PHOENIX — This year’s NBA Finals won’t just crown a league champion; they will bring to a close one of the most arduous seasons in NBA history. The league pushed through the COVID-19 pandemic with a shortened offseason and a 72-game compact schedule only to have the playoffs marred by a slew of injuries to some of its most high-profile players.
On the eve of Game 1 of the Finals on Monday, Phoenix Suns star Chris Paul — who serves as the president of the National Basketball Players Association — addressed the criticism the league and the NBPA have received for the quick turnaround and how it could have affected player health.
One of the most vocal critics was Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, who served as Paul’s vice president with the players’ union from 2015 to 2019. Last month, with stars being sidelined in seemingly every playoff series, James took to Twitter to say he predicted these problems.
Paul, without directly addressing James’ comments, made it clear that every player can have his voice heard when it comes time for the union to make decisions for its 400-plus members.
“Man, one thing about our league and its players is everything is always a conversation,” Paul said during Finals media day on Monday. “There’s a ton of guys on the executive committee who are working hard on things right now, as we speak — day in and day out, traveling. I wish you guys knew all the things that are going on. So, decisions that are made as far as playing or not playing, players are always involved in it.
“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.”
The conversation among the Suns heading into Game 1 was how they would prepare for the Bucks should Milwaukee’s injured superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo — out for the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals with a hyperextended left knee — not play.
“The pressure they put on the paint has been pretty consistent, even with Giannis [out], but you see a different way of doing it now with Jrue [Holiday] attacking and [Brook] Lopez diving,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “That’s been something that we have to respect. You have to respect them anyway with Giannis getting into the paint — in transition, in isolation, when he dives in the pick-and-roll, especially with [Khris] Middleton. So, without Giannis, there seems to be a different way of attacking the paint. And then all of their guys that crash the boards.
“So, they haven’t stopped playing the way they want to play. The pressure on the paint has been pretty consistent in the playoffs.”
Even with Milwaukee’s two-time MVP in the lineup, the Suns still had success against the Bucks during the regular season, beating them twice — 125-124 on Feb. 10 and 128-127 in overtime on April 19 — despite Antetokounmpo averaging 40 points on 60% shooting with 9.5 rebounds in the two games.
Suns center Deandre Ayton said he is preparing for the Finals as if Antetokounmpo will be back on the court sometime in the series.
“Mainly just matching his physicality and, at the end of the day, just competing,” Ayton told ESPN during a segment on The Jump. “You cannot back down from the challenge. Just knowing his foul awareness, being the first man on defense and just showing him a wall. At the end of the day, you want to stay between him and the ball.
“It’s just being ready for the challenge, period.”