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NBA Finals Preview: Everything you need to know about Suns-Bucks matchup

·10-min read
Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks drives the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks drives the ball against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals will tip-off Tuesday night. For the first time in a decade, there will be no LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, or Steph Curry in the Finals.

Instead, it will be the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns battling for the right to lift the Larry OB and be declared NBA champions. Even without the usual cast of characters in the Finals, there are plenty of intriguing storylines heading into this series. Let’s get to them.

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How did these two teams get here?

The Bucks have finally broken through and advanced to the Finals for the first time since 1974. This is their fifth straight year in the playoffs, but the previous two postseasons — an Eastern Conference Finals loss to the Toronto Raptors two years ago, and a second-round upset by the Miami Heat last year — ended in disappointment, leaving everyone to wonder if a Giannis Antetokounmpo-led team could win a title. Milwaukee avenged last year’s early exit by sweeping the Heat in the first round, took down the Brooklyn Nets in seven games, and defeated the Atlanta Hawks in six games in the conference finals.

Before he left Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals (and missed the remainder of the series) with a hyper-extended knee, Antetokounmpo was in the midst of the most dominant playoff run of his career, averaging 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 5.2 assists on 55.1 percent shooting, including a 40-point, 13-rebound performance in a Game 7 win over the Nets in the second round.

Without Antetokounmpo, the Bucks won Games 5 and 6 of the conference finals to eliminate the Hawks, thanks to huge performances from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.

As for Phoenix, this was its first playoff appearance in 10 years. As the No. 2 seed in the West, the Suns defeated the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the first round, swept the Denver Nuggets in Round 2, and got by the Los Angeles Clippers in six games in the conference finals. The Suns were 19-63 two seasons ago, and now they’re four wins away from the NBA championship.

So these two teams are only in the Finals because of all the injuries in these playoffs, right?

People want to discredit Phoenix and Milwaukee’s postseason runs because of all the injuries that have dampened the excitement for these playoffs. It is fair to point out the Suns were trailing 2-1 in the first round to the Lakers when Anthony Davis left Game 4 with a groin strain. The Nets were also up 2-1 when Kyrie Irving injured his ankle and missed the rest of the series.

At the same time, Chris Paul played almost the entire first round with a shoulder injury that restricted his range of motion and ability to shoot from beyond the three-point arc. Paul also missed the first two games of the conference finals after testing positive for COVID-19. The Bucks were without Antetokounmpo for the final two games of the conference finals.

If you lined up every playoff team at full strength, would these two teams be in the Finals? Probably not. But that’s a hypothetical exercise you could run across all postseasons. You play the teams in front of you, and the Suns and Bucks deserve full points for advancing this far.

What’s the history between these two teams?

This isn’t exactly a Celtics-Lakers rivalry, but the most interesting tidbit between these two franchises involves Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then-named Lew Alcindor), who was taken first overall by the Bucks in the 1969 NBA Draft. The Suns had finished the 1968-69 season with a 16-66 record, the worst in the league. The Bucks, who were in their first season, finished with the second-worst record, at 27-55.

Back in those days, there wasn’t a draft lottery. In a 14-team league, the No. 1 pick was decided by a coin flip between the worst teams in each division. The Bucks won the coin flip over the Suns, landing Abdul-Jabbar and winning the championship in 1971. The Suns drafted Florida center Neal Walk with the second overall pick and are still looking for their first NBA championship.

Didn’t Chris Paul almost end up in Milwaukee?

Before he was traded from Oklahoma City to Phoenix last season, Milwaukee seemed like a logical destination for Paul, who was looking to end up back on a contender after a season leading the rebuilding Thunder to the playoffs. There were reports Paul preferred the Bucks as a landing destination, but Milwaukee instead traded a package including three future first-rounders and the right to two additional pick swaps to New Orleans for Jrue Holiday.

Things have worked out for both teams. Holiday had 27 points, nine assists, and nine rebounds in a series-clinching Game 6 win over the Hawks. Paul eliminated the Clippers with 41 points on 16-of-24 shooting in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.

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Is Giannis Antetokounmpo playing in this series?

From a health standpoint, this is the biggest question mark looming over this series. Think of it as this year’s version of “Is Kevin Durant coming back in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Raptors?” Bucks fans already breathed a sigh of relief last week when they found out there was no structural damage to Antetokounmpo’s knee after he hyperextended it in the second half of Game 4 of the conference finals. The thought process immediately went from “is Giannis going to miss the rest of next season because of this?” to “wait, is Giannis going to be able to come back in these playoffs?”

