NBA Finals Preview: Suns vs. Bucks, five keys to who wins series

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Milwaukee Bucks vs. Phoenix Suns. This is not the NBA Finals preview I expected to write when the playoffs started.

It’s not just me. Even though these are top-three seeds from each conference, this was not the Finals anyone expected to see just a month ago. Milwaukee had to prove it could overcome its demons of the past and that Giannis Antetokounmpo was ready for the biggest of stages. Phoenix had to prove its young players could stand the heat of playoff competition and Chris Paul had to finally have things break his way to complete his Hall of Fame resume.

It all came together, and now we have an NBA Finals with fresh faces, teams not traditionally on this stage, and the potential for an epic series. Here are the five keys to who will hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy when it is all said and done.

1) Does Antetokounmpo play? If so, how well?

From fans to oddsmakers in Vegas to coaching staffs drawing up game plans, it all has to start here: Will Antetokounmpo play, and if so how close to his MVP-self will we see?

He can absolutely swing the series: In the two games against the Suns this season, Antetokounmpo scored 80 total points with an insane 68.2 true shooting percentage. He played downhill and carved up the Phoenix defense (a lot of isolations against Deandre Ayton), and the Suns need to have answers (which could impact other areas).

The question remains will he play? And if so, how close to 100% is he?

Antetokounmpo left Game 4 against the Hawks with a gruesome-looking hyperextension of his left knee. The Bucks have never detailed the injuries caused by that hyperextension, but word has leaked there is no structural damage — no torn ligaments, nothing that will require surgery and keep him out some or all of next season (that was certainly the fear when it happened). We don’t know if he can play in Game 1, if he can return later in the series, or if all of that is asking too much considering the injury. Bucks’ coach Mike Budenholzer said he would be day-to-day.

“You have to listen to the player and then you have to listen to the sports performance group, and at some point [Bucks GM] Jon Horst and myself are part of the conversations, but it’s just a day-to-day thing,” Budenholzer said.

There were reports that if there had been a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals, Antetokounmpo would have played. If so, the extra day of rest before Game 1 of the Finals would suggest he might play, but nothing is official.

2) Jrue Holiday vs. Chris Paul

This is why Milwaukee traded so many picks, gave up so much depth to get Jrue Holiday — his defense, his play against the best point guards of the game, could put the Bucks over the top.

We saw that in the Eastern Conference Finals. After Trae Young dropped 48 on the Bucks in Game 1, Holiday dialed in and Young still got points — he’s an elite scorer — but shot 46.1% overall and 7-of-22 from three in the next two games (before Young got injured).

Containing Young is one thing. Paul is another, he is the greatest floor general and one of the great point guards both of his generation, a lock Hall of Famer now playing for the crowning achievement of his legacy. When it came to crunch time of Game 6 against the Clippers, Paul took over with 30 second-half points, completely controlling the flow of the game. At age 36, he has never been playing better.

Holiday is not going to stop Paul, but can he make him less efficient and make the other Suns beat them? The Bucks system traditionally gives up mid-range jumpers to ballhandlers (skip ahead to No. 3 on this list) but CP3 will carve up the Bucks if they let him get to his elbow spot and elevate. The weight of stopping that will fall heavily on Holiday.

One other thing to watch, can CP3 control the pace and keep the game slow. The Bucks are at their best in transition — off steals/turnovers or missed shots — and when Antetokounmpo gets rolling downhill he’s unstoppable. The Suns need these games to grind out, and that starts with Paul.

3) Bucks drop coverage vs. Suns pick-and-roll

This is where the chess match really starts in this series. Chris Paul and the Suns run one of the best pick-and-rolls in the league. The Bucks prefer a drop-back style of coverage where Brook Lopez hangs in the paint and blocks the path to the rim, although they can bring Lopez up to the level of the ball or switch, depending on the situation.

Often the Bucks give the ball handler space and try to encourage him to take mid-range jumpers — but Paul will hit those at an impressive rate and beat Milwaukee that way. When the Bucks work to cut those off, will it open up DeAndre Ayton rolling to the rim or Devin Booker from three, or maybe Jae Crowder in the corner. And Paul will find the right man in the right spot.

