2021 NBA Finals

NBA Finals preview: Can Bucks put clamps on determined Chris Paul, Suns?

Assuming Giannis Antetokounmpo plays, Milwaukee will need to lean on its defensive prowess to slow down Phoenix's dynamic backcourt.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Khris Middleton will likely be assigned to lock down Devin Booker, who is capable of catching fire at any point.

An NBA postseason that’s been frequently interrupted by injuries to star players might arrive at an unpopular yet fitting finale: Will Giannis Antetokounmpo play in The Finals and, if he does as expected, how healthy will he be?

Let’s assume the two-time Kia MVP is a go, just for the sake of this matchup discussion if nothing else. In such a case, Suns vs. Bucks will not be deprived of one of the game’s biggest stars (Giannis), who’ll fight a breakout star (Devin Booker) and established star (Chris Paul) over who earns their first NBA championship. That’s plenty of drama.

Giannis has had his issues with shooting here in the playoffs, but that doesn’t automatically mean his problems will continue. And even if he’s still bricking free throws and deep shots, he remains a serious threat off the dribble and always keeps the other team on alert. Also, there’s the matter of his defense, which is top notch, and since the Suns didn’t see Kawhi Leonard in the conference finals, Giannis will be the best all-around defensive menace they’ve faced in the playoffs.

Milwaukee as a whole is a superb defensive team, especially once you factor in Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and PJ Tucker. Those are persistent and aggressive demons. The Suns can’t afford for Booker or Paul to struggle, as they often did against the Clippers even without Kawhi, or else it’ll be a short series.

Just as well, the Bucks tend to live and die with the long ball. Some of their role players, such as Tucker and Pat Connaughton, don’t always make those open looks. That puts a premium of pressure on Middleton and Holiday; if those shots don’t fall frequently, the Bucks lack another option to beat teams.

So that’s what the 2021 NBA Finals bring — two good shooting teams, one team that’s among the league’s best defensively, and the generational point guard who’ll generate lots of sympathy as he tries for the only prize that has eluded him in his 16-year career.

What the Finals doesn’t need is any time off by Giannis. That would mean the Suns, besides being good, would see their tremendous luck continue for the fourth straight round. They saw little of Anthony Davis, none of Jamal Murray or Leonard, and there’s the argument that Phoenix wouldn’t be here if any or all of those players were healthy.

The Finals deserves a better finish and fate. Shouldn’t the best team raise the trophy, rather than the healthiest?

Three things to watch:

1. A new challenge for Ayton: Suns center Deandre Ayton enjoyed a breakout of sorts when he pieced together some solid playoff stretches where, at times, he was the most impactful player on the floor (and even dominated some games). That’s a credit to his hard work and willingness to meet the challenge. But speaking of a challenge, he played against a poor defensive center in Andre Drummond in the first round, reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokic in the semifinals and then Ivica Zubac in the West finals. Save for having to guard Jokic, these playoffs basically haven’t pushed Ayton much defensively. That will change a bit with Brook Lopez, a clever defender with shot-blocking ability who can also shoot the 3, and Bobby Portis, who brings a motor. And if Ayton becomes a problem for the Bucks, they’ll toss in some Giannis Antetokounmpo. Let’s see how Ayton does against a higher grade of big man.

2. Can Holiday get best of Paul?: Jrue Holiday opened the East finals getting torched for 48 points by Trae Young. After that auspicious start, Holiday improved on both ends of the floor and finished strong. Now he’ll get Chris Paul, assuming Khris Middleton will guard Devin Booker. This is why the Bucks sent first-round picks and swaps to New Orleans and also paid Holiday a massive extension — for him to be a difference-making defender who helps produce a title. Paul will obviously be on a mission because a championship is all he lacks in his career. Just the same, Holiday can make the Bucks feel zero buyer’s remorse about that trade and big contract if he forces Paul to burn another year looking for that elusive title. Holiday needs to make Paul work on the defensive end if only to sap some of that energy Paul brings on offense.

3.Will Giannis settle for jumpers against Phoenix?: If so, he’d be playing right into the Suns’ hands. Aside from Ayton, the Suns don’t bring much in quality size; there’s a drop-off from Ayton to Dario Saric. It’s not a bad strategy for Giannis to test his outside range, especially early in the game. This way, if he misses, no harm, and if he hits, the defense might begin to pay him a bit more respect and open the driving lanes. Giannis would be wise to pick his spots, maybe mix in some mid-range jumpers, and steer clear of getting fouled as much as possible. Those “1-2-3” chants on the road are only getting louder when he goes through his routine at the free throw line.

Number to know:

105.8 — This has been a historical season in regard to offensive efficiency, but the two teams that have reached The Finals are the ones that rank 10th and 11th offensively in the playoffs. The Bucks (105.0) and Suns (106.7) rank first and second defensively, having combined to allow just 105.8 points per 100 possessions, almost 10 fewer than the other 14 teams allowed (115.4).

Good defense starts in transition, and the Bucks (0.93) and Suns (0.97) have each allowed less than a point per transition possession, according to Synergy tracking. They also rank first and second in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area. Phoenix also ranks first in opponent effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (44.8%), while Milwaukee ranks first in opponent free throw rate (19.5 attempts per 100 shots from the field).

The Suns closed out the conference finals with their most efficient game of the season (regular season or playoffs), scoring 130 points on just 94 possessions in Game 6 against the LA Clippers. The Bucks, meanwhile, scored more than 123 per 100 over their four wins over the Atlanta Hawks. Both of these teams had top-10 offenses in the regular season. But they got here with elite defense, and they’ll each face a challenge trying to score efficiently against the other.

— John Schuhmann

The pick:

Purely from an accomplishment standpoint, the Bucks have the most to lose here. They had the best record in the league the previous two years, then fizzled in the playoffs. Coach Mike Budenholzer has been “fired” multiple times by social media, and he now goes against Monty Williams, a good tactician and motivator. Also, Giannis has those pair of MVP awards and no rings. This should be enough motivation by the Bucks to finally deliver, for the first time since 1971. Again, we are assuming Giannis will be 100 percent. Milwaukee is the better defensive team, brings the best player and the individual matchups are mainly in the Bucks’ favor. Bucks in six.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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