By Max Lowson, Sports Radio 810 contributor
NBA Finals Preview: Suns vs. Bucks
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The 2020-2021 NBA playoffs has brought fans worldwide a tremendous level of parody and unpredictability, something very uncommon in the NBA. While fans can typically foresee the eventual champion, or at least the several teams that will be left standing by the very end of that season, this year has brought us a Finals matchup that nobody saw coming.
In the modern era of NBA basketball, there has always been a team — or a handful of teams — that were viewed as the powerhouse(s) and therefore championship probable(s) for any given season. This is because the NBA is such a star-dominated league, where the presence of a single superstar shifts the balance of power and outlook of a team far greater than it does in any other major American sports league.
When teams with all-time great superstars are paired with any other All-Star level talent (and an overall quality roster), those teams tend to consistently make and win NBA Finals. This has been evidenced over the last four decades of NBA basketball: the 1980s Celtics and Lakers, the 1990s Bulls, the early 2000s Lakers, the mid-2000s Spurs, the late 2000s Lakers, the early 2010s Heat and the late 2010s Warriors. Each of these teams has won multiple championships, had an all-time great player, and a collection of star talent around that player. Many of these teams are considered dynasties for their unprecedented level of championship success year in and year out.
In this 2020-2021 season, there was certainly no shortage of all-time great talent and all-time great rosters. We saw the formation of the Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving Nets. We saw the LeBron James and Anthony Davis reigning champion Lakers. We saw the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George Clippers. We saw teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Denver Nuggets, all teams with top tier talent and previous playoff success; teams that entered the season with a real chance to ‘get over the hump’ and make their first finals appearance with their currently constructed rosters.
The perceived foreseeability of what teams would surely be the last teams standing was no different at the start of this 2020-2021 season. The general consensus belief was that the LeBron-led Lakers and the loaded Nets would meet in the Finals; and the Nets, due to having 3 of the top 12 players in basketball and the most offensively talented trio in league history, would claim the 2021 championship. Many felt that the Clippers and Nuggets had a chance to dethrone the Lakers’ champion status in the west, while the Bucks and the 76ers had a slim chance to defeat the Nets in the east.
Meanwhile, the two teams left standing are the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks. This is a matchup that is just as strange, unlikely, and genuinely shocking as the amount of injuries to star players we have seen this year. While this season was certainly an atypical one in nature, as the league was forced to structurally alter the framework of their season in the wake of a once-in-a-century global crisis, virtually nobody was expecting there to be significant injury that drastically impeded the level of success for nearly every contending team in the league. Whether or not one considers an asterisk appropriate for this year’s eventual champion, there is no doubt that injury prevented us from seeing the teams we expected to see this deep into the playoffs.
In more practical terms, this NBA season began just one month after the 2020 playoffs in the Orlando bubble. In addition, the season was shortened to 72 games (a standard season is 82 games), and teams (on average) had to play more frequently than every other night. All three of these structural abnormalities were done so that the NBA could return to the typical late October through June season format for the start of next season after the 4-and-a-half month delay last year; but by doing so, a recipe for injury was created. In my opinion, playing more than every other night is the biggest reason for so much injury, particularly for players that carry the greatest load on a nightly basis: the stars. All three of these reasons, however, contributed to the widespread injury we saw during the regular and postseason. It is noteworthy that 11 different All-Stars missed games in the playoffs; and many of these injuries were season-ending. The previous record for the number of all-stars to miss playoff games in one year, in league history, is seven.
While the phrase ‘may the best team win’ is commonly used in sports, this NBA playoffs can be summed up as ‘may the healthiest team win’. The contending teams that have avoided catastrophic injury are few and far between.
Both LeBron and Davis both dealt with major injuries that sidelined them for an extended period of time in the regular season, and Davis injured his groin in LA’s first round series against Phoenix. James also dealt with a nagging ankle injury that prevented him from being 100% healthy for this series. Without Davis for most of the series and a compromised LeBron, the Lakers’ championship hopes would vanish.
After cruising by the Celtics in five games, the Nets lost James Harden in game 1 with a hamstring injury. Kyrie Irving would severely turn his ankle in game 4 of the series. While Harden did return for games 5&6, deciding to play through the injury, he was a shell of himself, unable to be mobile and perform anywhere near his ability. This made the Nets a one-man show for the last four games of the series, allowing the Bucks to edge out the series victory in the overtime of game 7.