This year’s Bucks under Mike Budenholzer have proven more adaptable than in seasons past, but the Suns present them a new level of challenge. Are the Bucks up to it?

4) Can the Bucks hit their 3s?

As a team, the Bucks are shooting 31.1% on 3-pointers these playoffs.

While the Bucks pounded the Hawks inside last series and are capable of doing that to the Suns, it’s not going to be quite as easy with Deandre Ayton camped out looking to protect the rim. The Bucks are going to need to hit their 3s and space the floor out.

That starts with their stars. Khris Middleton is shooting 33.8% on 3-pointers, which is not great but better than Holiday’s 29.9%. P.J. Tucker is at 29.4%. There are some guys hitting their 3s — Pat Connaughton 36.1%, Brook Lopez 35.3% — but as a team Milwaukee needs to do better. Lopez, in particular, is key because if he hits threes it pulls Ayton out of the paint.

Milwaukee is shooting 37.6% on corner 3s this postseason, a good sign. They just need to extend that to above the break shots in the Finals.

5) Devin Booker or Khris Middleton, which No. 2 steps up

When this series is over, Booker and Middleton are going to shake hands, get on a charter flight together and it will be wheels up and off to Tokyo to represent the USA in the Olympics.

Before that, they could decide which team wins the NBA Championship.

Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t fully healthy (if he plays) and as noted above, Holiday is not going to let Chris Paul just go off. That means the No. 2 options on each team will need to step up and take on more of the scoring load.

Middleton is averaging 23.4 points per game this postseason and his play the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals — stepping up when Antetokounmpo went down — is the reason the Bucks are still playing. He enters the Finals on a roll.

Booker’s playmaking and shooting in the halfcourt is elite, and one of the league’s bright young stars will be asked to show that off on the NBA’s biggest stage. And asked to do it with the long and athletic Middleton guarding him much of the time.

Middleton and Booker could both have strong series, but whichever has the better series may be popping champagne corks in the locker room.

Houston acquires 2025 2nd-round pick in eight-player trade with Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder v Sacramento Kings
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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski described this as a “cap-centric deal”, since it helped the Thunder get around $10 million below the luxury tax, while Houston added a 2nd-round pick by taking on $1 million in cap space.

The Rockets acquired Derrick Favors, Ty Jerome, Moe Harkless, Theo Maledon and a protected 2025 2nd-round pick from the Hawks and sent David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke and Marquese Chriss to Oklahoma City.

The 2nd-rounder from Atlanta is protected 31-40, and it will become the second best 2026 2nd-round pick between the Mavericks, Thunder, and 76ers if it doesn’t convey in 2025.

A tweet from Jackson Gatlin of Locked On Rockets indicates that Houston will also receive $6.3 million in cash from the Thunder.

Previous reports indicated that Derrick Favors was unlikely to remain with the Thunder this season, while Ty Jerome wasn’t participating in training camp as his representatives worked with the team to find an exit strategy for him. Kelly Iko of The Athletic reported that Houston plans to waive Jerome. Harkless was traded for the third time this summer. He was dealt from Sacramento to Atlanta in July as part of the Kevin Huerter deal, and then was shipped to OKC for Vit Krejci earlier this week. Hopefully he’ll be able to settle in with Houston this season.

As he enters his seventh season, this will be the sixth team that Nwaba has suited up for. The journeyman has had a few solid seasons, including averaging 9.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.0 steals for Houston during the 2020-21 season. Among the players in the deal, he’s the most likely candidate to carve out a role on his new team next season.

Brown, Burke, and Chriss were already traded once this summer as part of the deal that said Christian Wood to Dallas. Now, they’ll be depth pieces in Oklahoma City if the team decides to keep them around.

Daily Thunder’s beat writer Brandon Rahbar pointed out that the trade wouldn’t have been possible without the Disabled Player Exception that the Thunder received because of Chet Holmgren’s injury.

