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For weeks, Phoenix Suns fans, media members and the organization itself have been searching for answers to explain the team’s second-round playoff collapse. Up 2-0 in a series against a Dallas Mavericks squad they had owned for the better part of four years, a 64-win Suns team suddenly fell apart, losing four of their next five games and falling miserably short of their ultimate goal of winning the franchise’s first title.
Reconciling the Suns’ greatest season in team history with such abject playoff failure has been difficult. On Wednesday, one report provided some solace on that front…while opening up a whole new can of worms in the process.
According to The Athletic‘s Sam Amick and Joe Vardon, the Suns were dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak in the Western Conference semifinals, with five individuals and one player testing positive either late in the series or after their 33-point loss in Game 7. It was also reported multiple players did not feel well heading into Game 7.
This confirms some aspects of rumblings Arizona Sports‘ Dan Bickley discussed on 98.7, and it explains why sources would not outright deny those rumors to PHNX Sports’ Greg Esposito. The Arizona Republic‘s Duane Rankin had previously reported that assistant coach Bryan Gates’ absence in Game 7 was due to health and safety protocols, but the latest intel suggests a Suns player tested positive after Game 7. Because of this, Phoenix was unable to hold end-of-season exit interviews in person, opting instead for a team-wide Zoom meeting.
In the report, Amick and Vardon state the story was confirmed by a half-dozen sources, and that the Mavs were concerned about Phoenix’s potential outbreak as early as Game 5. It also claimed that despite the team declining to comment, a league spokesperson said the NBA had “seen no evidence to suggest any rules violations by Suns players or staff.” The Suns also declined any further comment to PHNX Sports.
So here we are, with a potential explanation for why a bona fide title contender looked out of sorts in a series they started off dominating, but no recourse for actually feeling better about it.
To clarify: Even if a key player or multiple players were dealing with the virus during this series, the Suns still lost four of their last five games in blowouts. If you’re on the court, you’re expected to perform, and this latest wrinkle in the story won’t excuse what transpired from a basketball perspective. Phoenix was the favorite to win it all entering the postseason, and they got beat in the second round. Pure and simple.
However, it would at least somewhat rationalize how a team with the NBA’s best record and point differential, the only team with a top-five offensive and defensive rating, and a team that didn’t lose four out of five games all season could suddenly look so unlike themselves. If Chris Paul or Devin Booker were playing through COVID, that would at least provide context for such their uncharacteristic performances in the final two games.
With that being said, what little comfort that reasoning would provide is dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of how awful this situation really is. And no one is exempt from the blame for something that’s bigger than basketball.
We don’t know all the details yet, obviously. But for the Suns, it was on the players to admit if they weren’t feeling well and get tested for a virus that’s killed more than 30,000 people in the state of Arizona. It was on the coaches and the organization itself to have a firmer hand when it came to not allowing guys to play if they had symptoms. And perhaps most importantly, it’s now on the league to take a long, hard look in the mirror when it comes to its extremely lax COVID-19 policies in these playoffs.
None of this lets the Suns off the hook, but the NBA’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” protocols feel impossible to realistically help anything. Teams are only expected to test a vaccinated player, coach or staff member that exhibits symptoms, but without daily testing for the playoffs, what was anyone expecting, exactly? That an honor system would keep everyone in line during the most competitive time of the year, when Arizona is hardly alone in cases spiking again?
For starters, someone downplaying or denying when they’re feeling sick seems to be a universal tendency to avoid having to miss work. The only difference is, in their line of work, NBA teams have millions of dollars on the line — not to mention that their employees are some of the most competitive people on the planet contending with much higher stakes than most jobs.
It’s laughable to believe they’d ever risk taking themselves out of a heated playoff series thanks to a positive COVID test if they could just try to play through it. With a 64-win season, the Suns’ championship aspirations and his own first title bid on the line, you think a guy like Chris Paul would ever submit to a test if he had a runny nose or a cough? The virus affects everyone differently, but those symptoms would have to be pretty severe to keep him or anyone else in this league off the court.
None of that excuses the Suns’ behavior, but it takes real naïveté to assume they’re the only offenders here.
After all, players are only tested if they show symptoms, which means there may have been entire series being played with asymptomatic, positive cases. A look around the league since these playoffs started may only reveal the tip of the iceberg.
Paul George missed the LA Clippers’ do-or-die play-in game after testing positive. Zach LaVine missed Game 5 of the Chicago Bulls’ first-round series after entering health and safety protocols. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr missed two games in their second-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, while Boston Celtics big man Al Horford missed Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
And those are just the confirmed cases. Mavs star Luka Doncic was reportedly “under the weather” and had flu-like symptoms” during and after Game 1 against the Suns, but there was never any report about him taking or passing a COVID test. The same goes for Reggie Bullock, who was “sick as a dog” in Dallas’ Game 6 closeout win against the Utah Jazz.
Rest assured, the NBA will come under fire as each new story of this nature emerges, but they knew what they were doing with such lax testing protocols that put the onus on teams and their players to basically out themselves. The main goal is revenue, and while it’s understandable the league wants its best players on the court for the most important time of the season, there are worthwhile questions that need to be asked about the NBA’s continued insistence on “learning to live with the virus.”
This type of irresponsible handling of potential outbreaks is not confined to Phoenix, but that didn’t stop the misleading and inaccurate headlines from trickling in. The notion that anyone on the Suns leaked this report as an excuse to exonerate their Game 7 performance is downright moronic; the public scrutiny alone would drastically overshadow any potential for saving face, and that’s without even mentioning the wrath a report like this may incur from the league should the public outcry escalate.
With all this agenda-pushing, a bad situation is made even worse by a collective inability to take a step back and just admit the whole thing sucks.
It sucks this cursed franchise that’s gone 54 years without a title missed out on its best chance at winning one with the help of this virus. It sucks the Suns may have had players and staff members trying to continue to work through a public health and safety issue, which should take precedence over basketball. It sucks the main takeaway for so many is “the Suns keep making excuses.” It sucks catching COVID is the normal price of doing business when we know so little about its potential long-term ramifications. And it sucks the league is still plowing through its postseason with rules that are practically nonexistent and reflect everyone’s impatience with the ongoing pandemic.
As much as everyone would like it to, the coronavirus hasn’t just disappeared. From more lenient mask-wearing policies, to players’ increased interactions with fans, to society’s collective fatigue in dealing with COVID-19, something like this was bound to happen. The Phoenix Suns are taking heat for it, and rightfully so, but there’s virtually zero chance they’re the only NBA team that’s dealt with it behind closed doors.
And so, once again, we find ourselves right back where we were ever since the NBA left the bubble: Playing through a pandemic, trying to live with a virus that’s killed millions, and wondering when the league will change enough to ensure this type of thing doesn’t keep happening.
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