Season-ending injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Jamal Murray ultimately halted the Clippers and Nuggets hopes of advancing to the Finals, and Joel Embiid’s torn meniscus limited his effectiveness resulting in the 76ers downfall against the Atlanta Hawks.
The injuries that prevented the advance of the Lakers and Nets, however, each allowed the Bucks and the Suns to advance. If Brooklyn and LA had been healthy, they would have almost surely defeated their respective opponent; but they weren’t, and now we see Milwaukee and Phoenix meet in the Finals.
While unprecedented amounts of injury is the primary reason for this Finals matchup, it is not the fault of Phoenix or Milwaukee. They are both very good teams who deserve credit for the brand of basketball they have played all season, ultimately earning them a spot on the global stage that is the NBA Finals. After 16 seasons, this marks the first Finals appearance for Chris Paul, a first-ballot Hall of Fame point guard who many consider a Top-5 point guard of all time. Paul is arguably the greatest floor general to ever play the game; he is a master of controlling pace, one of the best passers we have ever seen, and a brilliant decision-maker with a tremendous basketball IQ. His experience and veteran leadership has enabled him to lead a young but talented roster that missed the playoffs last season, all the way to the Finals in just his first season in Phoenix at age 35; the greatest feat of his decorated NBA career.
Phoenix also features the ultra-talented Devin Booker, a 24-year-old shooting guard who is a gifted scorer and master of the mid-range. Many have compared Booker to a young Kobe Bryant; while this is extremely high praise, Booker’s shot tendencies, mannerisms and all-around game style are reminiscent of Bryant. Booker has admitted to Bryant being his main inspiration to play the game he loves. While Booker does lack the athleticism and some finishing ability that Bryant showed at a similar age, Booker has proven to be a prolific scorer who comes through in the clutch and has big games when you need him most. At just 20 years old, Booker scored 70 points in a game against the Celtics in March of 2017. It takes a special talent to accomplish this, and there is no doubt that Booker has a chance to be in all-time great company by the end of his career if he continues to work on all aspects of his game.
The Suns third best player is their #1 overall pick in 2019, Deandre Ayton. Ayton is a lengthy, athletic center who is a crafty finisher around the basket and has a good shooting touch in the mid-range. He is an improving defensive presence, is able to get up and down the court quickly and is innately dexterous. The presence of Chris Paul has helped Ayton flourish into a player capable of consistent all-star level play, something we have seen often in these playoffs.
The rest of the Phoenix roster is deep and talented. Mikal Bridges is a long defender who can shoot the three-pointer at a high clip. Cameron Johnson is another great outside shooter off of Phoenix’s bench, while Jae Crowder brings years of playoff experience and toughness to the roster. Contributions from Dario Saric and the resurgent Cameron Payne, who was phenomenal in Paul’s absence during games 1&2 against the Clippers, round out the bulk of the Sun’s rotation. The only true downfall of this Phoenix roster is their size, as Ayton and Saric are their only players over 6’6” and the rest of their rotation pieces are perimeter-oriented.
The Bucks, on the other hand, have tremendous size at each position. They feature 6’11” Antetokounmpo, a 2x MVP winner and dominant interior force. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday makeup Milwaukee’s backcourt, both making the All-Star team this season. Middleton is a great shooter from the mid-range and three-point range and a frequent member of the 50-40-90 club (50% field goal percentage, 40% 3-point percentage, and 90% free throw percentage for an entire season). Holiday is a 3-time all defensive team member and a good all-around point guard on offense. He has a decent shooting touch, but is most adept at finishing around the basket and creating offense for his teammates.
Brook Lopez is a 7’1” 13-year veteran who is nicknamed “Splash Mountain” for his uncanny ability to make three-pointers at his size. Lopez also has solid post moves, is a great rebounder when he asserts himself and is a shot-blocking threat to any opposing offense. In Antetokounmpo’s absence in game 5 last series, Lopez scored 33 points on 78% shooting.
The remainder of Milwaukee’s rotation is well-balanced, with gritty defenders like P.J. Tucker and spot-up shooters such as Bryn Forbes and Pat Connaughton. Bobby Portis is a versatile big who provides shooting and can score in bunches, while Jeff Teague is a savvy veteran who brings experience and playmaking ability off the bench.
The biggest question mark heading into these Finals is the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo. While Milwaukee had great success in games 5&6 of the Conference Finals against Atlanta without Antetokounmpo, Phoenix presents a whole new challenge on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. Both Middleton and Holiday were excellent without Antetokounmpo, in large part due to better floor spacing and room to operate (Antetokounmpo’s defenders do not respect his outside game and therefore stay in and around the paint, clogging up the painted area); but Phoenix will put Bridges on Middleton, a high-level perimeter defender that Atlanta severely lacked, likely limiting Middleton’s effectiveness and halting his offensive rhythm.
