If their two regular-season matchups are any indication of how the 2021 NBA Finals will play out, the Bucks and Suns are about to give basketball fans one of the most entertaining championship series of all time.
Phoenix won the two games against Milwaukee by a combined two points, including a 128-127 overtime thriller back in April. Yes, Bucks guard Jrue Holiday missed one of those contests, and the rotations for both teams are going to look a lot different this time around. Still, the Bucks and Suns brought incredible intensity to the floor during the regular season, and there is no reason to believe they won’t do it again, especially considering what’s on the line for each side.
The Suns reached the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993 by running through the Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers. The Bucks clinched their first NBA Finals berth since 1974 after eliminating the Heat, Nets and Hawks. Phoenix and Milwaukee are positioned to be contenders in the future, but these franchises understand how rare it is to have an opportunity to win the title. If the 2021 NBA playoffs have taught us anything, it’s how quickly an unexpected injury can make championship dreams disappear.
How will the last series of what has been a crazy postseason play out? Let’s break it down.
Bucks vs. Suns odds for 2021 NBA Finals
The Suns are favored to win the 2020-21 NBA championship, according to updated odds from the FanDuel sportsbook. Phoenix is a -180 favorite, meaning you’d need to bet $180 to win $100 if the Suns defeat te Bucks in the series. A $100 bet on Milwaukee would return $145 if the Bucks win.
The key matchup
Jrue Holiday vs. Chris Paul
How much trouble can Holiday cause for his primary assignment? Well, ahead of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, Hawks coach Nate McMillan said he would allow Lou Williams (starting in place of Trae Young), Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic to decide which player would bring the ball up the floor based on who Holiday wasn’t defending.
This is what happens when you get too careless with your dribble against a member of the All-Defensive First Team.
But with respect to the Hawks’ backcourt, none of those guys is “The Point God.” In 14 playoff games, Paul has totaled 122 assists compared to only 22 turnovers. The Suns guard is coming off a series-clinching performance in which he posted an absurd line of 41 points (16-of-24 shooting), eight assists, four rebounds, three steals and zero turnovers. The future Hall of Famer is playing some of the best basketball of his career.
Aside from being confident in himself simply because he’s CP3, Paul also has to feel good about how he has previously performed against Holiday. The (admittedly imperfect) NBA.com matchup data from the past four seasons shows Paul has handled Holiday’s pressure just fine.
Stopping any star is more than a one-man job, of course. Paul is a master at navigating the pick-and-roll and forcing opposing bigs into uncomfortable spots.
Check out what happens in the play below when Holiday gets stuck on a Deandre Ayton screen, leaving Brook Lopez to deal with Paul. No chance.
And this time, when Lopez commits to contesting the midrange jumper, Paul waits until Ayton rolls to the rim and finds him for an easy bucket.
It’s worth noting that Lopez was more aggressive in Milwaukee’s drop scheme after Young exploded for a playoff career-high 48 points in Game 1. Perhaps Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer will push Lopez to meet Paul at the level of the screen or even switch in certain circumstances.
But when it comes to slowing down Paul, the most critical work starts at the point of attack with Holiday.
How much will Giannis Antetokounmpo play?
As has been the case throughout the postseason, health could play a major role in the outcome of the series.
Antetokounmpo suffered a hyperextension of his left knee after a scary fall in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. The two-time NBA MVP was listed as doubtful ahead of both Games 5 and 6 before ultimately being ruled out. The Bucks managed to win those games, but we don’t have to go full Ewing Theory here and invent a debate topic. Milwaukee is much better with Antetokounmpo, particularly on the defensive end and on the boards.
Will Antetokounmpo be available for the start of the NBA Finals? Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes reported Friday that there was a “belief” Antetokounmpo would have been cleared to play in Game 7 had the Hawks won Game 6. With an extra day of rest and recovery, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him at least test out that knee in warmups in the hopes of rejoining the starting lineup.
If Antetokounmpo is able to suit up, he likely won’t be operating at 100 percent. He would provide a significant boost for his team, though, and change the dynamic on the court just by being present.
The big number
Bucks forward Bobby Portis and Suns forward Jae Crowder have each scored 11 points or more in seven playoff games this year. Milwaukee and Phoenix hold a combined record of 13-1 in those games. (Portis scored exactly 11 points in the Bucks’ Game 1 loss to the Hawks.)
And both teams aren’t just winning when Portis and Crowder hit 11 — they are dominating. The average margin of victory in those games has been 17.2 points.
So… first player to 11 wins the championship?
Bucks vs. Suns schedule
(All times Eastern)
* If necessary
Bucks vs. Suns prediction
Suns in six
The Giannis question makes this series extremely difficult to predict. Winning two games against the Hawks without Antetokounmpo is a much different challenge than taking down a Suns squad that has talent at every position and is led by a terrific coach in Monty Williams.
Even if Antetokounmpo does take the floor, the bet here is that Phoenix, the most consistent team throughout the NBA regular season and playoffs, will capture the Larry O’Brien trophy.
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