The eclipse came early — in more ways than one.
I was sitting on the front porch of my home in a Sacramento suburb, watching the Phoenix Suns’ dream season go dark at the hands of superstar Luka Dončić in Dallas’ stunning Game 7 win, when the family informed me there was a lunar event happening sooner than expected around the time the game was nearing an end. A blood moon and a bloody beating of these Suns, all at once.
One was much prettier to watch than the other.
As meltdowns go, it doesn’t get much worse than the 123-90 Mavs mauling that made the Suns just the second team in league history to win at least 64 games in the regular season only to be eliminated before the conference finals. The 2006-07 Mavs, coincidentally enough, won 67 games and were bounced in the first round by the “We Believe” Warriors.
So, what does it all mean for the Suns’ future?
Likely very little when it comes to the prospect of significant change being on the horizon. Suns coach Monty Williams is the reigning Coach of the Year and the center of their basketball universe. Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges are all on long-term deals, as are most of the role players (Cam Johnson has a team option for next season and is extension-eligible). Booker, as an aside, is up for a supermax extension worth $211 million over four years.
If Suns owner Robert Sarver wants to shed his reputation for frugality once and for all, now is the time.
Deandre Ayton’s restricted free agency has been looming all season long, but the Suns knew all along that their ability to match any offers that came his way meant they had leverage. And unless the “internal” issue that Williams referenced after the closeout game was something serious, Ayton has long since proved to be an indispensable part of the Suns’ elite program. Even if he only played 17 minutes in Game 7 against the Mavs.
Every other player of consequence is under contract or team control for next season, with JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo the only free agents of note. With that in mind, the brutal part for these Suns is they’ll have to spend the next five months just waiting to give it another go.
It was less than two weeks ago that Booker told me this playoff run was the Suns’ “revenge tour” after they’d fallen short against Milwaukee after being up 2-0 in the 2021 NBA Finals. Fast forward to Sunday night, and he was among the many Suns trying to grapple with a brutal ending of a far more embarrassing kind.
A quick sampling of what the key Suns figures had to say:
Booker, who was just 3-of-14 in Game 7 and didn’t hit his first field goal until the 5:02 mark in the third quarter (he finished with 11 points, three rebounds, two assists and a minus-41 mark):
“As a team, you know, we just have to own it. … You have to look at this and use it as motivation, just as we did with the finals last year. Just take that into the summer with you. It’s tough. It’s gonna be a few weeks trying to clear our heads and get away from this. But, you know, the bonus is, you know, we get family time. You know, we just did 100-game season and, you know, a lot of our families make sacrifices around our schedule, and now we get to tend to them a little bit.”
Paul, the 37-year-old who averaged just 9.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 3.6 turnovers after the Suns went up 2-0 against Dallas and who was reportedly dealing with a left quad injury, in response to a question about whether this might have been his last, best shot at an elusive title:
“Not at all (laughs). They said that last year, probably said it back in ’08, you know? You play long enough, and you don’t win, (then) every time you lose they’re gonna say it was your best chance. But I think for me, for us, we’ll be right back next year. Tell you that much. I am not retiring tomorrow. Thank God, you know, hopefully, I’m healthy. Come back. But keep playing.”
Williams, who took the blame for this loss and will likely head for his family’s ranch north of San Antonio to get away from it all just like he did last summer:
“That group has a lot of character and integrity. And I know how bad they wanted it. We just could not execute tonight, couldn’t make a shot early. And that messed with us a little bit, and Dallas played their tails off from start to finish.”
An ode to Giannis
Let’s go back to early September 2020.
Milwaukee had just dropped Game 1 of the East semifinals to Miami, and folks were wondering why the Bucks’ two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, hadn’t guarded Heat star Jimmy Butler when it mattered most down the stretch.
“You’re not going to be able to leave me … So either way it goes, we’re gonna be in a good spot.”
Jimmy Buckets unplugged on Giannis, Miami’s chances and more: https://t.co/GLuYdkpKNG pic.twitter.com/L7We5nMtUR
— The Athletic NBA (@TheAthleticNBA) September 2, 2020
But this hot topic wasn’t just about one specific defensive mystery — not even close. At that time, there was an unflattering undercurrent to the Antetokounmpo conversation. Why couldn’t he seem to assert himself in the playoffs like he had in the regular season? And why, with Mike Budenholzer routinely criticized back then for his managing of Antetokounmpo’s minutes, did the Greek Freak seem so willing to acquiesce to his coach’s conservative approach?
It was the continuation of a trend that had been growing for years: The questioning of Giannis’ greatness. Now, 20 months later, it all seems so silly — even though the criticism, some of which came from yours truly, was fair at the time.
To watch Giannis go down swinging in Game 7 against Boston on Sunday was to be reminded that he has transformed his reputation in these past two postseasons. One year after the Bucks’ title run, when Antetokoumnmpo turned in his NBA Finals performance for the ages while becoming the true leader of his team in the process, he took these relentless Celtics to the edge despite being without Khris Middleton for the entirety of the series because of his MCL injury (and three games in the prior series against Chicago). The man was a monster when it mattered most — again.
As you’ve likely seen by now on social media, Antetokounmpo became the first player ever to tally at least 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in a single playoff series (against Boston). He exits this postseason as the leading scorer among all players (31.7 points per game) and second in rebounding (14.2 per in 12 games, behind Jonas Valančiūnas’ 14.3 in six games).
