And so midnight struck for the Hawks’ Cinderella run, and they return to their stepmother’s basement. Perhaps, one day, their prince will come. If the NBA Playoffs are usually star-studded, this Hawks-Bucks series we just witnessed was smoother than water. It was ‘No Giannis, no problem’ for Mike Budenholzer and the rest of Milwaukee. We were reminded that this roster is a lot more than one man deep; Finishing off the Atlanta Hawks without one of the most dominant and physical players in the NBA seemed almost a breeze. The Bucks outlasted the Brooklyn Nets, proving that roster building is a lot more than simply selling the farm for a few star players, and swept both the Miami Heat and their own demons from the 2020 NBA Bubble’s Eastern Conference Finals collapse. The Suns, for the first time in a while, stayed true to their name as they torched their opponents on the way to the promised land. If going undefeated in the bubble was a “fluke” then this was a dream. Monty Williams cemented himself as one of the top coaches in the NBA, and the entire Phoenix team spearheaded by Booker and CP3 silenced any doubters. They put themselves on the map by knocking off the defending champion Lakers in 6, winning the series in the house that Kobe built. After that, they finished off the 2021 MVP, Jokic, and his Nuggets in 4 with the “Suns in 4” guy becoming a meme overnight only added hype to a much-anticipated conference finals against the Clippers. After yet another 6-game series win in Staples Center, the Suns completed their David and Goliath story run. A run with many stones cast their way, it all finally comes to an end, with only the Milwaukee Bucks left standing between Phoenix and their first-ever title.
The Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns met each other just twice this season, and they were as closely matched as you could imagine. Phoenix took both matches by a single point each, the most recent of which was in a thrilling overtime matchup. Giannis Antetokounmpo put up dominant performances in both losses, but the depth and consistent shooting of the Suns was enough to overcome even his crushing physical play under the basket. The narrow margin of victory tells us we’re in for an exciting back-and-forth series where home-field advantage could be the decider.
Iestyn Harris – Eastern Conference
The Milwaukee Bucks do one thing better than any team in the NBA: They crash the boards with consistency. Ranking first in the NBA in such a key area of the game is far from easy, but they mopped up a whopping 51.7 rebounds per game, including an NBA-leading 42.2 snags on the defensive end of the court. They’ll need to continue to perform consistently here to gain the advantage, as Phoenix shoots with efficiency in all areas, and giving them second chances will doom the Bucks early in games. Balancing possessions and using the shots they’re given to control the pace of the game will be crucial and in order to facilitate this, they’ll need to focus on getting every rebound and feeding their men efficient open looks within the arc, another area they also lead the NBA in. Expect them to dominate in the usual fashion, but keeping up with the scoring output the Suns hold will be another issue entirely.
They may be considered one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, but why? Team defense. They play every possession tightly and have the best hand-off in the league in their own half of the court. Giving and getting help when opponents close into the paint, stepping out to cover perimeter shooters on short notice, and giving the ball-carrier off to a second defender around screens and through contact has been the road to victory so far, and this team defense they boast is significantly better inside the paint. They hold their opposition to a league-worst (unsurprisingly) shooting percentage of .457 inside the arc as a whole, and even without Giannis on the floor (or in the game, if they have to) they excel. They are notably stingy and allow the 7th-fewest FT attempts, but even without that, Phoenix gets to the line the 2nd-least in the NBA. Don’t expect that number to rise this series. The Suns shoot an extremely efficient .563 (2nd best) inside the arc, but simultaneously they’re 7th-best from distance, and by forcing them to shoot from distance the Bucks make the Suns live or die by the three, and more often than not, teams die by the three. It may be about picking their poison, but Milwaukee doesn’t get as much of a choice as they’d like if they’re missing their star player for some time.
