After what feels like an absolute grind of a regular season and playoffs, coming off the shortest offseason ever, the NBA Finals are finally here. It's been one of the strangest NBA seasons we've ever seen, culminating in a literal "Survival of the Fittest" playoffs. We seen Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown, Joel Embiid, Mike Conley, and others all go down with injuries.
Phoenix have gone through the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the league MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets, and finally the Los Angeles Clippers to reach the NBA Finals out of the loaded Western Conference. This is a Phoenix Suns organization that has never won the NBA Finals, has not been to the Finals since 1993, and had not even been to the NBA Playoffs in a decade- the first time that had ever been accomplished in NBA History.
The Milwaukee Bucks have also finally broken through the East, extracting revenge on the Miami Heat in the first round, knocking out a wounded Brooklyn Nets team despite Kevin Durant going full Slim Reaper mode, and finally knocked out the upstart Atlanta Hawks. Similar to the Suns, the Bucks have not been to the Finals in a very long time- 1974 to be exact, where they lost to the Boston Celtics.
While we've seen a record number of NBA stars go out due to injury in these playoffs, these two teams have battled through injury adversity as well. From Phoenix's side, Chris Paul has dealt with both a jammed shoulder and hand issue, as well as missing time in COVID Health and Safety protocols. Devin Booker is also playing with a nose that was broken in three places by who else but Pat Beverley.
From Milwaukee's side, they've been down starter Donte DiVincenzo in these playoffs and now of course may or may not be down their 2x MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who looked almost certain to have suffered a very serious knee injury in the Eastern Conference Finals. Somehow, someway, the Greek Freak avoided serious ligament damage and is now looking likely to play, even not at 100%, in these NBA Finals.
Either way, one of these two tortured franchises will be hoisting the trophy for either the first time in a long time, or the first time ever. Jae Crowder of the Suns is the only player on either team that has even played in an NBA Finals, playing 6 games last year for the Miami Heat.
Let's dig into this series.
Why are they here? It's pretty easy- defense and rebounding. The Bucks are first in defensive efficiency in the playoffs and first in rebounding in the playoffs- their depth on the interior with Giannis, Brook Lopez, and now Bobby Portis have been devastating on opponents, and adding Jrue Holliday and PJ Tucker to an already rugged defensive team has made Milwaukee just that much more difficult to score on. They boast a defensive rating of 105, meaning they give up 105 points per 100 possessions, an incredibly stingy number at this level.
If I had to guess, I think the Bucks will try to utilize Jrue Holliday to contain Chris Paul, who has been devastating in the pick and roll all playoffs. PJ Tucker and at times, Khris Middleton, will be tasked with containing Devin Booker, who started to look more like himself the last two games of the Clippers series playing through his broken nose.
The elephant in the room is Giannis' health. If he can play, and play like himself, the Bucks may just have the slight edge on the Suns in terms of overall talent top to bottom. But the Bucks really found a flow to their offense the last few games of the Atlanta series, with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holliday thriving in expanded roles with the ball in their hands- they had a combined offensive rating of 123 in those two games to close out Atlanta without their superstar.
Additionally, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis battered and bruised the Hawks on the inside, and the Suns do not have a lot of depth behind Deandre Ayton- it's pretty much Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky as the only other centers on the roster. I'll be curious to see how the Bucks try to take advantage of their ridiculous size.
My concern with Milwaukee is still with their ability to generate offense, particularly down the stretch of a close game. Too often do we see coach Bud's offense go stagnate in the final minutes of the game, with heavy isolation and little to no ball movement. Khris Middleton came up huge against the Hawks in the Eastern Finals, but can he carry the offensive load with a compromised Giannis? We'll see.
This Phoenix Suns team's greatest strength might be their malleability. Need shot making? They've got the Point God Chris Paul and Devin Booker with the ball in their capable hands the majority of the time, able to score at all three levels and pick apart a defense in the pick and roll game.
Need three point shooting? Chris Paul and Book are surrounded by a bevy of capable shot makers, from Mikal Bridges to Cam Johnson to Jae Crowder. Need a spark off the bench? Look no further than Cameron Payne, who was playing in China just a year ago and is now lighting up the NBA Playoffs, one of the best stories in the league we've seen in a while. Payne filled in admirably for Chris Paul while he was out and is now the primary difference maker off Phoenix's bench.
Need a big to slow down Giannis and Brook Lopez? Enter Deandre Ayton, the surging star of the Phoenix Suns. The former number 1 overall pick has more than held his own against the league's best bigs (Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic) before playing a pivotal role playing against the smaller, quicker Clippers.
Ayton is averaging 16.2 points per game, 11.8 rebounds per game, and shooting 70.6% from the field, the NBA playoff record. Just as important, Ayton has been able to stay on the floor and stay out of foul trouble, something he'll have to do against the Bucks frontline.
So who wins?
I think the difference between these two teams may come down to health and one team's ability to close games out. Milwaukee is hoping that Giannis can give them at least 70-80% of his normal self, which looked like a miracle just a week ago. We've seen the Bucks revert to their old, bad selves a couple of times this postseason in close games- the offense stalls out and they rely on Khris Middleton to create shot after shot for them in order to score in those situations.
On the flip side, Phoenix has two of the best isolation scorers in the whole league in CP3 and Devin Booker. Chris Paul especially has been the best closer in these NBA playoffs, saving his best for closeout games against Denver and of course his 41 point masterpiece to close out his old team, the Los Angeles Clippers. Phoenix has lost just one game all playoffs that was within 5 points or less in the last 5 minutes of the game- they're cold blooded-killers in the clutch.
I think these two teams are very evenly matched, but I'm going to lean with the Phoenix Suns to close out a few tightly contested games and to win this series in 6 games.
Suns in 6.