexibility in the lineup.
Of course, it was the arrival of Paul that became a difference maker. His leadership, composure and savvy checked all the boxes of what the Suns were missing. Paul served a similar role in his one and only season with the Thunder, so it was a natural match that saw Paul join a Suns' team that ran the table in the 2020 season restart inside the bubble prior to his arrival.
More to do, more to come.- Phoenix Suns (@Suns) July 1, 2021
… but on the way, SOAK in every moment! pic.twitter.com/YnZe03Wzbe
Blending it together was the job of coach Monty Williams, now in his second year. And so: In a flash, a team that had the worst record in the NBA just a few years ago is suddenly on the doorstep of a championship.
"Guys are ready to play," said Williams. "I think the guys feel really good about where they are right now."
Coincidentally, the two teams playing for the 2021 title both entered the league together in 1969. A coin flip determined which one would get the No. 1 overall pick. The Bucks won, and then they kept winning, because the prize that year was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In that sense, the Bucks never did feel the full expansion team experience. After adding Oscar Robertson, a championship soon followed, and then another Finals trip … and then Kareem, feeling pinched by the absence of culture in Milwaukee, demanded a trade. He went West to the Lakers and the Bucks' fortunes dipped south.
The Bucks never really bottomed out, but they were trapped in mediocrity for the most part, save for the Don Nelson years when they simply weren't good enough to beat Larry Bird's Celtics or Julius Erving's 76ers in the East finals.
"You appreciate where they started, how they have evolved, including those early five, six, ten years, whatever it was, and now to where we are today and all the things that an organization goes through," said coach Mike Budenholzer.
Fast-forward to now: the Bucks were lucky to see Giannis fall to them at No. 15 in the 2013 draft, where they took this raw prospect from Greece and saw him develop at warp speed. For the first time since Kareem, the Bucks had a centerpiece.
They strung together back-to-back seasons of having the best record in the NBA (in 2018-19 and 2019-20), only to come up short in the playoffs. This season, there was a bit of urgency as a result. What enhanced their chances was a pair of additions: Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker. Both brought pit-bull defense while Holiday was also an upgrade at point guard with his poise and shooting ability.
And so the Bucks formed a strong nucleus of Giannis, Holiday, Tucker and Khris Middleton. Yet they were no longer the people's favorite to emerge from the East. That went to the Nets, the latest superteam, although a spate of injuries, along with a foot-on-the-3-point-line by Kevin Durant, torpedoed all those grand plans by Brooklyn.
The Bucks put their money on defense and 3-point shooting with Giannis serving as the core of it all. It worked in the past during the regular season, and finally it's working here in the postseason, where the journey is breathing a sigh of relief. Milwaukee above all brings size and this is quite the contrast to the Suns who, with the exception of Ayton, are built around the small ball.
"We tried to own the paint the last series (against Atlanta in the East finals)," said forward Bobby Portis, "just pounding the ball inside. I think that's going to be a big emphasis for us in this series."
The fans showed up & showed out. pic.twitter.com/crjXLbIYyh- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 4, 2021
The Bucks were impressive only in spurts throughout these playoffs, yet they stayed composed and circled the wagons when Giannis suffered a hyperextended knee that held him out of the last two games of the East finals. That alone was impressive.
"We're just a team that's trying to play unselfish, trying to do it as a committee," said Middleton. "When Giannis is out there, a lot of times we can just give him the ball and let him go to work and let him orchestrate a lot of things out there. Without him, we have to do it by committee, moving the ball around, driving it a little bit more, playing just a little bit faster with a little bit of different flow. But I think guys have done a great job of adjusting with him out, with him not out there in two of the most important games of our season."
The word is that Antetokounmpo is doubtful for Game 1, but much of that appears to depend on his pregame routine Tuesday. Obviously the tone and the balance of the series rests on whether he gives a thumbs up or down. The Bucks refuse to wallow in any pessimistic thoughts, and actually say they're more determined than ever to finish the job with (preferably) or without Giannis.
"There hasn't really been any doubt for me throughout this playoff run, whether we were up 2-0 against Miami or down 2-0 against Brooklyn," Lopez said. "I would like to be able to speak for everyone else and saying that we have all had that confidence going through, that we can achieve that goal of winning a championship."
So the intersection of the 2021 NBA Finals stands at the corner of New Blood and Big Hopes. There are fresh storylines, stars who are craving a coronation, coaches hoping for the credibility that a championship brings to their resume, and a sense that even without the usual superstars and teams typically involved this time of year, The Finals will not disappoint.
Which brings us to the last time the Bucks and Suns were engaged in anything remotely important: That coin flip five decades ago. Suffice to say, the stakes are high again. But unlike that flip of a coin, a best-of-seven series won't depend on dumb, 50-50 luck.
Somebody will need to win this one.
Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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