Milwaukee has Antetokounmpo listed as doubtful for the start of the Finals, but there was a lot of chatter about how the Bucks forward would have played if the Hawks series went to a Game 7. If that is true, then you have to imagine Antetokounmpo will return at some point in this series. It will be a difficult decision weighing the potential of further injury and the long-term impact on the player and the franchise versus an opportunity to win a championship.

The Bucks could sit Antetokounmpo for Game 1 and play a wait-and-see approach and not rush him back until they lose a game. Either way, I would expect to see him in this series and will be cautiously hopeful it doesn’t lead to further injury if he returns.

What are other storylines in this series I should know?

Well, let’s see: from a legacy standpoint, both Paul and Antetokounmpo already have Hall-of-Fame worthy resumes, but a first championship for either player will cement their status as an all-time great, and more importantly, end all the chatter about both being players who come up short in the postseason. Also worth noting: the Bucks and Suns have the top two defences in these playoffs. In a season of historical offensive numbers, maybe we’ll get regression to the (historical) mean in the Finals in the form of a few defensive slugfests.

Other fun storylines: P.J. Tucker is a former member of the Phoenix Suns, and as the “king of sneakers,” will probably have a few surprises up his sleeve in his first Finals appearance. Torrey Craig of the Suns started the season with the Bucks before he was traded to Phoenix for cash considerations at the trade deadline. This is also a matchup between Mike Budenholzer, the head coach everyone wants fired after every Bucks loss (sometimes even after a win), and Monty Williams, the head coach everyone is rooting for.

Who are the wild cards in this series?

Even though these aren’t the two teams everybody expected in the Finals, the Suns and Bucks aren’t exactly lacking in star power. Phoenix has Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton. The Bucks have Antetokounmpo (if he’s healthy), Middleton, and Holiday. But if you were to ask me to pick a wild card player who might swing the series (or at the very least, win a game for their team), I would go with Jae Crowder for Phoenix and Bobby Portis for Milwaukee.

Crowder is playing in his second consecutive Finals after making it as a member of the Heat last season. He has made 36.9 percent of his threes in these playoffs, which is right near his career average from beyond the arc.

The thing about Crowder is he's notoriously streaky from three. The most consistent thing about his three-point shooting is his inconsistency. Take these playoffs, for example. In the first five games against the Lakers in the first round, Crowder made eight threes combined and shot 8-for-39 . In the series-clinching Game 6 win, he shot 6-of-9 from long range. Against the Clippers in the conference finals, Crowder had seven threes through the first five games on 7-of-26 shooting and then went 5-for-9 in another series-clincher at Staples Center in Game 6. At some point in the Finals, count on Crowder’s three-point shooting to be the difference.

Portis was huge for the Bucks in the Hawks series, scoring 22 points in Game 5 while averaging over 30 minutes per game after Antetokounmpo’s injury. If the Bucks don’t get their two-time MVP back for the Finals, they will need Portis to continue this level of contribution if they want to win the title.

Who is your under-the-radar Finals MVP pick?

The betting favorites are, as to be expected, Paul, Antetokounmpo, and Booker. But if you want to go off the board a little, I would suggest Ayton, who’s had a magnificent debut playoff run and could be in line for another huge series against Milwaukee’s frontline. On the Bucks side, it would not surprise me at all if Middleton won Finals MVP, especially if Antetokounmpo remains sidelined. Middleton has gone on some ridiculous shooting stretches in these playoffs, including in Game 6 against Atlanta, when the Bucks forward scored 23 points in the third quarter alone, including 16 in a row at one point.

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Alright, what’s your prediction?

Even if Antetokounmpo returns, there’s the question of whether he will play with the same physical burst and brute force as he did prior to the injury. The Bucks will take a compromised version of their best player, but it could result in the team needing a game or two to adjust — a tall ask for a group playing for a championship. Throw in Milwaukee’s inconsistency and lack of killer instinct throughout parts of these playoffs, Phoenix having an extended period of rest in between series in almost every round, and the fact the Suns have home court, and the advantages around the margins start to add up for Phoenix. For that reason, I’ll take the Suns in six.

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