The NBA is a narrative and star-driven league, and that holds true for these NBA Finals. Even with the big-market teams having been eliminated in this postseason, the story surrounding this year’s NBA Finals between the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks should be an interesting one, as it is all about firsts.
The first season for certain players on certain teams. The first postseason for many of the league’s young stars and the first NBA Finals appearance for an ageless luminary. It’s the first finals appearances for both teams in decades. It could also be the first NBA championship for one team, or the first league title for another in almost half a century.
Those aforementioned firsts are just some of the few that will likely take center stage as the Suns and the Bucks square off in what could be a championship series for the ages. Phoenix won both their regular season matchups, but they were both one-point wins. As such, expectations are high for what is being set up as a blockbuster matchup.
Stars like the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton and the Suns’ Devin Booker and Chris Paul weren’t even alive during Milwaukee’s last championship in 1971, with the 50-year drought making it feel as if the franchise is still seeking its first championship.
Meanwhile, neither Antetokounmpo nor Booker were alive during Phoenix’s last title appearance in 1993. The Arizona-based franchise is still seeking its first league title since the team was established in 1968.
Individual flair isn’t lost in this matchup, but what is interesting is that none of the players on both rosters garnered any individual awards. Antetokounmpo and Paul earned All-NBA honors, while Antetokounmpo and Holiday earned spots on the All-Defensive First Team.
The numbers also offer another layer to the team concept.
The Suns are the top team in terms of assisting on 2-point shots, with 51.9 percent of their shots inside the 3-point line coming off assists. In terms of 3-pointers, they are top-5 among the teams in the postseason, with 81.7 percent of their 3-pointers coming off passes.
Meanwhile, the Bucks thrive off isolation more and it naturally points to lower assist percentages on their shots. Their shot quality, however, is the best among the playoff teams as they lead all teams in 2-point field goal percentage (.558). Their aggression in the paint is also highlighted by the 230 dunks and 81 layups that they have made so far this postseason. Those numbers would not only be the most at the conclusion of the finals, but they would also outpace all playoff participants including their finals opponent Phoenix.
There’s enough game tape for the Suns to understand that keeping the Bucks off the boards will help them limit Milwaukee’s possessions and prevent the likes of Antetokounmpo and Holiday from igniting fast breaks.
From a minutes standpoint, the Suns also deploy a deeper rotation and it could help them deploy various lineups against Milwaukee. This especially becomes an advantage when the Bucks bring in their bench. Having a healthier lineup than Milwaukee also bodes well for Phoenix, as it allows them to maintain the team chemistry that can help them overcome offensive breakdowns with on-the-fly adjustments.
On the other hand, a huge key for the Bucks will be to employ some of the defensive principles they used on Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks. CP3 is no Young in terms of speed and shooting, but (and maybe it’s more of a BUT) Paul is craftier and smarter when breaking down defenses. The Point God’s physical limitations may make it easier to switch and cover him, but the personnel he has with him on the Suns opens the floor and makes him and the team more dangerous.
Having a healthy Antetokounmpo will definitely help, but the other players on the Bucks must be able to do their part in taking down the Suns. Keeping Ayton out of the paint is part of the agenda, but so is attacking the likes of Booker, Paul, Cam Johnson, Cameron Payne, Jae Crowder, and Mikal Bridges. Booker, Paul, and maybe even Payne are obviously the marked men on defense, but Crowder and Bridges will be much trickier. Having the Milwaukee big men seal them deep in the post or putting them on Giannis at more advantageous spots could put them in early foul trouble and make the Suns defense more vulnerable.
All eyes will definitely be on Antetokounmpo’s health, as he sat out the last two games in the Eastern Conference Finals due to a hyperextended left knee. It has, however, given the Bucks an opportunity to see who can step up in pressure-packed situations. Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez have answered the call during the two games Antetokounmpo sat out. The Greek Freak’s presence on the sidelines can only do so much and being so close to a title will further motivate someone who has bigger aspirations in mind.
Much has been said about legacies, especially when it comes to the finals, and players on both teams have a chance to add to cement their place in NBA lore. The presence of the late great Kobe Bryant also looms large in this series as Antentokounmpo and Booker have carried on his legacy in their own way.
Bryant had initially given Antetokounmpo the goal of winning MVP, and with the five-time All-NBA member achieving it twice, it was only fitting that he be given something loftier to aim for.
The Greek Freak had also spent an offseason training with the Laker legend and his past few seasons have been a testament to his efforts on and off the court. Winning a title will get closer to the hallowed company of those he looks up to.
While it is only Booker’s first postseason and NBA Finals, the former Kentucky Wildcat continues to follow his idol’s message to him from five years ago.
Booker has been solid in the playoffs and he will face his biggest challenge yet against the Bucks. They’re expected to throw everything but the kitchen sink so the Olympian will have to come prepared. Scoring from him is definitely a given, but then there will be moments when shots don’t fall. During those trying times, Booker will have to find other ways to contribute.
Chris Paul has finally erased the ghosts of postseasons past and he enters the NBA Finals with an opportunity to cement his legacy as arguably one of the greatest point guards of all time. His shoulder injury and absence due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols looked to threaten his postseason, but he has come up with virtuoso performances. With a little help from his teammates, he now finds himself in the biggest stage for the first time in his 16 years in the NBA. How he closes this chapter will be fun to watch.
Regardless of who wins the title, however, the legacies of these players will forever be changed. The winner will emerge with a ring and could certainly be hungry for more. The loser will definitely carry the L into the offseason and use it as motivation for the next season.
Predicting outcomes at the individual, team, and game levels are tricky, especially in a season full of uncertainties and unfortunate injuries. The only that is certain is that Torrey Craig is a winner regardless of the outcome.
How the narrative unfolds in these NBA Finals remains to be seen but with both the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks boasting mostly young players and one ageless star, this could be the first of many finals runs for both teams.
Let’s hope that they bring us the battle we’re itching for.