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


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.

Lakers’ LeBron James says he could need offseason foot surgery


LeBron James wanted back on the court. He saw the glimpses of what this current roster can do when healthy and focused — the same glimpses that have Laker exceptionalism running strong in Los Angeles — and he sees a West without a dominant team. Together those things mean opportunity.

LeBron could have shut it down when he felt something pop in his foot last month, admitting that two doctors told him to get surgery. However, the “LeBron James of foot doctors” told him he could be back this season — and he made that return Sunday. Still, LeBron admitted he could need off-season surgery.

“I don’t know. Right now, I don’t need it, so we’ll see what happens. I’ll probably get another MRI at the end of the season and go from there. But if I end up having to get surgery after the season, you guys won’t know. I don’t talk to you guys in the offseason, and by the time next season starts, I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready to go.”

As for what motivated him to get back on the court this season and not shut it down.

“Now we sitting at a chance to be able to… to hell with the play-in, we actually can be a top-[six] seed. That definitely changed my mindset on me coming back and trying to be a part of this, obviously, so — well, I don’t really want to say changed my mindset, it just enhanced what I was trying to do as far as my workouts, as far as my treatment and everything”

The Lakers sit tied for 9/10 in the West, one game below .500. While LeBron can say, “to hell with the play-in,” his Lakers would need help from the Clippers or Warriors to climb into the top six even though they are only 1.5 games back (time is short for L.A., if the Warriors or Clippers go 4-3 the rest of the way, the Lakers need to go 6-2 over their last eight). Los Angeles also is just a game up on Dallas for the 11 seed, and if the losses pile up they could fall out of the play-in completely.

With LeBron back, missing the play-in is unlikely. But having him back (and eventually a healthy D'Angelo Russell, who was out Sunday with a hip issue) also is no guarantee of wins — the Lakers still need peak Anthony Davis to compete. When he has a solid game of 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists (as he did Sunday), they lose. The Lakers need bubble Davis every night, or even if they make the postseason it will be short-lived.

Dončić dodges suspension, NBA rescinds 16th technical

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets
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This was unexpected, especially after crew chief Kevin Scott said after the game last night: “Doncic was assessed a technical foul for his use of profanity directed at the officials in protest to a no-call that was correctly judged in postgame video review.”

The NBA league office reviewed the incident (as it does with all technicals) and rescinded what would have been Luka Doncic’s 16th technical.

That 16th technical would have triggered an automatic one game suspension. With it rescinded, Dončić is clear to play Monday night when the Mavericks take on the Pacers.

Sunday night in Charlotte, Dončić was given a technical when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper and said something to the nearby official.

This incident comes days after Dončić was fined $35,000  for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after a  Mavericks loss.

Through all this the Mavericks have lost four straight, 7-of-9, and have slid back to 11th in the West, outside even the play-in. Their team is disintegrating and if they don’t pick up some wins fast they have less than two weeks until they are on summer vacation.

MVP showdown off: 76ers to sit Joel Embiid due to calf tightness

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
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Recently Joel Embiid said,” ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.” Today’s news plays right into that narrative.

Embiid has been playing through calf tightness for a few games now — he only played a half against the Bulls last Wednesday — but still putting up numbers (46 points against the Warriors, 28 and 10 against the Suns). However, there had been some concern in the organization about not pushing things and making sure Embiid is healthy for the playoffs. Which is why they will rest him on Monday night, short-circuiting an MVP-race showdown against Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news and John Clarke of NBC Sports Philadelphia has confirmed it.

Embiid did go through part of the 76ers’ shootaround this morning. The decision was made after that point.

Undoubtedly this will spark the load management discussion around the league again, and Embiid is going to take heat for this — but this is a situation where the team’s medical staff made the call, likely over Embiid’s objection.

From the 76ers perspective what matters is having Embiid healthy during the playoffs — they are going nowhere without him — and there is no reason to take undue risks with the team all but locked into the No. 3 seed in the East.

James Harden is still expected to make his return to action Monday from a three-game absence.

But it robs fans — including those who bought tickets in Denver — of one of the great showdowns in the league, and one of the more anticipated games of the season’s final weeks. The NBA has to find a way to balance player health with having their best players on the court for the biggest games. Keep telling fans the regular season doesn’t matter and they will start treating it like that.

Joel Embiid not stressing about MVP: ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.’

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Joel Embiid is the MVP betting favorite — -160 at our partner PointsBet — heading into Monday’s showdown with the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (+180 at PointsBet).

Embiid campaigned for the MVP award the past couple of years but came up second to Jokić. This season, Embiid is not stressing about it. Or at least trying not to stress about it. Here is what Embiid told Shams Charania of The Athletic.

What matters — it’s just about winning, winning, winning. I’ve been focused on that. We’ve been doing that. Whatever happens, happens. If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.

Why hasn’t Embiid won the MVP? Outside of Jokić also being deserving and the complaints of Antetokounmpo and others that the criteria for the award are constantly changing (which suggests there are criteria for the award, but there are none officially), Embiid thinks it’s because he is not well-liked.

People always thought that I was crazy when I said this — I really believe that I’m not well-liked. And it’s cool with me, that’s fine. I’ll be the bad guy. I like being the a–hole anyway. I like being the underdog. So that’s fine with me. My thing is … when I leave the game, I want to make sure that they say: No one was stopping him offensively and defensively, and he was a monster.

There’s no doubt he will leave the game remembered as one of the great 76ers and a “monster” on both ends when healthy. However, resume matters with legacy and an MVP award helps with that. Just not as much as being the best player on a championship team, something more difficult to pull off because it requires a lot of help (it’s up for debate whether Embiid has the help he needs around him to win it all, and if they can stay healthy enough to make that run).

This season the MVP race is a tight three-way contest between Embiid, Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+450 at PointsBet). There are legitimate cases to be made for each member of this trio. However, with the Sixers surging (and the Nuggets stumbling a little), things may break his way this season.

Another dominant performance against Jokić with just a couple of weeks left in the season would stick in voters’ minds and help his cause.