MILWAUKEE – The locker room stayed mostly silent. Just moments after the Phoenix Suns lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals, most of the team fought back tears while processing their grief internally.
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton finally broke the silent tension. Ayton approached teammate Devin Booker and shared his thoughts out loud.
“‘This is just the beginning,’” Ayton told Booker. “‘Now we know what we need to do. We’re going to keep each other accountable for the rest of our careers together.’”
That exchange highlights an interesting crossroads for both the Suns and their young duo.
On the one hand, the Suns became encouraged with how they performed in their first NBA Finals since 1993 and their first postseason appearance since 2010. On the other hand, the Suns also expressed disappointment that they coughed up a 2-0 series lead to Milwaukee and vowed to use this painful losing experience to better themselves.
“We have a foundation, we have a base for us to learn from, an experience for us to learn from,” Booker said. “But there’s no moral winners in our locker room.”
The Suns young duo of Dandre Ayton (22) and Devin Booker vowed to learn from the experience of falling short in their first NBA Finals.
Booker hardly sounded as giddy as Ayton did after losing Game 6. Moments after he fought back tears about the Suns’ journey, Phoenix coach Monty Williams stepped off the podium and hugged Booker. He then sat on the podium and outlined what he expects moving forward.
“Championship basketball, and nothing less than that,” Booker said. “So, going into next season on a Tuesday night playing against Cleveland if we don’t have it, we will be quickly reminded about the details and if you don’t want to give it your all right now, what can happen and this feeling right now that we’re feeling can happen. So, this isn’t something you want to feel. I haven’t felt a hurt like this in my life.”
As for Ayton? Once his postgame interview ended, Ayton walked off the podium and flashed a smile. Before exiting the interview room, Ayton admitted, “Even though we lost, it was still fun.”
Booker and Ayton conveyed similar messages about what went into their growth and what it will take to build off of that.
After the Suns selected him at No. 13 in the 2015 NBA Draft, Booker showed he represents more than just being a dominant scorer on a losing team. He co-existed with Chris Paul by sharing ball-handling duties and playing off the ball. He embodied old-school habits with his training regimen, film study and playing through pain. He mirrored Kobe Bryant’s footwork, post-up moves and high-volume shooting.
Occasionally, that led to the Suns becoming too dependent on him, particularly in their Game 5 loss. But Booker mostly embodied that scoring mentality, while involving others. No wonder Booker landed a second All-Star appearance following Zion Williamson’s injury and also landed a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the Tokyo Games.
“I’m far from a spot-up shooter when I came into the league, and the reputation that I had,” Booker said. “But I just want to play winning basketball at all times. I don’t really care what people think of me or what they say about my game, they haven’t walked in these shoes and experienced what we just went through.”
After the Suns selected Ayton at No. 1 in the 2018 NBA Draft, Ayton impressed the Suns with his paint presence, his rebounding and his defense. Most importantly, the Suns appreciated that Ayton accepted a diminished offensive role behind Paul and Booker without complaint. They also observed that Ayton listened to the honest feedback that Paul and Booker often gave him. But during the playoffs, Ayton also appeared inconsistent with his aggressiveness on shots and on the glass. In Games 3 and 6, Ayton also struggled defending Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo without fouling.
“This series I got caught up in some foul trouble,” Ayton said. “But throughout the whole playoffs and Finals, I think I stepped up on my defense. Whatever the teams are throwing at us with their offense, I can adjust.”
Nonetheless, the different body language and tone conveyed varying messages.
Ayton spoke as if the Suns are playing with house money with their future.
“We feel it. It leaves a little bad taste in your mouth, but at the end of the day this is just the beginning, man,” Ayton said. “This is my third year and I’m already feeling it, you know?”
Booker spoke as if he realizes that a championship window remains fleeting in the NBA.
“We set a foundation and a base for our team, and we all have stuff to work on and we understand that,” Booker said. “So, we’re going to take this hurt and bring it into the summer and continue to get better.”
Because of the Suns’ promising future, Ayton and forward Mikal Bridges are expected to agree to rookie contract extensions. Cameron Payne also is expected to re-sign. And even though he declined to comment either way, Paul will likely exercise his $44 million player option to stay.
Nonetheless, how much better Booker and Ayton build of their growth will play a large part in the Suns’ championship chances next season. It will also determine how successful the Suns are with Paul gradually reducing his role in favor of Booker and Ayton.
Can Booker ease the burden off Paul more in case health issues arise? Can Ayton remain both patient with his limited offensive role and opportunistic with building his niche? Can Booker and Ayton remain just as amenable toward Paul’s demanding expectations? After all, Paul hardly was in the mood to run a victory lap after experiencing another postseason heartbreak.
“We grew all season long, especially starting out the way we did,” Paul said. “Nobody probably expected us to be where we are except for us. But it is what it is. Like I said all season long with our team, ain’t no moral victories.”
Paul would know about the fleeting nature of a championship window.
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Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers after acquiring Paul in 2011 to play with Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan. That partnership brought Lob City, regular-season respectability and six playoff appearances. But the Clippers never advanced past the second round because of overlapping injuries and philosophical differences among the team’s stars.
Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder after appearing in the 2012 NBA Finals as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook emerged as the league’s next promising duo. The Thunder never returned there. Durant and Westbrook eventually struggled to co-exist. And the duo eventually split when Durant went to Golden State as a free agent (2016).
As for the Suns? They will have to account for the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors fielding healthier rosters than they had during this year’s compressed season. The Suns will also have to account for other teams possibly beefing up their rosters during free agency.
Deandre Ayton (22), Devin Booker (1) and Chris Paul lost in the first NBA Finals appearance for each of them. But Suns coach Monty Williams said, “Now we know what it takes to get here.”
“Now we know what it takes to get here,” Williams said. “It’s going to be that much harder to get past this point and the reality is you never know if you’re ever going to get back here, that’s why you have to take advantage of these opportunities, and they did. We just came up short.”
The Suns can come up big on two conditions.
The 22-year-old Ayton must live up to his vow to Booker about wanting to grow and embrace being held accountable.
“I love competing, I love the challenges, man, but I just wish I could win,” Ayton said. “But at the same time it was fun, I learned a lot. Just with consistency when it comes to this thing called competing, you can’t really have any mishaps at this high level.”
The 24-year-old Booker must carry the mantle with maintaining his dominant scoring, helping the team’s ball movement and embodying his old-school mentality.
“We understand how important each possession is now and this feeling,” Booker said. “I keep talking about the hurt. You don’t want this. This is what you go into the summer with and you take it and use it as fuel.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Can Suns remain an NBA title contender? ‘This is just the beginning’