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.