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Pressure arrives in NBA Finals when 'the big prize' is on the line

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Your life’s work boiled down to a best-of-three series.

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That’s the reality for every Bucks and every Suns player right now.

You could say, ‘Yeah, but this isn’t the end of their careers.’ And you would be right. But nothing is promised in the NBA. You have reached the pinnacle of your sport this year outlasting 28 other teams for this opportunity. You are two wins from pushing the other team sharing that podium with you right now off and claiming sole victory.

Chris Paul has spent 17 years getting to this opportunity. The only player of the 34 on the two combined rosters who has even reached this level is Jae Crowder who did it a year ago and came up short when the Lakers bested the Heat.

Whichever side wins, this will be career-changing for everyone on either side.

So yes, the pressure is extremely high. The stakes – at least from a work perspective – are as high as you get as a professional basketball player.

For those of us watching at home or even in Phoenix Arena in person, there’s likely a rooting interest or perhaps even a wager on the game.

But none of that compares to the opportunity to call yourself an NBA champion and how that instantly changes your legacy.

So handling that pressure is obviously going to be key going into these final three games.

Suns head coach Monty Williams got a nice reminder from a friend about dealing with that pressure recently.

“Doc sent me a text, Rivers (Philadelphia 76ers head coach), a week or so ago and he kind of hit it on the head,” Williams said. “Pressure is a privilege, and that’s what we have always said to our guys. Like we want to be in this position, as hard as it is, this is what you want. You’re not going to find greatness on a beach. You’re going to find it in the struggle. That’s what we have told our guys from day one getting past hard. I think that’s helped all of us get ourselves conditioned for these kinds of moments.”

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Williams has liked his team’s poise and effort to this point but he admits there have been times when it hasn’t been enough.

“We had segments the other night where the level of play wasn’t as hard as we were used to in this building and on the road, for that matter,” Williams said. “So, we have to play with a great deal of force, poise and smarts for 48 or as close to that as possible.”

And that means responding to the pressure in the best possible way. Williams says learning how to deal with that pressure takes time.

“I guess as you get older you just learn to embrace it,” he said. “Early on you don’t really know what it is, because you’re so young and you’re not in the position where the pressure is directly on you and so you don’t even know how to deal with it, because you’re not dealing with it, you’re watching Patrick Ewing deal with it, you’re watching Tim Duncan deal with it and Pop (Gregg Popovich) deal with it.

“And then you get into your own situations and you have a bigger leadership role you just learn like, this is just normal and that’s where the good stuff is,” he said. “So you just kind of look for it, to be honest with you, because that’s where you find out a lot about yourself, but you also have a chance to get the big prize, it’s somewhere around that pressure.”

The big prize is two wins away. One team is going to handle the pressure better and that is the team that will be crowned champions.

COVID REARS ITS UGLY HEAD

As if we needed another reminder that the COVIC-19 virus is not done with us yet.

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Prior to the game, the Bucks announced that reserve forward Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the older brother and teammate of Giannis Antetokounmpo has entered the league’s heath and safety protocols and would be unavailable to play Game 5.

Clearly not the loss his brother would be to the Bucks, but Thanasis does provide instant energy off the Bucks bench when called upon. That doesn’t happen often with the elder Antetokounmpo playing in just 45 minutes total over the Bucks playoff run.

But it’s a loss and another shot across the bow that we’re not out of this pandemic just yet.

The Bucks have already been without assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer for the past two games and he’ll miss his third tonight as well according to reports from ESPN.

In addition to those two COVID-related absences, the league announced pre-game that official Sean Wright has been placed in health and safety protocols and his role as umpire of tonight’s Game 3 crew will now be filled by James Williams.

mganter@postmedia.com

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