In an NBA postseason that has been marred with injuries to key personnel, we’ve managed to stumble into a Finals matchup that no one saw coming. The Phoenix Suns led by ‘Point God’ Chris Paul managed to navigate their way through the daunting Western Conference while the Milwaukee Bucks and their own superstar Giannis Antokounmpo have finally broken through for the franchise’s first Finals appearance in 47 years. With just one title between the two teams, a long-awaited championship now stands a best-of-7 series away.
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The Story So Far – Phoenix Suns
From non-playoff team to Western Conference champions; the Phoenix Suns are on the cusp of one of the most unlikely title runs of our lifetime. The 2010 season marked the last time this franchise made the postseason, back when the Suns had a HOF-calibre point guard in Steve Nash calling the shots as he chased an elusive championship of his own. Fast forward to the present and a different HOF-calibre point guard is in the same position, with Chris Paul breaking through to the Finals for the first time in his career.
A lot will be made about CP3’s legacy and the ramifications that will follow from a win/loss on the biggest stage in basketball. However, that doesn’t take anything away from the postseason surge he and the rest of this Suns squad have gone on with their defence fueling a lot of their playoff success. They’ve been the best team when it comes to opponent field goal percentage (43.0%) this postseason and own the second-best defensive rating (106.7) with third-year big man DeAndre Ayton’s presence in the paint proving to be essential. The chiselled former No. 1 pick is averaging 11.8 rebounds a night in his 12 postseason games; an average that beats out superstar bigs such as Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.
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For Ayton, his impact doesn’t start and finish on the defensive end though. In fact, his synergy in the pick-and-roll game with Chris Paul looms as one of the greatest weapons Phoenix has at their disposal and running it successfully will go a long way to ensuring they end this season as champions. The Suns’ man in the middle has shot 70.6% this postseason, one of just two players this century to shoot north of 70% in the playoffs while taking at least 10 shots a game (Montrezl Harrell in 2019).
Obviously, Phoenix won’t be relying on Ayton to be their primary scorer, but if he can continue to finish efficiently and make Milwaukee’s bigs accountable closer to the hoop, that frees up a lot of open looks from behind the arc for marksmen like Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and of course, Devin Booker. The last 12 games have done wonders for Booker’s reputation as he continues to shake the “good stats, bad team” label – averaging 27.0 PPG for the playoffs and 34.3 PPG in Phoenix’s three series-clinching wins.
Booker has waited patiently for his first taste of the NBA postseason and with defences zeroing their focus in on him, he has shone brightly as Phoenix’s main offensive weapon. There are a handful of eye-popping performances from Book’s first batch of playoff games, but his performance in Game 6 against the Lakers is the one that stands out. With Chris Paul nursing a shoulder injury, Booker scored 47 points on just 22 shots to eliminate the reigning champions, with 22 of his points coming in the first quarter to put the result of the game beyond doubt.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo under an injury cloud, the Suns enter Game 1 as heavy favourites and a win at home would certainly enhance their chances of capturing the first championship in franchise history. For Phoenix fans, they’re hoping the third time’s the charm after falling short in the 1976 Finals against the Boston Celtics and succumbing to MJ’s Bulls back in ’93. Should the Suns be able to capitalise against a Giannis-less Bucks and wrestle control of the series early, they’ll be in the box seat to make a championship run for the ages.
The Story So Far – Milwaukee Bucks
For the Milwaukee Bucks, their potential in this series starts and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Over the past three seasons, the Greek Freak has polled 2251 out of possible 3930 MVP votes cementing himself as a superstar of the league in the process. However, that hasn’t translated to success in the postseason for Milwaukee, with an early exit against the Heat in last year’s playoff bubble backed up by a collapse in the 2019 East Finals against Toronto where they surrendered a 2-0 lead.
Injury hurt the Bucks’ chances in 2020 after Antetokounmpo went down with an ankle complaint and a recent day-to-day knee issue once again casts doubt over Milwaukee’s championship aspirations. All signs point to Giannis missing at least some time with his recent ailment, but the Bucks have proved they don’t solely exist around Anteokounpmo. While they’ve been plagued by inconsistencies, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday deserve plenty of credit for the roles they play on this perennial contender.
