PHOENIX — Chris Paul walked up the stairs and took a seat in front of the NBA Finals logo, a climb that took him 16 years to complete.
The Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks are used to enduring long waits.
They came into the NBA together in 1968 and between them have managed to win one championship. They’ve combined for only one trip to the Finals since the mid-1970s.
Now here they both are, a couple of unfamiliar contestants to finish off a most unusual season.
“Walking into here, seeing Mr. Larry on every poster,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said, referring to the Larry O’Brien Trophy, “it gave me goosebumps.”
Imagine the feeling if he’s on the first Suns team to win an NBA championship.
Game 1 is Tuesday night in Phoenix, which hasn’t hosted an NBA Finals game since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls completed their first three-peat here in 1993. The Suns’ only other chance was in 1976, when they lost to Boston.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s status remains unknown, with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer saying he had no update on the injured superstar’s knee.
“Without him, we have to do it by committee,” Bucks guard Khris Middleton said.
It’s a whole new setting for the 36-year-old Paul, who acknowledged one of the differences. Home teams usually practice at their training facility, but the workout on the eve of the NBA Finals is in the arena.
“It’s still basketball,” the point guard said. “I think we’re all locked in to the goal at hand.”
Milwaukee won a championship in 1971, so long ago that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still known as Lew Alcindor when he and Oscar Robertson were perhaps the top tandem in the league. The Bucks had drafted Alcindor with the No. 1 pick in 1969 after winning a coin flip against the Suns.
The Bucks got back in 1974 but haven’t been seen in the finals since.
They have been closing in over the last few years. Milwaukee had the best record in the NBA in both 2018-19 and 2019-20 and was two games away from the NBA Finals in that first season. They came back better after acquiring guard Jrue Holiday before this season.
“To get these four wins is going to be difficult but really excited for it,” Holiday said.
The Suns had been going nowhere, not even making the playoffs since 2010. They were 19-63 just two seasons ago, tying for the second-worst record in the league.
But an undefeated run in their eight restart games in the Walt Disney World bubble last summer sent them into this season with momentum, and they entered it with a new leader when they acquired Paul from Oklahoma City.
Besides Paul’s All-Star play, the Suns needed the right veteran to bring out the best in young stars Devin Booker and Ayton. Phoenix finished with the second-best record in the league, knocked out the defending champion Lakers in the first round, swept MVP Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets and then shook off the absence of Paul for two games to beat the Clippers in the Western Conference finals.
Paul was out for coronavirus health and safety protocols, which every team had to work around this season. Numerous stars also dealt with injuries and the Bucks are hoping Antetokounmpo can overcome his.
The two-time MVP missed Games 5 and 6 of the East finals after hyperextending his left knee when he leaped to defend a lob in Game 4, but Middleton and Holiday led the Bucks past Atlanta in both games.
“I think guys have done a great job of adjusting with him out, with him not out there in two of the most important games of our season,” Middleton said.
Some things to know about the series:
Budenholzer didn’t give many details on Antetokounmpo, beyond saying he was getting better.
“He did court work, so he’s making progress and we’re pleased he’s making progress,” Budenholzer said.
The Suns won a pair of games that were as close as can be. Their 125-124 home victory on Feb. 10 came when Antetokounmpo scored a season-high 47 points but missed a jumper at the buzzer, and they pulled out a 128-127 victory in Milwaukee on April 19 when Booker knocked down a free throw with 0.3 seconds remaining in overtime.
FLYING INTO THE FINALS
The Bucks haven’t been behind since Game 4 of the East finals, never trailing in either of the last two games. Nine of the 12 wins in the postseason for the NBA’s highest-scoring team have come by double digits.
With both franchises being absent so long, the Suns’ Jae Crowder is the only player on either side with NBA Finals experience. He played for the Miami Heat when they lost last year to the Lakers.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity, but I’m looking for a different outcome than I had last time honestly,” the forward said. “That’s all fine that I’ve been here before, but I haven’t won anything.”
FOES TO FRIENDS
Booker will often be matched up against Holiday or Middleton, and after the series ends they will all get on a plane together. All three are set to play in the Olympics for the U.S. team, which will start practicing without them this week before heading to Tokyo.