How two losses to the Lakers helped the Suns find their NBA Finals path

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams hugs Devin Booker as Chris Paul stands nearby.
Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams hugs Devin Booker as Chris Paul stands nearby during the final second of their win over the Clippers in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on June 30.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Monty Williams walked into the room and took a minute to stare at the NBA Finals backdrop. Devin Booker honored the Phoenix Suns’ history by wearing a throwback shirt from their last Finals appearance in 1993. And Deandre Ayton had a wide smile affixed to his face and goosebumps on his arms.

But after a handful of wide-eyed moments, the Suns looked at home on this stage, a confidence earned from dethroning the Lakers more than a month ago.

Before they were NBA finalists , they were a snake-bitten No.2 seed on their way to being “upset” by LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers. After winning the series opener, the Suns lost homecourt in Game 2. And in the final moments of Game 3, they lost their composure.


Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George grew as teammates and leaders under coach Tyronn Lue, which could bode well in keeping the pair together.

July 3, 2021

Booker shoved Dennis Schroder on a layup, leading to a flagrant foul and ejection. Jae Crowder was ejected for jawing with Schroder moments later. And as the two Phoenix players walked off the court, it was as if all the talk of the Suns’ inexperience and immaturity was spot on.

Williams had hoped his team would bounce back. He saw its resilience during the season. But with their season close to slipping away, the stakes were totally different.

“You don’t know,” Williams said.

He does now.

The Suns won the next three against the Lakers, swept the Denver Nuggets and dispatched the Clippers, emerging from that 2-1, first-round hole to eventually become the betting favorites in the Finals. They haven’t trailed in a series since they were pushed by the reigning champions.

“I’m glad we went through that; I’m glad we had those two losses,” Booker said Monday. “… Somebody said before the playoffs started like when you win a game, you feel like you can’t lose again. When you lose, you feel like you can’t win again. And that’s the playoffs for real.”

The two losses to the Lakers forced the Suns to level themselves, to find the poise that Williams had spoken to them about all season. A knee injury to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference finals forced the Bucks, their Finals foe, to show poise too.

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is helped off the court.
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is helped off the court after suffering a knee injury against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on June 29.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

Antetokounmpo is “improving,” coach Mike Budenholzer said Monday, but his status for Game 1 on Tuesday is up in the air. Without their star in the last two games, the Bucks had to adjust on both sides of the floor, reinventing themselves on the fly.


If he somehow returns for Game 1, it’ll be a timely twist — so much of these playoffs have been defined by stars missing games. Those league-wide injuries have led to a fresh round of criticism over the NBA’s scheduling, including a series of tweets from LeBron James earlier this postseason .

“Decisions that are made as far as playing or not playing, players are always involved in it,” said Suns guard Chris Paul, the players union president. “Injuries are always unfortunate. You hate to have them. But just like when we went to the bubble, everything was discussed as far as the players and the full body of players. Everything that’s good for this guy and that guy might not be the same for that guy, but everything has always been a conversation and it’s going to continue to be that way.

“So if people don’t like it, then you know everybody has the same opportunity to be a part of all these conversations.”

Phoenix Suns vs. Milwaukee Bucks NBA Finals schedule.
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

The end result of this season is a historic Finals — the Suns back for the first time since 1993 and the Bucks back for the first time since 1974. It’s the first Finals since 1983 without a former teammate of Shaquille O’Neal’s participating. It’s the first Finals since 1994 without Michael Jordan, O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry or James on the floor, opening the door for a new batch of stars.

And only one player, Crowder, has any Finals experience at all.

“It’s still basketball,” Paul said. “I think we’re all locked into the goal at hand.”

The injury bug created “what if” scenarios for not only the Clippers and Lakers with Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, but all the top contenders.

July 2, 2021

Internally, those goals have been very high all season, the Suns catching some good momentum during this postseason run. But they’ve had to show mental toughness and calm too — starting in that first-round series with the Lakers.

“One thing coach always talks about is poise,” Suns forward Cameron Johnson said. “Obviously, that was a big moment where we had to show it.”

The win over the defending champions helped forge the Suns’ playoff identity, erasing concerns that the team was too young and too inexperienced to win at this level.

“Having gone through that — that experience — shaped us,” Booker said.