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PHOENIX – This should mark a moment for the Phoenix Suns to celebrate after spending a decade toiled with faulty rebuilding projects. But with the Suns returning to the NBA Finals for the first time in 28 years, fans outside of this city have questioned the team’s place in the history books.
They say the Suns would not have advanced out of the first round had the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis been fully healthy and available. They say the Suns would not have won in the second round had the Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray never tore the ACL in his left knee. They say the Suns would not have become the NBA’s Western Conference champions had the LA Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard never suffered a right knee injury that kept him out of the entire series.
They say the Suns only face the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals beginning on Tuesday because they remained the last healthy team standing amid a compressed season full of injuries.
“We're not here to justify what we're doing to anybody else, for real,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “We’ve had goals for this group and aspirations for this group since day one. 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.”
The Suns reached those goals regardless of what their opponents faced. To be clear, the Lakers and Clippers likely would have beaten the Suns had their star players remained healthy. The Nuggets would have had a decent shot, too. But that does not mean the Suns deserve an asterisk to their Finals appearance.
Phoenix entered the season as a legitimate playoff team that could at least make some noise before fully opening its championship window in future seasons. The Suns opponents’ injuries may have opened that window earlier than expected as well as played a role in securing the No. 2 seed. Nonetheless, Phoenix appeared on track toward reaching that destination in future seasons, anyway. Because of these circumstances, the Suns simply faced an accelerated timeline.
So just like when the Lakers won an NBA championship in last season’s bubble, the Suns deserve credit for reaching this stage amid challenging circumstances that could have derailed other teams.
“It's not easy winning in the NBA,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said. “The type of sacrifice you have to put in and the preparation before each game, you just have to be consistent with it. Just to have the organization and the group, a team like this to be on the same page is insane. Just going through that wasn't easy. It was a lot of adversity and a lot of trials and tribulations to get through where we are today.”
So what were the trials and tribulations?
It started with the Suns’ front office, led by general manager James Jones, acquiring an All-Star guard (Chris Paul) and signing a veteran role player (Jae Crowder) to help their young roster. It continued with those players offering dependable guidance and production without stunting their younger teammates.
It continued with Booker and Ayton becoming receptive to such veteran feedback by enhancing their on-court value instead of deferring. It continued with Suns coach Monty Williams building off a team-oriented and workmanlike culture that ensured an 8-0 record in the NBA campus bubble. It continued with the Suns having a handful of role players eager to fill in the gaps without complaint. And it could end in an NBA championship.
“Everybody’s holding each other accountable,” Suns guard Cameron Payne said. “If someone's messing up, 1 through 15 has the right to say something to you because we know each other off the court. So, no one ever takes it the wrong way. Honestly, I feel like that's how we got here, accountability all the way down the line, being able to take criticism from your teammate. That's one of the biggest things of building a championship organization.”
So consider how the Suns handled a 2-1 first-round series deficit to the Lakers.
Booker and Crowder had received late-game ejections after losing their cool. Paul had nursed rigorous pain in his right shoulder. And it appeared the Lakers would make this a short series after James and Davis seemingly made progress with their injuries.
“I'm glad we had those two losses, because you learn so much in that time,” Booker said. “Obviously you never want to lose, but the level of focus that we bring back into the arena and the gym the next day, it's not more talking about it, it's like a demeanor and an energy that you can feel throughout everybody."
Sure, the Suns also benefitted from the Lakers’ misfortunes. In Game 4, Davis then suffered an injury to his left groin that he said partly stemmed from his left knee injury in Game 3. Davis then missed Game 5 entirely and lasted only five minutes in Game 6. And James experienced more discomfort in his right ankle.
Yet, the Suns also showed remarkable resiliency. Paul kept fighting through his shoulder injury. The Suns’ young stars (Booker, Ayton) and role players elevated their game. And they all limited the Lakers’ role players from having much impact.
After sweeping the Nuggets in four games, the Suns then encountered more adversity. Paul missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals after testing positive for COVID-19 before showing rust in Games 3 through 5. Booker also labored through a battered nose and a shooting slump from Games 2 through 6.
Yet, the Suns remained equipped to still have control of the series. Booker had a triple double in Game 1 to compensate for Paul’s absence. In the final play of Game 2, Booker set a perfect screen for Ayton before Crowder threw a perfect inbounds pass to Ayton for a game-winning lob. And in a decisive Game 6, Paul had a postseason career-high 41 points and eight assists.
“I'm always confident that we're going to bounce back,” Williams said. “You're confident that they will because we have been a resilient group. We have dealt with a lot.”
Granted, the Suns might be favored in Game 1 amid the uncertain availability of Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo after missing Game 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference finals because of a left knee injury. But just like they have shown all postseason, the Suns’ fortunes will hinge more on their ability to live up to their potential than simply benefitting from their opponent’s misfortunes.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Suns opponents' injuries may have accelerated championship window