Milwaukee is staring at an NBA Finals Game 6 clincher at Fiserv Forum, all but tasting its first title in a half century. Phoenix is facing its first elimination game of this postseason.
The Bucks are preaching focus. The Suns are professing desperation. And whichever one prevails will determine whether Thursday they’ll be looking at a parade in Milwaukee or a winner-take-all Game 7 in Arizona.
“Our group knows what’s at stake. We know what’s on the line. So there’s no shortcutting it,” Suns star Devin Booker said. “We’re in it right now and we have to figure it out, and we have to get it done.”
Booker is coming off consecutive 40-point games, but three straight Phoenix losses as Milwaukee let him feast while staying home defensively on the rest of the Suns.
The result is the Bucks are on the brink of their first crown since 1971.
“It’s hard [to not look ahead],” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “It’s hard, man. It’s hard because you work so hard to be in that moment, which is [Game 6]. It’s hard not to get ahead of yourself. But this is the time you got to be the most disciplined. That’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to be as disciplined as possible. Don’t get too excited, don’t get too pumped up for the game. None of that.
“It’s very hard not to. Sometimes you sleep and you’re dreaming about the game. But this is the time that we have to be disciplined individually. … We cannot worry about having plans of celebrating. None of that, until it’s done.”
Antetokounmpo and his Bucks have been chasing a title for years. With the core of the team (other than relative newcomers Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker) having been together for several seasons, they’ve seen a long, twisting road, filled with pitfalls and pratfalls.
“Yeah, we’ve talked about it,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Every team’s journey is a little bit different; every player’s journey is a little bit different. What we’ve been through the last few years and where we are today, it’s all part of it. It goes into making us who we are, and hopefully better prepared.”
That meant cruising to the top seed in the East the prior two seasons, only to lose to Toronto in 2019 and Miami in last year’s second round. But the Bucks say all that failure was a great teacher.
They’ve put those lessons to good use storming back to beat the Nets after falling behind 0-2 in the second round. And after falling into the same hole in the Finals, they’ve won three straight — trying to make it four on Tuesday.
“For sure. It helped me mature and grow and become more mentally tough,” Antetokounmpo said. “I don’t focus in the past. I try to learn from it and move on. It’s helped me throughout my career. When we were down 2-0, ‘They did it, why [can’t we] do it?’ That kind of thing. Or when we’re up 2-0, ‘Finish. Get the job done.’
“We didn’t get too high, we didn’t get too low. We were down 0-2 to Brooklyn — came back, we did our job. We were down right now — we came back, did our job. We were down against Atlanta — came back, did our job. … Now, is it going to end up well in the championship? Who knows? But no matter how it ends up, I’m really proud of this team.”
Phoenix doesn’t have that shared history. What it has is a potent attack behind Booker and Chris Paul.
Paul — 36 and gunning for his first ring to cap a surefire Hall of Fame career — writes ‘Can’t give up now’ on his shoe. His Suns will have to lean into their veteran point guard’s mantra.
“Yeah, just throughout this whole playoff run, this is our first elimination game. So it’s for real,” Paul said. “It’s no looking back now. We got to come out, be ready to play and it’s either win or go home.
“Everybody has just been talking about embracing it. Coach [Monty Williams] 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 this is a must-win game for us. Nothing more than that. Now we got to hoop.”