Giannis suffered a hyper-extended knee in the 3rd quarter of an uninspiring Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals and had to leave the court. He was doubtful, then was inactive for both Game 5 and the series-clinching Game 6, but there had been hope for the 2-time MVP to return for Game 7 if it was necessary. Milwaukee should consider themselves lucky, as injuries of this nature often have longer timetables for return and this is great news for the Bucks, as his injury could easily have sidelined him for the rest of the playoffs. Instead, they could see him back in time for Tuesday’s Game 1 tip-off. Failing that, he would be good to go for Game 2. He could be seeing limited action, but much like Kevin Durant with the 2019 Golden State Warriors, his return and health are both crucial. The Bucks need to manage him carefully, and we could see a slow start to the series because of it, but it will be worth it if they can get him back to 100% then they could compete against a blazing Suns’ team.
Julian Alcaraz – Western Conference
The Suns have gotten to this point for a lot of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is the fact that they play as a collective unit rather than focusing on one guy specifically to carry the load. It is never the same guy going off back-to-back, and that kind of variety is huge in a playoff where a lot of stars are getting hurt. Offensively speaking, they shoot the ball at a ridiculous clip. They are ranked second in field goal percentage this postseason, shooting just over 47%. They also take advantage of free points, as they rank second in free throw percentage in the playoffs, shooting a high 86.2% as a team from the stripe. They average over 24 assists a game which is the highest of any team remaining in the playoffs. Defensively, Phoenix has excellent wing defenders in Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder who can not only defend but shoot from beyond the arc if their team needs them to. Deandre Ayton is TEARING it up this postseason, averaging 16 points a game and over 11 boards in his first-ever playoff appearance. No one expected Phoenix to be this good, and they sure as hell didn’t expect them to be this composed for a young team.
For Phoenix to bring home their first franchise title, they need to continue playing as a team. Milwaukee is coming into this game hungry and eager to play in their first finals since 1974 and is keen to try and win their first title since their only one in 1971. The status of Giannis is easily the biggest factor here, as the Bucks need their star and former DPOY against a team like the Suns. If he’s out a game or two, it’s the Suns’ game to lose. Phoenix has to move the ball around and get hot early to force the Bucks to shoot more since they struggle shooting anywhere from 3. Milwaukee, in fact, is ranked third lowest of all playoff teams when it comes to shooting the deep ball. Through 16 games, the Bucks are averaging 30% 3 point percentage during the playoffs, and mainly because they focus on interior work. For the Suns to start off well, they need to shoot the ball at a high rate and also force Milwaukee out of the paint. If the Bucks come inside, Phoenix is better off fouling than letting up easy points. The Bucks are the second-worst free-throw shooting team as they only convert on 70% of their shots from the line. It may not seem that bad, but in close games where empty possessions can define a game, it’s a huge disadvantage.
Although Devin Booker has been killing it in these playoffs, the nose injury really hindered his momentum. He can still hit shots whenever he wants but his intensity is a little lower given that he has a mask on and is in clear pain. For the finals, the biggest X-Factor for the Suns is the guy who torched the Clippers with 41 points and 8 assists: Chris Paul. All his career, he has been scrutinized for not making it to the finals. He has come so close multiple times, but injury and other bad luck have kept one of the best point guards to ever play out of the spotlight. Now, he is going to play in the biggest series of his career with not only a chance to win his first title but a chance to be the hero Phoenix hasn’t had. It’s a chance to rewrite his history and stifle the hate he has received over his career. Shooting 47% from the field and 40% from 3, he is averaging over 18 points a game. His series against the Nuggets was clinical, and after COVID kept him out early against the Clippers, he ended that series with an exclamation point. We know the Suns have guys who can step up, but the biggest difference-maker is going to be the very motivated, and very hungry Chris Paul.
Iestyn Harris’ Prediction: This could genuinely be one of the best NBA Finals we’ve seen in some time; These two teams are definitively evenly matched in their differences from one another. Unfortunately, it’s going to be the end of the line for one of them, and the unlucky runner-up will be hanging their heads having fallen short once again. We should congratulate Chris Paul on an unbelievable season and a well-earned Finals berth, and I expect him to hoist both the Larry O’Brien trophy and the Bill Russell MVP in 2 weeks. Suns in 6.
Julian Alcaraz’s Prediction: Ultimately, I think the hunger and desire inside of Chris Paul will be on full display in these finals. His IQ mixed with the excellent team play the Suns have shown all season are going to go hand-and-hand. It is easily their hardest series yet, but the first franchise title comes home this year. Suns in 6.