JaVale McGee believes he would've been the difference maker.
Late last month, former NBA player Charles Oakley said in an interview with Betway Insider that he'd want to play for the Suns if he was still battling and bruising in the league.
"All they needed was a tough big man last year, and they could have won a championship," said Oakley, who was considered an enforcer in his 19-year NBA career. "If they had Bobby Portis in Phoenix, they would have beat Milwaukee. I love his game, and what he does. He can shoot the three, he can post, he can rebound, he’s athletic and he's tough, and that’s what Phoenix needed, another veteran, tough guy."
Oakley has a point, but McGee believes the Suns needed him to capture the franchise's first NBA championship. They blew a 2-0 series lead in losing to the Bucks in six.
"If I got traded here instead of Denver, we probably would've won," said the three-time NBA champion and Olympic gold medalist, who was traded from Cleveland to the Nuggets in March 2021.
The Suns (21-4) signed the veteran 7-footer to a one-year, $5-million deal in the offseason to conclude a process that began with Chris Paul talking with McGee after Game 2 of the conference semifinals Phoenix won in four over Denver.
McGee is averaging 10.5 points on a career-high 65.7% shooting from the field and 7.3 rebounds this season. He got his seventh start of the season on Friday as Deandre Ayton missed the Suns' 111-90 win over Boston with a non-COVID illness.
Suns coach Monty Williams gave Ayton off Saturday's practice, but said Ayton will make the two-game road trip that begins Monday against the Los Angeles Clippers and ends Tuesday at Portland.
Ayton missed six games earlier this season with a leg injury.
The fourth-year big took his game to a higher level during the playoffs as he averaged 15.8 points on 65.8% shooting and 11.8 rebounds in his first career postseason, but Oakley said Ayton could've used someone like him, or Portis, by his side.
"All Ayton needed was somebody beside him to teach him a little more," added Oakley, who made his biggest mark with New York where he helped the physical and intimidating Knicks reach the 1994 finals in his only All-Star season.
"He’s young. I think they needed a four who can play the five, like Bobby Portis."
Portis certainly came up big in the finals for the Bucks.
The 6-10 big out of Arkansas, who played one season (2019-20) with the Knicks before signing with the Bucks, scored a total of 39 points in Milwaukee's four consecutive wins to close out Phoenix.
Portis capped that run with 16 points in Game 6 in Milwaukee, and connected on 6-of-13 threes in that 4-0 run. This season, he's averaging career highs in points at 15.4 and rebounds at 9.0 as well as shooting 40.6% from 3.
Like McGee, Portis plays with high energy and intensity. Both are home crowd favorites for their respective teams.
And while McGee isn't considered a four man, he's been Phoenix's best off-season addition and has taken on a mentorship role with the 23-year-old Ayton.
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) December 6, 2021
"Just trying to instill in him what the work ethic is about, just being a pro," said McGee, 33. "Not saying that he wasn't a pro before and he wasn't doing that, but he's young and he hasn't had like a big that has won multiple championships and has that championship caliber mindset. So I'm just trying to throw little tidbits at him here and there and just make him a great player."
The Suns lost Dario Saric to a torn ACL in Game 1 of the finals, still built a 2-0 series lead, but their lack of size behind Ayton hampered them.
Saric is expected to miss this entire regular season, but is on the journey back to possibly playing in the postseason.
"I'm glad he's in the place that he is," coach Monty Williams said. "When he got hurt, it was devastating. He worked his whole career to get into that position and then to get hurt like that, it was tough for him and tough for us."
Williams said Saric skipped going home to Croatia in the summer to rehab the knee in Phoenix, but did recently make that overseas trip.
"We felt like he needed to (go home), but he's been dedicated to being out there (on the floor)," Williams said. "That's just the first time you guys have seen it. I've seen it all summer long with Dario."
So maybe Phoenix still wins it if Saric was healthy the entire finals.
Frank Kaminsky didn't play in Game 4 or Game 5 before having a solid Game 6 against the Bucks that had Williams second guessing himself on why he didn't play him more in the series.
Williams went small for a noticeable stretch in the finals.
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) December 9, 2021
The Suns certainly could've used someone like Oakley or Portis in the finals, but now they have McGee, who is having a standout season as Ayton's backup.
"It's just a lot of things on this team that work for the center position if you're doing it the right way," McGee said. "I pride myself on being extremely efficient with the minutes that they give me so I just feel like this season, I'm definitely trying to get my efficiency level to the highest possible point."
He's thriving with Paul as his point guard, has a ton of respect for Williams and reaffirmed his early impact on the team in going for 21 and 15 to go along with two blocks in 26 minutes in Ayton's absence Friday at Footprint Center.
"That kind of production when you don't even know if you're going to play that many minutes says a lot about his approach to the game," Williams said. "His teammates trusting him and we needed it. We're down five rotation guys."
McGee even knocked down a rare 3 that ignited the crowd Friday night.
"He's been working on it," Suns forward Jae Crowder said.
McGee just laughs at how shocked people are when he launches from 3.
In Friday's postgame, McGee let it be known he took 3s in college as he shot 35.6% from deep in his two seasons at Nevada.
McGee only attempted three 3s his first year there. Made two.
The next season, McGee went 14-of-42 for 33.3% from deep, but he's only attempted 59 threes in the NBA and made just 18.9% of them (11 makes).
"When I got to the league, they were like, we just want you to run the floor, block shots and rebound," said McGee, who Washington selected 18th overall in the 2008 draft. "I'm a coach's guy. So when the coach tells me they want me to do something, I'll do that. So that's how I was as a young kid, but I've always practiced shooting 3s."
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) November 20, 2021
So one can understand Williams' reaction when asked what he thought of McGee's first attempts from 3 with the Suns.
"You don't want to know what was going through my head," Williams said. "We joked about it just now. That was the one thing we did joke about because Chris actually threw a pass for him to dive and JaVale, he has long arms, he snatched it back and was behind the 3. It was like, dude, but we had a laugh about it."
McGee air balled that second attempt off Paul's pass in the second half after making the first one in the the first half.
"He knows," Williams continued. "He made the one. That's house money. Now it's time to do what you do so he understands that."
Williams has joked about McGee taking shots outside of the paint this season, like a hook shot essentially from the free throw line at Houston, but has also praised the 7-footer for his work ethic, ability and professionalism.
"When I saw him this summer in L.A. working out, I had no idea he worked that hard," Williams said. "And when he got here, he's been an every day guy. Guys like that set themselves up to have productive years. He took a chance on us coming here. He had other opportunities, but I think maybe he saw what he could do with Chris and (Devin Booker) and Cam Payne in pick-and-roll and maybe that's why he's having this kind of year. I hope he keeps it up."
In turn, McGee is leaving it all on the floor for Williams.
"When a coach has your back, man, you want to run through a wall for a coach like that," McGee said. "The way Monty talks to me and instills confidence in me, I can't say nothing bad about Monty. I've got to run through a wall for him."
So maybe McGee would've been the answer in last season's finals.
With the way he's playing right now, it's hard to argue against that thought.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: JaVale McGee looking like missing piece Suns needed in NBA Finals