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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

It's time to start believing this could be the Suns' year to win an NBA title

Suns guard Devin Booker, right, jogs past head

Suns guard Devin Booker, right, jogs past head coach Monty Williams after shooting a three-point basket during the second half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday in Phoenix. Credit: AP/Matt York

With Kevin Durant training with the United States Olympics team, James Harden roaming around Paris and getting frisked by police, and Kyrie Irving, well, doing whatever he does, maybe the Nets have moved on. But as they see what has happened in the first two games of the NBA Finals, it would not be unfair for them to wonder what could have been.

Reduced to a shell of what they were on paper, the Nets dropped out of the championship chase in a seven-game loss to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals. And now the Bucks, after moving on to the NBA Finals, are down 2-0 to the Suns, raising questions about just what it will take for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the franchise to get the championship they have been on track for the last few years.

Maybe a return to Milwaukee for the next two games will change things. The Bucks lost the first two games of an Eastern Conference semifinal in Brooklyn, lost Game 1 at home to the Hawks in the conference finals and have not panicked yet. And maybe they won’t panic this time and two games from now we’ll be looking at a fresh start to this series.

But maybe it won’t be and maybe it’s just as well that the Nets are on their summer tours because it’s starting to feel as if it’s time for folks to believe that this is just the Suns’ year.

"I do a pretty good job of staying in the moment," Chris Paul said after the 118-108 win in Game 2 Thursday night. "Maybe a lot of the guys on our team, it’s their first playoff series, they don’t know the heartache or the heartbreak. They’re just out there playing.

"So, for me, I know how quick things can change. I know how a possession or a play can change the dynamics of an entire series. So, for me, I don’t get too high, I don’t get too low, I just stay even keel. I wasn’t always like that, but I know that these situations are — don’t happen every day."

The Phoenix players seem to know that. They have gotten ready for this series and the sum of the parts has created a greater whole. Paul has chased this for 16 years with much more hyped rosters and never got this far, even in the prime of his career. Devin Booker, as good as he is, never made a playoff appearance before this season. DeAndre Ayton was almost an afterthought — a trivia question answer to who was picked No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft that featured Luka Doncic and Trae Young.

But together, they have found their way. Mikal Bridges might not be a star on another team, but in this lineup he is a perfect fit, a three-and-D wing who seems at home on this stage. Jae Crowder and Paul arrived and found their way as leaders in their first year in Phoenix.

And no one seems to be getting ahead of themselves. When Milwaukee came out aggressively in Game 2, Phoenix survived the onslaught thanks to their own weapon — a flurry of three-point field goals — and then took over.

"We talked about it being a 0-0 series. That’s our mentality," said Suns coach Monty Williams, a former Knick. "That’s what we talked about this morning. We have to approach every game with a level of desperation and we can’t look at the series numbers. But human nature forces you to do that, but our mentality is to play every game as if we’re coming off of a loss. I think that’s served us well throughout the playoffs. And we know that when we don’t play with the force that is necessary to win, we’re not as good as we can be."

Perhaps the most telling moment of what Phoenix is and what they might be came in a moment of doubt. The inside the huddle audio peeks rarely reveal anything, but Thursday night in the fourth quarter one showed a downcast Ayton, upset with what he was contributing. And Williams leaned down in front of him and pushed him, first talking technical adjustments, and then the reality.

"Look at me, you set a high level for yourself," Williams said. "That’s why you’re down. That’s great. Now go reach that level, OK? And you can reach it with force. It doesn’t have to be stats all the time. Go dominate the game with force. Because you set a high level for yourself. Go dominate the game with force. Let’s go."

Williams downplayed the moment later.

"You are giving me a lot of credit," he said. "I try to be authentic. Sometimes in a huddle I don’t say anything, the guys will run the huddle. But I try to be an encourager in huddles, especially when I see a guy down or the team is not at the level where they should be mentally.

"I don’t want to make up stuff. I know what it’s like to be in those huddles and you want to know the truth, but you also need sometimes a pep talk, sometimes encouragement. I just try to be authentic and speak from the heart. Sometimes it requires me to shut up and not say anything. I think our players understand where I’m coming from when I come to the huddle. I want to have something substantial to say or I’m just not going to say anything. So that’s just the way I approach it."

"That’s Monty every day," Ayton said Saturday of the talk. "You all captured just one moment, but that’s Monty every second, every day, making sure he helps us as players, instilling wisdom in us."

It fit Thursday as Ayton contributed some huge plays, playing his part. On the Suns, there is no Big 3 and maybe if Brooklyn was at full strength the difference in talent would be the deciding factor. But so far the three stars on the Bucks haven’t made a difference. It just might be the year that the Suns finally win a title and nothing is going to stop that.

Lillard keeping plans to himself

There is little doubt that the Knicks will be in the market for a point guard over the next three weeks between the draft, free agency and trades. But it remains murky whether Damian Lillard will be an option. His name has come up more and more as Portland fell short again and head coach Terry Stotts was let go - and the coaching search caused some controversy that put Lillard on the hot spot. Lillard, speaking this week on a zoom call as he preps for the Tokyo Olympics, wasn’t exactly clarifying things.

"At this point, you know, it’s a lot of things being said, sometimes words being put in my mouth and I haven’t said anything,’’ Lillard said. "I think all the people who’ve covered me since I’ve been in the NBA, they know if there’s something to be said or if I think something and have something to say, I’m going to say it and I’m going to stand on it. Like I said, there’s been a lot of talk. Nobody’s heard what I’ve said, nobody’s heard me say any of these things. But anything I have to say I’m going to say it directly to (Blazers GM) Neil (Olshey). I’m going to address it directly with my team. I don’t really have nothing to say to you guys about it. Everything that I need to say and that I feel has been said to Neil. So there’s really nothing else that I have to say about it.’’

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