If Antetokounmpo is unable to play in the first game or two of the series, I anticipate Holiday to play well as both Paul and Booker struggle defensively against shifty guards. While Phoenix could decide to put Crowder on Holiday or Middleton, and have Bridges on the other, this will force both Paul and Booker to guard much bigger players in Portis and Tucker; this will cause a world of trouble for the Suns. It would also be stubborn of Phoenix to play a zone, as Milwaukee has the shooting to make them pay for either a 3-2 or 2-3 defensive scheme. If Bridges can limit Middleton’s impact on the game, Phoenix will have to live with Holiday potentially performing well, something that should not be too much for them to overcome, particularly in the absence of Antetokounmpo.
Another intriguing matchup is at the center position with Lopez and Ayton. Because Ayton is a versatile and quick defender, it is not an advantage for Milwaukee to play 5-out and put Lopez on the three-point line, even though he is a more than capable shooter. In this scenario, Lopez would be better utilized by playing in the paint, fighting for offensive rebounds and using his size to out-man Ayton. If Antetokounmpo is playing, however, Milwaukee will play 5-out, forcing Ayton to respect Lopez’s jumper, opening up the lane for Antetokounmpo to attack against the rest of the Suns undersized defense.
On the defensive end for Milwaukee, there are few players a team would rather have guarding Chris Paul than Holiday. Given that Paul lacks acceleration, Holiday should have no issues staying in front of him. Devin Booker, on the other hand, will present a lot of challenges for the Bucks defense. While Milwaukee has the clear size advantage, Middleton will struggle staying in front of Booker or interfering with his supreme shot-creating ability. It may be in Milwaukee’s best interest to put P.J. Tucker on Booker, moving Middleton to Crowder, a far less dangerous offensive threat. The performance of Booker and Bridges throughout the series, in my opinion, will largely determine the eventual outcome. While Paul will be effective in creating offense and controlling the flow of the game at times, it will be up to Booker to make shots and take care of the basketball; the team will go as Booker goes in this series.
Chris Paul will attempt to control the pace of this series. While Paul will find his spots throughout the course of the series, Holiday should prevent him from taking over the series in any way. Booker’s performance, and the ability of Ayton, Bridges and Payne to contribute will therefore be critical for Phoenix’s title hopes.
If he is able to play, Antetokounmpo should do well against smaller Phoenix defenders. Phoenix will build a wall in the paint, forcing Giannis to pass out to open shooters. If Middleton, Connaughton, Forbes and Holiday are able to capitalize off of the open looks they will receive, anticipate Milwaukee’s offense to operate on all cylinders against the Phoenix defense.
Overall, these two teams are very evenly-matched and we are in for a highly competitive Finals. If Antetokounmpo is able to play the entire series, or just misses game 1, I anticipate a neck-and-neck 7-game series; and I do believe the Bucks would win in a game 7 due to Phoenix’s inexperience and Chris Paul’s tendency to shrink in elimination games. If Antetokounmpo does not play in these first two games, Phoenix will jump out to a 2-0 lead that may be too much for Milwaukee to overcome.
While this NBA season was compromised due to so many league-wide injuries and the reality of a ‘COVID-compromised season’ in other ways, such as COVID-protocols, this Finals is a breath of fresh air for many NBA fans who are tired of seeing similar teams and players in the Finals year after year. Phoenix has never won a championship as a franchise, and the last time they made the Finals was in 1993. The Bucks have one championship but have not made the Finals since 1974. No matter how you look at it, history will be made in the 2021 NBA Finals.
If the Bucks win the Finals, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be an NBA champion and will have quieted the mass of critics who claim his game-style as a #1 option cannot win a title. He will build to his already impressive resume and win a championship, without an All-NBA #2 option at just 26 years of age. This is younger than both Michael Jordan and LeBron James were when they won their first ring.
If the Suns win the championship, Chris Paul’s place in history will be cemented. The one blemish on his resume will have been removed, and he will avoid the ‘greatest players to never win a championship’ list. He will have instilled a championship pedigree in Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, all bright young stars who have their entire careers ahead of them.
The Finals are upon us. While it may not feature LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Kawhi Leonard — the names we are so accustomed to seeing this time of year — it will not be short of excitement, drama, emotion, and moments that will change the course of basketball history.