MILWAUKEE — On the other side of the playoff joy is the playoff pain, the tears and lack of payoff that comes in defeat.
And like the song made popular by Frankie Beverly and Maze, the feelings produced in the NBA Finals will be both bitter and sweet — depending on the outcome in Tuesday’s Game 6 (9 p.m. ET, ABC). The Milwaukee Bucks have been where the Phoenix Suns are, playoff neophytes figuring things out as they go along, nearing heartbreak after bouts of prosperity. Whether it’s bad luck or failure, they look to have had enough and are turning the painful lessons into something glorious if they can close out the Suns in Game 6.
The only champion in recent NBA history — and perhaps post-playoff expansion — to skip that big step of disappointment is the Boston Celtics in 2008. They added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen — players who won a combined four playoff series before arriving in Boston — to Paul Pierce and managed to win a title.
The Suns looked like the next team in that lineage, especially after the first two games. They were a machine, didn’t beat themselves and whatever inexperience they had seemed irrelevant — dispatching the Western Conference set the stage for a coronation.
If they lose Game 6, it’ll be a shocking four-game walk down from a team that had been through enough losing in the playoffs.
The Bucks were in that very spot two years ago, taking an easy lead over the perennially failing Toronto Raptors in the East finals. Then, Kawhi Leonard decided to match up against Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Raptors won four straight and became champions shortly after.
“I'm trying to think what was the mindset of the other team,” Antetokounmpo recalled of that 2019 series. “Leaving Milwaukee down 2-0, and now they're thinking they got to go back home, protect home court and then come back here, get one. I'm just trying to think what they did and try to learn from our mistakes and our failures as much as possible.”
Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, the two who’ve been through it the last couple years, prefer not to dwell on the past. Antetokounmpo has been a picture of relaxation throughout the Finals, living in the moment and not riding the emotional roller coaster.
It seems trite now, but before the playoffs began he candidly stated he wasn’t sure how this year would go differently than the last two. The reaction was over the top, of course, but the results have shown thus far he’s taken the right approach.
Since the playoffs expanded to its current 16-team format (play-in excluded), only one team had deficits in each of its last three series and won a title: The 2012 Miami Heat, the first of LeBron James’ career, after the embarrassment of being dropped in the Finals by Dallas the year before.
The Bucks have often played better as series have progressed, taking shots from Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, the Atlanta Hawks and now, the Suns.
“One thing that I think I've learned personally in the playoffs, I think early in my career I was getting too high, too low,” Antetokounmpo said. “We played a good game, I was so happy, because you feel the intensity from the crowd, the fans cheering and all that.
“Maybe the loss I felt like it was the end of the world. I feel like this year, lose or win, that did not happen. I was the same kind of guy. I just live with whatever outcome comes because I believe that I'm supposed to be there in that time and place.”
And when the right time and place has presented itself, he’s recovered on a pick-and-roll to block Deandre Ayton’s potential-tying dunk and relentlessly run the floor to catch a game-sealing alley-oop from Jrue Holiday.
It’s cute to tie the bow between the failure and those moments, but if the players believe it’s valuable and it helps, then it is.
“I think it has helped me throughout my career. When we were down 2-0 — they did it, why we cannot do it? That kind of thing. Or when we're up 2-0, finish. Get the job done,” he said.
Monty Williams knows the Suns don’t have that experience, and there’s no way to simulate it in the meantime. Chris Paul and Jae Crowder present the best options, but Paul admits this being his first trip to the Finals limits what he can preach to his teammates.
“Our guys, we have talked about that, the deep playoff hurts that happen and the ability to bounce back from that,” Williams said.
“We don't have that level of experience, but we have experience nonetheless. We don't have guys who have been in these situations, but we have guys who have played on big stages before and they understand probably more than people think. Because in college, it was one game and you're out.”
Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are the two best examples of that. And every game Devin Booker played in at Kentucky was a pressure cooker. These are not the ideal examples Williams would like to have in his locker room, but it’s something.
Learning on the fly is something he can assess in the aggregate, not the moment of watching and being able to say “that’s a youthful mistake.”
“It's just breakdowns that happen in the game,” Williams said. “It would be really like cruel of me to look at it like that. You know what I'm saying? Like, something happened, oh, that's inexperience. No, that's just breakdowns that happen over the course of a game, especially when our guys know what we want to do.”
The Suns haven’t been blown away, particularly in the last two games. From their standpoint, it’s likely a matter of doing a few things a little bit better as opposed to a complete overhaul — which would be impossible anyways.
Williams has stressed opportunity over pressure to his club. Going back to training camp and presenting the option of having to win two games to win the NBA title is a prospect just about anybody would take.
“I think everybody has just been talking about embracing it,” Paul said. “Coach has said all season long, everything you want is on the other side of hard, and it doesn't get any harder than this. So we know that this is a must-win game for us. Nothing more than that. Now, we got to hoop.”
All that’s left is the joy — or the pain.
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