Spurs’ Josh Primo out for preseason with left knee MCL sprain

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs
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Josh Primo is going to get his chance this season. The Spurs are rebuilding — even Gregg Popovich says not to bet on them to win the title — and Primo, entering his second season (and still 19), is one of the most promising young players on their roster, someone with the chance to be part of whatever will be built in San Antonio the future. He just needs more experience.

Unfortunately, he’s going to start this season half a step behind after missing most of training camp due to a sprained left MCL, the team announced Thursday. He is expected to return in time for the season opener, according to the team.

Promo, the No. 12 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, got into 50 games for the Spurs last season and averaged 5.8 points a game but wasn’t very efficient with his shot yet. He also spent a lot of time in the G-League (but then had to miss this past Summer League due to COVID).

With Dejounte Murray now in Atlanta, there is not only a starting spot open but also opportunities to run the offense — Primo is going to get a chance to show what he can do with that. It’s just not going to be for a little while due to his knee sprain.

Anthony Davis ‘excited’ to be Lakers’ No.1 offensive option, LeBron pushing him to do it

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Is Anthony Davis a No.1 offensive option on a championship team?

The Lakers made a massive bet in trading for Davis — both in good young players and picks — that he could help them win a title now and be the bridge to the future post-LeBron James. Davis was everything the Lakers hoped in the bubble and did win them banner No. 17. However, he has not stayed healthy or consistently played up to that standard.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham is betting on Davis again and is going to run more of the offense through him this season. LeBron James reportedly backs Ham up. Can Davis stay healthy, find that form again and look like that bridge to the future? If he can’t, the Lakers have to reconsider their post-LeBron plans. That’s why there is pressure on Davis this season.

Davis is excited to prove he is ready for the role, he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. He added LeBron is pushing him to do it.

“I’m so excited that I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about this year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports this week. “I’m looking forward to a healthy year and doing what I know we can do.”…

Davis said James, 37, has been in his ear about taking over the reins of the team, while the rest of the roster would follow his lead.

The first step in Davis being that No.1 option: Staying healthy. He played 40 games last season and 36 the season before that. While some of that was due to fluke injuries, the history of Davis missing time is long.

When healthy, Davis is an unquestionably elite player — to use the bubble example, Davis was a defensive force in Orlando who knocked down midrange jumpers after facing up, averaging 27.7 points on a 66.5 true shooting percentage, plus grabbed 9.7 rebounds a game. That is the AD the Lakers need this season.

Which can be a lot of pressure, but Davis said he doesn’t feel that.

“But for me, I’m not putting any pressure on myself at all,” Davis said at media day. “I’m gonna go out there and play basketball, work hard, defend and do what the team needs to win basketball games. I’m not going to overthink and, you know, listen to what everybody else is saying and try to be this ‘whatever’ player they want me to be.”

“Whatever” the Lakers want Davis to be is the Top 10 player in the world he has shown for stretches in Los Angeles. If he can be consistent, that Davis helps the Lakers be more of a threat in the West. If Davis can’t be that guy, it could be another long season for Lakers nation.

 

Proud to be an American: 76ers’ Embiid officially becomes U.S. citizen

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Joel Embiid is an American citizen.

A native of Cameroon, Embiid said he was sworn in as a citizen two weeks ago in Philadelphia. The NBA scoring champion and Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center said his family – Embiid and his Brazilian girlfriend Anne de Paula have a young son – played a pivotal role in his decision.

“I’ve been here for a long time,” Embiid told The Associated Press Thursday at training camp at The Citadel. “My son is American. I felt like, I’m living here and it’s a blessing to be an American. So I said, why not?”

Embiid, who played college basketball for one season at Kansas, also has citizenship in France. He said it is way too early to think about which country he could potentially represent in international basketball.

The 28-year-old Embiid averaged a career-best 30.6 points in 68 games last season. The 7-footer also averaged 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists in helping Philadelphia reach the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight year. Embiid averaged 23.6 points and 10.7 rebounds in the postseason despite playing with hand and facial injuries.

Embiid had been announced as playing out of Kansas during pregame introductions at 76ers’ home games but switched around midseason last year as being introduced from Cameroon. He might try for a mouthful this season.

“We’re going to say Cameroon, American and French,” he said, laughing.