The Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns and Eastern champion Milwaukee Bucks meet in the 2021 NBA Finals. The Suns and Bucks, respectively, beat the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals. It is the first Finals since 1993 for Phoenix and first since 1974 for Milwaukee.
Game 1: Milwaukee at Phoenix, 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday (ABC)
Game 2: Milwaukee at Phoenix, 9 p.m. ET on Thursday (ABC)
Game 3: Phoenix at Milwaukee, 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (ABC)
Game 4: Phoenix at Milwaukee, 9 p.m. ET on July 14 (ABC)
*Game 5: Milwaukee at Phoenix, 9 p.m. ET on July 17 (ABC)
*Game 6: Phoenix at Milwaukee, 9 p.m. ET on July 20 (ABC)
*Game 7: Milwaukee at Phoenix, 9 p.m. ET on July 22 (ABC)
How they got here
Phoenix beat the Los Angeles Lakers without Anthony Davis in the first round, the Denver Nuggets without Jamal Murray in the second round and the L.A. Clippers without Kawhi Leonard in the conference finals.
The Suns still may have rolled through healthy editions of those teams — all of whom were inferior during the regular season — and they have dealt with their own (albeit more fortunate) set of circumstances in the playoffs, including Chris Paul's shoulder injury, his COVID-19 diagnosis, Devin Booker's broken nose, Cam Payne's rolled ankle and Cameron Johnson's illness. The sum total of their rotation's lost games is three.
Phoenix has been in the playoffs what Phoenix was during the regular season. Their starting lineup fits together as well as any in the league, anchored by Paul's unrivaled command of the floor, Booker's pure shooting ability and DeAndre Ayton's ascent as a true center whose game transcends modern offenses.
The Suns feature effective backups at every position but Ayton's, an apparent weakness that has yet to bite them, because the 22-year-old 7-footer has largely avoided foul trouble. He is representative of a team that plays hard but smart, rarely beating themselves and following the lead of a player-coach dynamic between Paul and Monty Williams that dates back a decade and became one of the great stories of these playoffs.
The Bucks exorcized the demons of last year's playoffs in the first round, sweeping a Miami Heat team that had ousted them in the 2020 Eastern Conference semifinals in embarrassing fashion. They, too, benefited from injuries to James Harden and Kyrie Irving in the second round, and still required overtime in Game 7 to beat Kevin Durant. And in the conference finals, Milwaukee avoided the Philadelphia 76ers, who could not survive a severely limiting knee injury to Joel Embiid and an absolute offensive meltdown by Ben Simmons.
Instead, the Bucks faced the fifth-seeded Hawks, who lost rising superstar Trae Young to an ankle injury in Games 4 and 5 of a series that should have been shorter. Of course, Milwaukee also lost two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to a hyperextended knee midway through Game 4 and still managed to win Games 5 and 6 handily behind bona fide supporting actors Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez.
The Bucks have for years now been a dominant regular-season team, balancing elite defense with high-efficiency offense. That offense failed them in postseasons past, when Antetokounmpo's inability to score outside 5 feet and Eric Bledsoe's disappearing act made them mortal. Trading Bledsoe for Holiday gave the offense another playmaking dimension and strengthened a defense that now ranks No. 1 in the playoffs.
Still, everything hinges on the health of Antetokounmpo, who avoided structural damage to his left knee. Our Chris Haynes reported optimism that he could have been available for a Game 7 of the conference finals that never happened, and Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer called the injury "just a day-to-day thing" leading into Game 1 of the NBA Finals. We will surely see him at some point. At what strength is a question.
Head to head
Phoenix won its season series with Milwaukee, 2-0. Both games were decided by a single point.
In their first meeting, played during a February trial run starting Frank Kaminsky at power forward, all five Suns starters scored in double figures, led by 58 points from Paul and Booker, to overcome a masterful 47-point effort from Antetokounmpo. The victory bolstered Phoenix's credibility as a contender after a decade mired in the lottery, and the loss raised more questions about who executes late in games for Milwaukee.
Granted, the Bucks played that first showdown without Holiday, who was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Although, Phoenix's roster balance outlasted 84 combined points from Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton in a mid-April overtime victory, thanks to Bucks forward P.J. Tucker's last-second foul on Booker. The two teams could not have been more evenly matched, so fingers crossed for Antetokounmpo's health.
There has been a smattering of Payne's hot hand, Johnson's floor spacing and Torrey Craig's defense, but the Suns ride their starting lineup of Paul, Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Ayton in crunch time. It is a five-man unit full of versatile defenders who can also reliably score in multiple ways. Per Cleaning the Glass, that quintet outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes during the regular season and has improved on that mark by more than three points per 100 playoff possessions.
Antetokounmpo, Holiday, Middleton and Lopez are mainstays of Milwaukee's closing lineup, and Pat Connaughton has assumed the fifth spot since Donte DiVincenzo's season-ending ankle injury. Tucker can be leveraged to go bigger or smaller, depending on matchups, although that seems less likely against the Suns' traditional lineup. The Bucks will hope Tucker is not playing in place of an injured Antetokounmpo.
The five-man unit of Antetokounmpo, Holiday, Middleton, Lopez and Connaughton outscored opponents by 24.6 points per 100 possessions in a limited regular-season sample size, and that figure has crept closer to +30 points per 100 playoff possessions in even more limited time. Tucker playing in place of Connaughton in that lineup still yields a positive double-digit rating in almost three times as many possessions together.
Matchup to watch
This is Paul's time to shine. Sixteen years into his NBA career, one of the game's all-time great point guards is making his first Finals appearance, largely due to his 41-point effort in Game 6 against the Clippers. The Suns can and have won without him, but he is the engine that will drive him on basketball's biggest stage, and the Bucks happen to have arguably the game's best on-ball defender to throw at a 36-year-old Paul.
Holiday has long been one of the NBA's most underrated players, particularly on the defensive end, where he earned the second All-Defensive First Team nod of his career this year. He is three inches taller than Paul and five years his junior. There is no greater opportunity to raise his profile from under-appreciated one-time All-Star to household name than to go toe-to-toe with the Point God and emerge the more dominant force.
According to the NBA's tracking data, Holiday has defended Paul for a total of 25:25 over the past four seasons, and Paul has recorded 35 points (11-21 FG, 5-7 3P, 8-8 FT) and 13 assists against one turnover. The Bucks will need far more from Holiday if they have any hope of stymying the center of the Suns' orbit.
Suns in seven.
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