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Now a 2x All-Star, Middleton has been a true barometer for the Bucks during their 2021 playoff run – averaging 26.0 PPG in 12 wins and just 17.2 PPG in their 6 L’s while shooting a miserable 31.4% from the field and 15.4% from three. Even with some crappy shooting from their star two-guard, Milwaukee has survived a bumpy ride through the playoffs that including battles with elite shot-creators like Kevin Durant and Trae Young. Even while playing these offensive flamethrowers, much like Phoenix, the Bucks have used their defence to propel themselves through the postseason, leading all teams in rebounds (49.9 per game), defensive rating (105.5) and opponent points in the paint (38.8 per game).
Giannis’ presence on D has obviously been important, but Brook Lopez has been another pillar in the paint, with more blocks than any other player in the 2021 playoffs and the second-best DEF rating of any player in the Finals matchup. He and fellow Bucks big Bobby Portis proved their worth in Game 5 against Atlanta, combining for 55 points with Anteokounmpo sidelined as Milwakee took a crucial 3-2 series lead. They’ll need all the cameos they can get from their supporting cast if the Bucks are going to truly contend for their first Finals win since 1971 – back in the days prior to the ABA merger when the league only had 19 teams…
The biggest question hanging over the franchise is when will Giannis Antetokounmpo play? Without their quintessential superstar, Milwaukee will be forced to make drastic changes on the fly which isn’t exactly an area head coach Mike Budenholzer has succeeded in previously. We shouldn’t expect Giannis to sit for long, with their franchise player now just four wins away from his first NBA championship ever. Like a slew of stars before him, Antetokounmpo has paid his playoff dues and a title this season would be a just reward for one of the games greatest players.
Numbers That Matter
6 – Jae Crowder has 6 games of NBA Finals experience after Miami’s run in the bubble last year. No one else playing in this year Finals has previously played on the NBA’s biggest stage.
22 – So far this playoffs, Chris Paul has only recorded 22 turnovers with his low TO games becoming a hallmark of his elite efficiency. Devin Booker Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokoumpo all have at least twice as many turnovers this postseason.
22.1 – Since the start of the 2018 season when Giannis started winning MVP’s he has missed 34 games with the Bucks posting a mediocre 18-16 record without him. When Antetokounmpo is in uniform, Milwaukee’s win percentage goes up 22.1% with a 144-48 ledger over the past three seasons. Fancy way of saying he’s pretty important.
31.1 – So far this postseason the Bucks are shooting just 31.1% from behind the three-point line with the Lakers and Wizards the only two teams to shoot worse in the playoffs. The last team who shot the ball this badly from behind the arc and still made it to the Finals was the 2004 Detroit Pistons.
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1213 – After playing for 5 franchises over 16 long years and featuring in 1213 NBA games (1090 regular-season and 123 playoff) CP3 will finally get to feature in the NBA Finals!
1977 – For the first time since 1977 none of the players on the two rosters have a championship ring between them.
Prediction: Suns in 6
Without a fully healthy Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s going to be hard for this Milwaukee team to stop the Suns in their quest for a title. Phoenix has been able to pass every test they’ve gone up against this playoffs, fighting through injury and COVID issues with Chris Paul while Devin Booker emerges as one of the best scorers in the league. On the other side, the Bucks partially have Kevin Durant’s toe to thank for their Finals berth in 2021 and there is still some unpredictability around what to expect from them – especially if Giannis misses any time.
If Milwaukee can steal an early game in Phoenix and Antetokounmpo emerges with a clean bill of health this has the makings for an epic series and I’d love to see these two teams go the distance and let a Game 7 decide it all. However, the inconsistencies we’ve seen throughout the postseason from the Bucks, even with a healthy Giannis, only gives me more reason to side with the Suns. Chris Paul or Giannis Antetokounmpo getting a ring sits fine with me, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want CP3 to win it a little more.
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