Add in the fact that he averaged 6.8 assists, and it was the kind of postseason production the league has never before seen. Per StatHead.com, no one has ever reached the 31-14-6 thresholds in a postseason. Only four players — Oscar Robertson in 1963, Blake Griffin in 2015, Russell Westbrook in 2018 and Nikola Jokić in 2019 — have even reached 25, 12 and 6 marks.
But when it comes to this version of Antetokounmpo being unleashed, it’s the difference in minutes played in these past two postseasons that jumps off the page. Back in the bubble, when Antetokounmpo averaged just 33.2 minutes per game in the playoffs before he turned his right ankle in Game 4 against Miami and was done for the season, this was Budenholzer’s explanation for it all.
“If you’re going as hard as these guys are in a playoff game, (then) 35, 36 (minutes per game) — I think that’s pushing the ceiling,” he said after they lost to the Heat in five games.
Or… not. These are Antetokounmpo’s minutes in the past three playoffs:
2020: 30.8 per (this number is skewed because he played just 11 minutes in Game 4, but still…)
2021: 38.1 per
2022: 37.3 per
In Game 7 against Boston, with the Celtics’ elite defense limiting him to 10-of-26 shooting, he still managed to finish with 25 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists in 43 minutes. Kudos to Giannis, Budenholzer and all the rest of the Bucks for a spirited title defense. If you’re going to go down, you make the most of your best talents along the way.
Kings front office pressure
In the wake of the Kings’ decision to hire Mike Brown on May 8, there’s this relevant component that could make the internal dynamics interesting down the line: The new head coach has a significantly longer deal than the general manager who played a pivotal part in his hiring. Though Brown signed a four-year deal, sources say Kings GM Monte McNair is entering the final season of his contract and there have been no talks about a possible extension. No matter how you look at it, that means there’s significant pressure on McNair as the Kings try — yet again — to break the league-long playoff drought that has become the bane of their existence.
Sources say McNair’s status was a focal point for many of the coaching candidates during the process, with some having concerns about the lack of contractual commitment to the front office and what it might mean for their (would-be) partnership. McNair, who was a Houston Rockets assistant GM previously, was hired to replace the departed Vlade Divac in mid-September 2020.
Revealing Russ intel in Lakers coaching search
Speaking of pressure, this Lakers coaching search comes with all sorts of stakes attached. There’s the obvious desire to make the most of the LeBron James era and return to title-contending status, of course, but there’s also the fact that significant change of some sort will inevitably come if they fall short of that goal yet again. Lakers owner Jeanie Buss declared that she’s “growing impatient” in an interview with the LA Times this week, when she also publicly confirmed a number of revelations that were first reported by The Athletic (chief among them the fact that she’s relying on the counsel of Phil Jackson and Magic Johnson again, and that James’ happiness is seen internally as the key to this partnership thriving again).
Yet though it remains unclear who will replace the fired Frank Vogel, with Kenny Atkinson, Adrian Griffin, Mark Jackson, Darvin Ham and Terry Stotts among the known candidates, we continue to learn about how Lakers officials see their own roster by way of the coaching search itself. More specifically, the notion of Russell Westbrook remaining part of their program is seeming more real all the time. Despite the widely held belief that the Lakers would find a way to trade Westbrook before the start of next season, sources say their coaching candidates have been asked to discuss how they would use him in their system during interviews. The takeaway for candidates, it seems, is that maximizing Westbrook’s presence after his disastrous 2021-22 season is considered an important part of this job.
To that end, it’s worth revisiting my report from earlier this month about Jackson’s affinity for Westbrook. When the decision was made to fire Vogel, there was a belief from on high that Westbrook wasn’t put in a position to succeed. For Jackson’s part, sources say he has cited the Gary Payton dilemma in the 2003-04 Lakers season as a way of illustrating a coach’s need to make the best of roster decisions that weren’t his preference. In essence, deal with the hand you’re dealt rather than complain about it.
When the Lakers’ late owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, insisted on adding Payton in the summer of 2003, that meant Jackson had to convince Derek Fisher to come off the bench. And considering those Lakers had won titles in three of the previous four seasons with Fisher starting, this wasn’t a welcome situation for Jackson to have to handle. Yet though they didn’t win it all, the Lakers did manage to return to the finals that season (where they lost to Detroit). The comparison, it seems, was made to make the point that the coach (and his staff) should somehow find a way to find the Westbrook solution. Again, the strong signs continue that the Lakers are preparing for the possibility of Westbrook remaining.
As a final thought on the Lakers front, consider this: Boston has a legitimate chance of winning its 18th title in franchise history, thereby breaking the tie with the rival Lakers just two years after they’d tied it up at 17. As if Buss wasn’t unhappy enough with the state of affairs.
Doc in LA – again?
The Sixers wasted no time in making it clear that Doc Rivers will be their coach next season, but it’s still fair to wonder if that will turn out to be the case — if only because of Rivers’ history. Back in the summer of 2013, of course, his desire to coach the Clippers led to their trade with the Celtics for his services (Boston landed a 2015 first-rounder in the deal). So if the Lakers decided that he was the right guy to replace Vogel, and if Rivers wanted that job more than the one he has, then maybe we could see a repeat situation here? Then again, the Lakers are in no position to be giving up any of their (extremely) limited assets these days — whether it’s for a coach, a Westbrook deal or otherwise.
Cato: Luka and the Mavericks have arrived
Hollinger: Suns and Bucks couldn’t handle ‘space ball’
(Top photo of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Torrey Craig: Jerome Miron / USA TODAY Sports)
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