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NBA Finals notebook: These Suns are reminiscent of the 2019 Raptors

·7-min read

After a 118-108 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Phoenix Suns are two victories away from winning the franchise’s first NBA championship. None of that sentence makes any sense, unless you’ve been following the Suns all season. They went 8-0 in the NBA bubble last year, traded for Chris Paul in the offseason, then started the 2020-21 campaign 8-8 before taking off. Phoenix finished 51-21 and the No. 2 seed in the West. They fought through both Los Angeles teams in six games with a sweep of the Denver Nuggets in between, and have controlled the Finals through two games.

The Suns are playing with a cohesiveness that few teams ever achieve. The modern day standard bearer of this level of togetherness belongs to the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs, who eviscerated the Miami Heat in the Finals with precision. Phoenix is reaching those levels in these playoffs, and it was on full display on this particular possession in the first half of Game 2 against the Bucks:

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There’s something that’s hard to put into words about a basketball team’s ability to coalesce into something greater as they advance in the playoffs. You just know it when it’s there. In many ways, Phoenix reminds me a lot of the Toronto Raptors championship team from 2019 (I’m not the only person to have pointed this out). Those Raptors ascended to another level after falling behind 2-0 in the conference finals against the Bucks, ripping off a stretch of seven wins in eight games against Milwaukee and Golden State that was beautiful to watch.

The similarities are everywhere, starting with the point guards. Paul is in his first NBA Finals after 16 seasons, and while he hasn’t been as overlooked throughout his career as Kyle Lowry has, both were able to put to rest postseason narratives with signature performances. For Paul, it was his 41-point outing to eliminate the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 6 of the conference finals. Lowry had his moment in Game 6 of the Finals when he became the seventh player in league history to record at least 25 points and 10 assists in a championship-clinching win.

I could go on with just the Paul-Lowry comparisons. They’re two of the smartest players ever to play the game and treat outwitting their opposition as a personal challenge every time they step on the court. No matter how minuscule, there isn’t a single edge these two won’t explore in order to win, like calling out an opposing player for having an untucked jersey or drawing charges in the fourth quarter of an All-Star game.

It’s no surprise Lowry and Paul have struck up a friendship over the years. The two exchanged messages on strategy against the Warriors during the 2019 NBA Finals. When Paul injured his shoulder in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers this season, he sought advice from Lowry, who suffered a similar injury last season.

The similarities between Chris Paul (#3) and Kyle Lowry are striking. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The similarities between Chris Paul (#3) and Kyle Lowry are striking. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

There have been many other parallels during this playoff run. The Raptors had “The Shot.” The Suns have “The Valley-Oop,” a play inspired by Jay Triano, who has been the head coach of two NBA teams: Phoenix and Toronto. Pascal Siakam was Toronto’s breakout star in his Finals debut, scoring 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. Deandre Ayton became the first player since Tim Duncan to have 15+ points and 15+ rebounds in their Finals debut.

What truly stands out, though, is the togetherness. The Suns have responded to every single run from the Bucks through the first two games of these Finals and have yet to look uncomfortable at all. They have a starting lineup and a second unit led by Cam Payne and Cam Johnson, who are playing their roles perfectly. Of course, the job is only halfway done. To complete the comparison, the Suns will need two more wins. If the first two games of this series are an indication of what’s to come, the final result of these NBA Finals is starting to feel like a foregone conclusion.

A few other NBA Finals thoughts…

The Greek Freak needs some help

A week after leaving the conference finals with a hyperextended knee, and truthfully an injury that looked like it would end not just his playoff run but next season as well, Giannis Antetokounmpo was magnificent in Game 2 against the Suns, finishing with 42 points and 12 rebounds. His 20 third-quarter points were the most in a Finals quarter since Michael Jordan in 1993. It was special stuff from Antetokounmpo, who looks like a prime version of Shaquille O’Neal when he’s running downhill towards the basket against hopeless defenders. But the story of Game 2 for Milwaukee will be the putrid performance from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday on offense. The two combined for 28 points on 12-of-37 from the field. Holiday’s offensive numbers in the playoffs have looked awfully similar to the player he was supposed to replace:

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The Bucks, who now need to win four out of five games to win the title, can’t afford even another subpar performance from Middleton and Holiday. They’re +4 so far in this series in minutes Antetokounmpo has been on the floor (75:28), and -27 in the minutes he has sat (20:32). If these numbers continue trending in the wrong direction, the NBA season will be over by the end of next week.

A special night from Bridges

To extend the Raptors comparisons, Mikal Bridges reminds me a lot of OG Anunoby’s role with Toronto. A secondary scorer who never seems fazed by the moment and has put together a string of impressive postseason performances. Bridges went for 27 points in Game 2 and made me think a lot about what Anunoby would have brought to the Raptors in 2019 if he didn’t miss the entire postseason run due to injury. We saw what he brought to the table in the playoffs in his rookie season (which, unfortunately, we only remember for the game-winner LeBron James hit over him) and last year in the bubble. Yes, two years later, I’m still upset we will never get to see a frontcourt of Kawhi Leonard, Anunoby, and Siakam in the postseason.

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A “Wired Up” moment between Monty Williams and Deandre Ayton

We don’t often get too many great moments from coaches when they’re wired for sound (I’m looking at you, Mike Budenholzer), but this exchange between Monty Williams and Ayton during a fourth-quarter timeout in Game 2 gave us a glimpse into Williams’ relationship and approach with his young center, and also an understanding of how Ayton has been able to grow and develop into a winning player this season. As outsiders, we often judge head coaches by their win-loss records and their Xs and Os. Being an NBA head coach is also about relationship building and understanding how to communicate with every player on your team. This clip was a perfect example of how the little things matter when you’re a head coach trying to guide your young star through a frustrating night.

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