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BUCKS-SUNS? WHAT MATTERS IS THE SIZZLE, NOT THE UNIFORMS
An entertaining NBA Finals has a chance to be Game 7-memorable, quieting concerns that smaller-profile teams couldn’t generate interest in an event accustomed to LeBron, Steph and marquee franchises
All we want from sports is The Thrill. Move us, inspire us, make us shout and shake and knock over the beer and momentarily forget who we are and what we’re doing — that’s we why watch. And what we’re discovering in these NBA Finals is that the names and uniform ensembles aren’t really relevant when the sizzle is exhilarating.
For the first time in a decade, the championship round doesn’t feature LeBron James or Steph Curry. But there is a Khris Middleton, who generally has nothing in common with James except male pattern baldness yet was superb in summoning stardom in Game 4. There also is a Pat Connaughton, who flipped momentum with a Steph-up three-pointer during the stirring final minutes. And their contributions were as necessary as those from someone you do know, Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose rim rejection of Deandre Ayton is a viral revelation on iconic par with LeBron’s 2016 Finals block.
‘‘In my opinion, it’s the best block of all time,’’ Connaughton said. ‘‘The thought going through my head was, more or less, shock and awe.’’
‘‘I thought I was going to get dunked on, to be honest with you,’’ said the Greek Freak, so geeked to have evened the series at 2-2 that he revealed why he returned to the locker room shortly after tipoff the last two games: ‘‘I went to take a tinkle and came back. Both games.’’
Viewers are advised to avoid similar tinkle breaks. You’ll miss something.
Curious, wasn’t it, that their uniforms didn’t evoke shivers in the tradition of LAKERS or WARRIORS or CELTICS. Stenciled in green, BUCKS refers to the deer that roam Wisconsin before men with guns shoot them. But in this postseason, BUCKS means money. And along with their orange-encrusted opponents, who wear SUNS across their jerseys, they’re giving a pandemic-plagued league a surprising lift in a hot, competitive series that hopefully goes seven games. That is a mouthful, considering few in America wanted Milwaukee-Phoenix, which sounds like a long day on Southwest Airlines.
Consider it a mistake in sports snobbery. It’s refreshing to watch the fun erupt in two markets, both obscure, that rarely win anything. They rage in the Deer District, knowing Milwaukee hasn’t won a sports title since those old dudes sitting courtside Wednesday night — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson — triumphed with the Bucks in 1971. And they dance and sweat in the broiling desert, where Arizona’s only title came from baseball’s Diamondbacks in 2001. They are places that don’t remember how to party.
One will have to learn … fast. And it won’t be Phoenix if Chris Paul, whose ubiquitous State Farm commercials are filled with calamity, keeps creating chaos with the basketball. After overcoming so many injuries and so much heartbreak, Paul suddenly is losing the handle NOW? In his first Finals? With his fifth team in 16 NBA seasons?
‘‘I’ve got to take care of the ball,’’ he said after committing two unforced errors in crunch time, the final broken pieces of a blown nine-point lead.
‘‘The turnovers just crushed us," Suns coach Monty Williams said. ‘‘When you have that kind of a lead in the fourth, if we can just hold on to the ball and get good possessions, you feel like you can at least hold it. We certainly had a lot of self-inflicted stuff."
The Suns couldn’t even take advantage of a dreadful call by officials who — all together now — must do better themselves. Devin Booker, who couldn’t elude foul trouble despite a 42-point bounce-back game, clearly committed his sixth foul in all but tackling Jrue Holiday after a Paul turnover. Millions saw the obvious and knew Booker should have fouled out. The officials did not, until crew chief James Capers saw a replay afterward. ‘‘During live play, I saw a clean sweep of the ball and thought it was a no call," Capers told a pool reporter. ‘‘However, after seeing the replay, I now realize that I missed Booker's right arm around the waist of Holiday, and it should have been a defensive foul on the play."
It’s all part of a series that finally has the country’s attention, an acquired taste after ratings yawns in the first two games. That’s more than can be said for baseball’s All-Star Game, which expects us to care when the players do not. The sport’s premier pitcher, Jacob deGrom, preferred to rest his golden arm and be with his family. One of the most popular players, Mookie Betts, cited health in opting out. All four members of those Cheatin’ Houston Astros ran away, knowing they’d be booed in pre-game introductions and grilled by national media. The talent pool was so diluted, two members of the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates were starters. I swear that I said, ‘‘WHOOO???’’ at least three times when Joe Buck was presenting the rosters.
Consequently, America was more or less a no-show itself. Only 8.2 million watched, even amid the buzz over two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani, making it the second-lowest-rated All-Star Game ever — up just a smidge over the 2019 game. Last year’s game was canceled.
Maybe all such exhibitions should be canceled. The players’ apathy is contagious, spreading across the land, and those with nine-figure contracts needn’t market themselves anymore in mid-season scrums. At some point, All-Star Games will fizzle out as obsolete, regardless of starpower and the tradition-heavy logos of big-market franchises, especially when slapped on new MLB-designed uniforms that look like prison scrubs.
But one sporting element that never, ever will die is passion. We saw it in the joy of Giannis. We saw it in the angst of Booker, the pain of Paul.
And we are hooked, even if the courts are in the heartland and desert and even if the Finals, in the words of ESPYs host Anthony Mackie, ‘‘sounds like the only two things LaVar Ball cares about: sons and bucks.’’ I’m sure The Ballbuster is watching, as well, shouting and shaking like the rest of us.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.