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Saying goodbye to the NBA Finals and 2020-21 season

Jrue Holiday was an underrated force in the finals.

NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Before we drift aimlessly into the bleak and barren landscape of many months without the nightly sustenance of NBA hoops, here are some final thoughts on the 2021 NBA Finals:

My recap of Game Six included a list of candidates for “Best Close-out Finals Game”. I should have included Walt Frazier in Game Seven of the Lakers – Knicks Finals in 1970, which the Knicks won 113–99. That game is remembered as the “Willis Reed game”. Reed was not expected to play because of a severe leg injury, but he limped out of the locker room and down the tunnel to the court shortly before the game— and the Madison Square Garden crowd exploded in joyous noise. Frazier’s line for the game: 36 points, 7 boards, 16 (!) assists. 12/17 from the floor, 12/12 on FTs. Along with his normal First Team All-Defense on the other end against all-time great Jerry West. Wow. But all anyone remembers from the game is Willis walking down the tunnel. Reed wound up with 4 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assist, but everyone remembers him, and not Clyde.

My analysis also should have included more discussion of a player’s defensive contribution during their epic game. Anyone who watched Tuesday night knows that the focus on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 50 points, even if you mention the 5 blocks, sells him short because of what he did on the defensive end. Put simply: Everything. Compare that to Magic’s game in 1980 against the 76ers. While that game may have had more historical significance, I don’t think anyone would argue that Magic’s defense in that game compares to Giannis’s defensive performance in his Game Six. Similarly, thanks to PtR reader basenjirowen, I should have pointed out that the Great Tim Duncan held Nets’ star Kenyon Martin to a woeful 3 for 23 shooting night while Duncan did all the other wonderful things Duncan did in his epic game.

While watching the Suns’ run to the Finals, I am sure that many other Spurs fans had the same thought I did: How can the Spurs get to that level? I wrote this last year after the Nuggets’ long playoff run:

“In the Bubble Payoffs, the Nuggets played nineteen high-pressure games against three excellent teams — the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Seven of those games were close-out games for their opponents, meaning that if Denver lost, their season would be over. The Nuggets won six of those seven games. The Nuggets also got to play in two Game Sevens this season, winning both of them — after playing two Game Sevens last year, beating the Spurs in one and losing to the Trail Blazers by only four points in the other.

What a great education for the team and all of its players. Which is why the other teams in the Western Conference should be very worried about all the playoff games the young Denver Nuggets team just experienced. This young talented team will be a beast going forward, both because of their talent and because they just spent over a month getting the best possible education in the best basketball university in the world.”

You can plug the Phoenix Suns into each of those comments after this year’s playoffs — plus the Suns’ ultimate education provided by playing in the Finals. And just as the Spurs had the pain that bound them together after the 2013 Finals loss which led directly to the Redemption Finals in 2014, these Suns have the pain of coming so close and falling short. That will serve as an incentive this summer and next season. Compare that to the Spurs this year, who played in just one semi-playoff game — the unsuccessful play-in game against the Grizzlies — followed by months of only being able to watch as other teams could compete and emote, celebrate and commiserate. Watching it on television falls far short of living it.

Jrue Holiday won over a lot of people with his performance in the Finals, which is terrific because he is reputed to be a great guy and excellent teammate. He confirmed that a player can contribute in many ways even while missing a lot of shots. Over the six-game Finals, Holiday had a good shooting game in only two of them — Game Three (8 for 14, 5 of 10 from three) and Game Five (12 for 20, 3 of 6 from three). In the other two Bucks’ wins, Holiday shot 4 for 20, with no threes, in Game Four, and 4 for 19, with two threes, in Game Six. (Perhaps coincidentally, those were very similar to how I shot the ball yesterday in my Saturday morning game.) But even when Holiday shot poorly, he did everything else well — he averaged almost 10 assists and over 6 boards per game for the Finals. A great teammate who keeps playing outstanding D, hitting the boards and dropping dimes even if his shot is not falling? I want that guy on my team. And perhaps Holiday’s performance is a lesson for all of us.

Holiday was not alone on the Bucks in not shooting well from the three point line. As a team, the Bucks’ shot only 32 % from three in the playoffs, after shooting a solid 37% during the regular season. For those who complain that NBA games are always won and lost based on which team shoots better, the Bucks’ Finals win proved otherwise. In the Finals, the losing Suns shot better from the floor, on three pointers, and on free throws. The Bucks overcame that by getting 79 offensive boards to the Suns’ 42 (over six more per game), committing 65 turnovers to the Suns’ 74, and shooting 140 free throws (making 102) to the Suns’ 105 (making 90).

Mike Breen mentioned late in the fourth quarter Tuesday night that it was a disappointing end of the season for the Phoenix Suns. As I have commented many times in connection with March Madness, every team but one — the champion — loses their last game. Every team but one has a disappointing end to their season, and cries, as my family calls it, “sad water”.

Only the champion gets to cry happy tears. From the pictures coming from the Bucks’ post-game celebration, the champion also gets to drink abundant amounts of champagne. How much champagne? Let’s ask Bobby Portis and Pat Cannaughton:

Of course, the champagne came after the tears of joy. This season, the team crying happy “sad water”, was the very well-deserving Milwaukee Bucks.

Finally, as is my tradition, like “One Shining Moment” at the end of March Madness, I end this season with a list of Favorite Memories. I hope these Favorite Memories will sustain me during the off-season — some from the distant past, some from the recent present.

Michael Cooper in a defensive stance,

The Joker diming,

Jerry West dribbling hard right and pulling up for a jumper,

The Spurs Beautiful Gaming the Miami Heat off the floor in the Redemption Finals,

Robert Horry spotting up in the last minute of a playoff game,

Danny Green snuffing out an opponent’s fast break,

Wilt finger-rolling,

Steph Curry sprinting around the court, and around screens, looking for any opening to catch, shoot and make a three — from distance!,

DFish bellying up on a guy who is bigger faster quicker and more talented (even though Tony still dominated him),

Damian Lillard Dame-timing it,

Spurs youth movement players improving,

Luka Doncic creating,

Manu Ginobili competing,

Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker matching up,

Magic Johnson running the middle dishing this way, wait, no, that way,

Patty Mills taking a charge, or sprinting over to help a teammate to their feet after that teammate took one,

Rick Barry under-handing,

Giannis Euro-stepping,

The Oui Frenchman tear-dropping,

Monty Williams leading,

Dirk step-backing,

Earl the Pearl spin-dribbling

Any shooter heating up, with the crowd joining in,

Pistol Pete behind-the-back or between-the-legs passing,

The Great Duncan blocking a shot, controlling the ball, and throwing the long bounce outlet pass,

The Deer District hyper-ventilating,

Dr. J dunking,

Jimmy Butler filling the box score,

Stockton pocket passing,

Popovich teaching,

Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry hobbiting,

LeBron (or Giannis!) chasing down a seemingly uncontested breakaway lay-up,

And in honor of the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks — champions enjoying each other’s company one last time as the season ends — celebrating.

Yep, those are my Favorite Hoops Memories. They will keep me going through the wasteland of the off-season as I hope and pray for a normal season next year for players and fans. That “normal season” depends in large part on any unvaccinated fans getting vaccinated. I hope those fans realize that any “side effects” from the vaccine are so much more rare and so much less serious than the actual effects from the disease. Do if for yourself, do it for children who cannot yet get vaccinated, do it so we can all safely ditch the masks, do it for everyone around you, including friends who you play, watch or talk hoops with. Do it for basketball.

That’s it from Coach Lee D – Off the soapbox and out. Thank you for following along.